The private sector has long coveted NSW’s land titles registry, and in one attempt to take control, wrongly claimed to the government the asset would become “unprofitable”, a leaked scoping study reveals.
And it appears the Baird government’s lease of the 150-year-old registry may have gone awry, with NSW eTendering website showing dramatic changes to sale adviser JP Morgan’s contract length.
Experts warn privatising the Land and Property Information (LPI) unit will lead to higher costs, need for title insurance, a “degraded” service, and fraud risks.
Fairfax Media has seen the scoping study prepared by Macquarie Capital in 2009 that urges the then Labor government to outsource all of LPI’s activities for 30 years.
It warned the LPI “would become unprofitable within five to seven years”, but since its database was “particularly valuable” and companies were “actively seeking opportunities” to operate land registries, the government should lease it for as much as $440 million.
“LPI’s activities are also a ‘natural monopoly’. As such, LPI would represent a highly strategic asset for the private sector,” the leaked document reads. “The [retail] opportunity is significant.”
At present, the Baird government is hoping to grab as much as $2 billion from the 35-year concession so it can fund its sports stadium package. The LPI handles all the sensitive details of who owns what land.
While the 184-page leaked scoping study is several years old, it provides clues as to the strategy and timeline of the Baird government, which has so far refused to release the scoping study and consult the community.
The bidders and the value they see are starkly different now. Before, Macquarie suggested data companies such as Veda and RP Data may pay up to $440 million.
Now, “powerhouse consortiums” are expected to offer as much $2 billion, according to the Australian Financial Review.
Macquarie’s favoured business model shares similar features with the Baird government’s one, including fees capped at Consumer Price Index (CPI), penalties for poor performance, and government “step in” rights.
A key difference is that in July, the LPI was split into five units and gutted of 70 employees – a move that led to 200 families unknowingly buying homes in the path of the future F6 freeway. One unit – titling and registry services – is on the auction block.
JP Morgan’s contract
Treasury has splashed about $6.5 million on consultants, including $4.3 million on financial adviser JP Morgan and $1.2 million on legal adviser Gilbert and Tobin.
NSW eTendering website originally showed JP Morgan’s contract ended on March 17, 2017. The notice was recently amended to show it would end on December 31, and – after Fairfax Media’s inquiries – “corrected” to show June 30, 2017.
The changes raised eyebrows because Wednesday, December 14, is the deadline for indicative bids, and due diligence, negotiations and final approvals need to occur.
But it’s understood there’s been no change to JP Morgan’s role as financial adviser.
In June, Philip Gardner, executive director of transactions at Treasury, flew to Toronto and London to market LPI to potential investors. He worked at Macquarie Group for 8.5 years and then Goldman Sachs for 17 years.
The Law Council of Australia and the Law Society of NSW are pressing the government to repeal the “transaction” legislation, warning consumers will pay more for a “degraded” service.
Property developers, real estate agents and surveyors say it doesn’t make sense to privatise a world-leading, corrupt-free, efficient and innovative system that turns over $50 million profit a year.
Labor Party explains
In 2009, the Treasurer was Eric Roozendaal. It’s understood the scoping study was part of an unsolicited proposal by Macquarie and it was ultimately rejected because it wasn’t in the public interest to privatise a monopoly.
Shadow finance spokesman Clayton Barr said he was proud Labor had not only rejected it, but invested in LPI.
“They made significant financial investments in technologies that would support LPI to move into the future decades, in scanning materials, online platforms and allowing e-conveyancing,” he said.
Opposition leader Luke Foley said: “Of all Mr Baird’s privatisations, flogging off our safe and secure land titles system is the single dopiest.”
Competition for LPI is heating up. Hastings Funds Management’s consortium, which also includes First State Super and Advara, has a dozen banks lined up for its debt syndicate.
Property Exchange Australia (PEXA) is joining forces with Link Group and Macquarie Group’s Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets.
Scoping study offers insights
The “strictly private and confidential” scoping study shows the main reason for capping fee rises at CPI is less to do with protecting consumers and more to do with the potential buyers.
“Bidders may regard a CPI based mandated pricing regime for statutory products more favourably as it provides greater price certainty going forward and allows bidders to use a greater level of debt funding,” it reads.
Macquarie also suggests bidders may want to cap their exposure on any future compensation claims – if any loss is suffered as a result of fraud or error in registration – under the Title Assurance Fund.
“To provide greater financial certainty, bidders will look to the Government to guarantee claims above certain thresholds,” it reads.
“Alternatively, bidders (or the Government for that matter) could look to insure against this risk. However the community will ultimately rely on the Government to guarantee title to maintain public confidence in the Title system.”
An SMH readers’ panel found 76 per cent want Mr Baird to stop the sell-off.
The South Australian Labor government is in the process of privatising its land titles unit, and the Victorian government has expressed interest in doing the same.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.