Significant Investor Visa – bringing risk-hungry investors to Australia
24 Feb 2017
At Sydney’s Park Hyatt Hotel in early February a curious scene was playing out. As two-up coins were thrown into the air – within the shadow of the Opera House – the rules to this iconic Australian game were being explained not in English, but Chinese.
For the 60 newly arrived residents, this waterside tutorial in all things Australia, extended to the differences between the two rugby codes and how to reply if ever offered a “cuppa”.
“We want them to all feel more connected to Australia,” says Jade Bao, a director at fund manager/private bank, Atlas Advisors.
Bao’s efforts to forge a connection between her clients and their adopted country will largely determine the success Atlas, but it could also be crucial for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda and feeds right into this week’s core issues relating to investment, appetite for risk and migration.
Atlas launched its High income Potential Opportunity (HiPO) fund, late last year. It’s designed as a lender of last resort for start-ups. Supplied
That group gathered at the Park Hyatt to celebrate Chinese New Year, represent a new class of super rich who have settled in Australia via the federal government’s $5 million Significant Investor Visa (SIV).
“These people are risk takers … they didn’t get rich back in China by leaving their money in the bank,” says Fiona Zhuang another director of Atlas.
“I can think of at least five clients who have $25 million or more just sitting in a local bank account waiting to find the right investment in Australia.”
Unlocking this type of wealth made during China’s boom years and funnelling it into emerging technologies and other Australian investments was always the intention when the SIV program was introduced in November 2012.
But nearly four year’s after the first visa was issued, reports of rorting and a scathing study by the Productivity Commission cast doubt on whether Australia would ever see any benefit from this new class of visa.
Kimberley Agricultural Investment president Wu Pui Ngai (left) meets with West Australian Premier Colin Barnett. His company Shanghai ZhongFu has secured a 50-year lease to grow sugar cane at the expanded Ord irrigation scheme in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, spending $700 million over six years. Rebecca Le May
“The benefits to Australian businesses seeking investment and the economic benefits to the broader Australian community are likely to be very small or non-existent,” the Productivity Commission said of the SIV program in November 2015.
“Overall the case for retaining the SIV … is weak.”
Bao and Zhuang, who both moved to Australia for university from Shanghai and founded Atlas with the former head of Macquarie’s private bank Guy Hedley, argue the opposite.
They say the SIV is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia’s under-funded start-up scene to gain financing.
Atlas Advisors’ (from left) Guy Hedley, Fiona Zhuang and Jade Bao. “The average age of our clients is 35 to 45 years old. We have 20 clients in their 20s,” Bao says. Brook Mitchell
“Never before have such a large number of high net worth individuals, prepared to take risks, settled in Australia,” says Hedley.
Getting them to bring this appetite for risk to Australia is the challenge for the likes of Atlas and will largely determine if his view or that of the Productivity Commission prevails.
The tension in the argument is around who gets the most benefit from the SIV program.
The Productivity Commission said most of the benefits were accrued by those immigrating and the fund managers looking after their money, rather than Australia as a whole.
Atlas, with 215 SIV clients and nearly $1.1 billion in visa money under management is one of the bigger players in the industry, behind market leader Moelis & Co, an investment bank.
The federal government, in responding to criticism from the Productivity Commission, said there was “insufficient evidence” to fully evaluate the scheme as it was in its infancy and noted the SIV program had also been overhauled in July 2015.
Under the new rules at least $2 million must be invested in an approved venture capital or emerging company fund, while the remaining $3 million can go into vanilla bonds and equities.
This money must be kept in these funds for a period of four years – previously all the money could go into bonds and other low-risk investments.
“The new complying investment framework aims to deliver better results in terms of investment into the commercialisation of Australian ideas, research and development,” the federal government said.
But the government’s response also outlined the longer game for Australia.
“One purpose of the SIV is for the families of high net worth individuals to anchor themselves in Australia, and to pass on generational wealth and expertise,” it said.
The whole idea is these newly arrived Australians will invest far more than just the $5 million required to qualify for the SIV program.
Zhuang, from Atlas, says this is already starting to happen as those in the SIV program become more comfortable with the business environment in Australia.
