The leading role the US has played in the international political economy has overshadowed its bilateral relations with New Zealand. Nonetheless, for a long period the US supplied the second or third largest volume of imports to New Zealand.
US imports, early 20th century
In the early part of the 20th century US businesses reached out beyond their massive domestic market. American companies saw New Zealand as yet another part of the British Empire in which profits could be made.
A losing bet
The Civic Theatre opened with great fanfare in Auckland in December 1929. Built at the onset of the great depression, it was not a financial success. Owner Thomas O'Brien's determination to screen British rather than American films also contributed to poor attendances. Falling receipts led to the collapse of O'Brien's company and his hasty departure for Sydney in 1932.
US business was particularly active in New Zealand (as elsewhere in the world) in cars and petrol, and in movies. US petroleum companies, notably those later known as Mobil, Caltex and Atlantic, all entered the New Zealand market in the 1920s. In 1926 General Motors opened a car plant in Petone, near Wellington, to assemble cars from the US.
Before the First World War the US usually supplied around 10% of New Zealand’s imports, but in the 1920s the proportion was usually between 15% and 20%.
A 1928 law set a rising quota of British films for cinemas – it was expected to reach 20% within 10 years. But feature films from Hollywood were the most popular – the British films were usually ‘shorts’.
The right kind of car
In the 1920s, US- and Canadian-made models accounted for most cars sold in New Zealand. Tariff revision in 1927 and 1934 saw a preference given to British over Canadian makes, with a substantial preference over US makes. British makes after 1934 faced tariffs of 5% to 15%, but for Canadian makes it was 10% to 25%, and for the US 50% to 60%. In 1929 the US and Canada accounted for over 80% of car imports, but by 1939 they had under 40%. By then, however, the US companies General Motors and Ford were also making cars in the UK.
Growing trade with US
During the depression of the 1930s imports from the UK gained more favoured treatment and the percentage of imports supplied by the US fell back to around 10%. After the Second World War currency restrictions made it difficult to import from the US or Canada, especially after devaluations of all sterling-linked currencies against the dollar in 1947 and 1949. Through the 1950s the US continued to supply around 10% of New Zealand’s imports.
Until the late 1950s New Zealand’s food exports had difficulty gaining a foothold in the US, where domestic competitors had powerful allies in Congress. There was some improvement in the 1960s, although the lobbies remained. The most reliable markets were those for products which were manufacturing inputs – notably casein and beef for hamburgers. In 1981/82 beef and veal accounted for 50% of US imports from New Zealand. After 1970 the US supplied between 15% and 20% of New Zealand’s imports, and bought about 15% of its exports.
Lamb for guns
In 1969 New Zealand was a cautious supporter of US involvement in South Vietnam, with soldiers serving alongside US forces in that country. After representations from New Zealand, US government officials spoke out against a Senate proposal to place embargos or quotas on New Zealand lamb.
US banking interests first floated loans to New Zealand in the 1950s, and New Zealand became a regular client for such business thereafter. When New Zealand’s official levels of indebtedness rose in the 1980s, credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s acquired a higher profile in New Zealand. A credit downgrade by Standard and Poor’s early in 1991 highlighted rising concerns about the growth of public and overseas debt.
On the lookout
US investors took advantage of the privatising of many of New Zealand’s state-owned enterprises in the late 1980s and 1990s, though the investments were usually short-term. Telecom, sold principally to two US companies – Ameritech and Bell Atlantic – in 1990, was sold by them in 1997. Wisconsin Rail bought New Zealand Rail in 1993 and sold it in 2003.
A long-established protest organisation, the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA), was critical both of the original sales and of what it saw as excessive profit-taking.
In the 1990s and 2000s the US expanded its imports in non-traditional areas. At a time when trade in goods each way amounted to around $10 billion, trade in services between the US and New Zealand amounted to $1.1 billion. US customers bought computer, information, personal, cultural and recreational services from New Zealand, and New Zealanders bought computer and information services from the United States.
In July 1999 US President Bill Clinton signed a three-year trade-restrictive measure against lamb imports from Australia and New Zealand. Farmers paraded sheep outside the US embassy in Wellington in protest, but the issue got no airtime in Washington.
Aircraft, vehicles, machinery, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals were among major items that US firms supplied to New Zealand in the 2000s, while meat and dairy produce accounted for around one-third of US purchases from New Zealand.
In the early 2000s the US usually accounted for 5–10% of direct investment in New Zealand, and about the same proportion (but about one-fifth in value) of outward investment from New Zealand.