To test the appetite for deals outside the SIV framework, Atlas offered its clients the opportunity to participate in a $250,000 emergency funding round for a tech company in the middle of last year. It was a reasonable business, but like many start-ups had run critically low on cash.
The response was overwhelming.
Hedley says 60 clients came back almost immediately pledging between $250,000 and $500,000 each.
That’s in excess of $15 million and far more than the start-up needed.
In response, the firm launched its High income Potential Opportunity (HiPO) fund late last year. It’s designed as a lender of last resort for start-ups, which have run out of cash – a sort of pay-day lender for the tech sector.
“We invest in businesses which are failing from a cash flow perspective, not an operational point of view,” says Zhuang.
The firm has done six deals so far, providing between $250,000 and $1.2 million in cash to each start-up.
“We usually have around four days to raise the money,” says Zhuang.
Operating at this pace does however come at a hefty price.
Atlas’ clients receive an annual interest rate of between 8 per cent and 20 per cent for advancing the money through a convertible note, which often matures in less than a year.
The money is then lent against a pending tax return of the start-up or funding grant.
At maturity, presuming the company remains afloat, clients either get their money back or convert their loan into equity.
“The real appeal of such deals is not so much the high interest rate, but being able to convert to equity,” says Hedley. “And the nice thing is that all these companies would have failed if we didn’t provide the money.”
Atlas expects its HiPO fund to have around $60 million under management from its SIV clients by the end of this year and says the challenge will be sourcing enough deals rather than finding the money to finance them.
In reality the fund is more like an investment club with distinctly Chinese characteristics.
Like most communications in China, the deals are offered by Atlas to its clients over WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese messaging service and social media platform used by 700 million people on the mainland.
Clients are given a few hours to signal their interest and most deals close in a week.
In this way, what Atlas is offering it is very much like China’s shadow banking or informal lending sector, where high-interest loans are provided for short periods by private investors.
“There is a real shortage of people doing this in Australia,” says Zhuang.
“Traditional funds management products don’t really appeal to our clients. They are not conservative investors … they all have this gambling nature.”
Zhuang and her partners at Atlas see the HiPO fund as the first step in getting clients to understand Australia and trust the firm, which will eventually pursue them for larger transactions.
It’s on this point where the experience of Atlas also differs from the Productivity Commission report. The commission was highly critical of older immigrants coming to Australian for retirement, being a drain on the health system, and keeping their business interests and assets in China.
This is not the case says Bao.
“The average age of our clients is 35 to 45 years old. We have 20 clients in their 20s,” she says.
“They are not ready to retire. They are all serious entrepreneurs who want to do something in Australia and they are not into passive investing.”
Bao, who previously worked at Macquarie’s private bank, cites one client who made a fortune in the Southern Province of Guangdong from treating contaminated water.
The client has since moved to Melbourne with his family and is looking at similar opportunities in the environmental space.
“He’s an Aussie dollar billionaire who has the capacity to invest around $200 million in Australia at present,” she says.
According to Bao he has technology that allows recycled paper to be made into cardboard, while also generating some electricity in the process. He’s talking with the government about building a plant in Victoria or investing into one,” she says.
This is the long game for Australia. According to federal government figures, 1657 SIVs had been issued in total by the end of November last year, equating to $8.25 billion of money being pumped into complying investments in Australia.
It sounds like a big number, but if the program works property it should eventually be many multiples of this.
The logic is that if someone has a spare $5 million to invest in a visa program for four years, then they have many multiples of this, which can be deployed into other investments across Australia.
The poster child for such hope is the Shanghai Zhongfu Group and its founder Wu Pui Ngai, who came to Australia as a business migrant in 2002.
His son, who goes by the English name Sam, went to Melbourne University while Wu dabbled in a few property deals and gradually became comfortable investing in Australia.
For the best part of a decade Wu and his Zhongfu group were largely anonymous in Australia. But in 2012 they showed the type of financial firepower and appetite for risk that has marked the international expansion of many Chinese companies.
Seemingly from nowhere Zhongfu won the right to develop the second stage of the Ord River Scheme and in doing so pledged to invest $700 million in the irrigated agricultural project.
In doing so it may fulfil a century-old dream of turning Australia’s arid north into a food bowl.
That dream is still some years away, but finding the next Zhongfu and many more like it over the next decade will largely determine if the SIV program can hailed as a success or not.