Iceland’s rejection in November of a bid for 0.3% of the country’s landmass by Huang Nubo, a Chinese tycoon, provided more comedy than conflict. The billionaire’s attempt to build an eco-resort and golf course on the island seemed more quixotic than calculating.
But the reasons Iceland gave for blocking the “fire sale” – that “when a nation is in distress and its currency is weak, that is the time to be on your guard against those who would attempt to buy our national resources cheaply” – now appear to be an ominous harbinger. As the Chinese seek out more investment opportunities in the battered European market, other countries may begin to echo these protectionist sentiments.
Selling the family jewels
Chinese investment in Europe is on the rise. It more than doubled last year to account for one-third of all Chinese outbound merger and acquisition activity, according to A Capital, a private equity firm.
Anecdotally, the pace of acquisitions appears to be accelerating further. In Portugal alone, China Three Gorges Corporation, Sinopec and State Grid have each inked major deals since November. Shandong Heavy Industry wrested control of Italian yacht manufacturer Ferretti Group in early January. Shortly after that, Sany Heavy Industry agreed to acquire German pump maker Putzmeister and China Investment Corporation bought a 9% stake in Thames Water, a British utility.
This slew of big-ticket investments in privatized assets is probably just the beginning. Indebted European governments must push through more privatizations to meet the conditions of their bail-out agreements. European banks will have to offload around US$2.4 billion in assets over the next decade to shore up enough capital to meet stringent new regulatory requirements, according to PwC.
When combined with the resentment European austerity is breeding at home, these acquisitions could cause friction. Protests and riots over government cutbacks have occurred in Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK.
Chinese companies – some with shady state links – are greeted with suspicion even in the best of times. Security concerns killed takeover attempts by Huawei, CNOOC and Haier in the US, and India shut out all Chinese telecom equipment makers for a brief period in 2010. It is not hard to imagine that Chinese companies could provoke a similar backlash in Europe by snapping up distressed assets.
Europe’s populist ire against Chinese takeovers has been restrained so far, but it is growing along with the volume of deals. “China is buying up Europe,” bleated a report last year by the European Council on Foreign Relations titled “The Scramble for Europe.” Polls in the European press echo that sentiment: Some 90% of respondents polled in January by UK television outfit Sky News opposed full Chinese ownership of Thames Water.
Speak loudly, carry a soft stick
European politicians may be tempted to ride this populist wave. Almost every European country is now governed by center-right parties or coalitions. Far-right parties such as France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League and the Netherlands’ Party of Freedom are threatening to cut into more moderate bases. If populist cries gain traction, politicians could protect their flank by adopting aggressive postures, as many have already done on immigration.
But the price of blocking foreign capital is higher than that of shutting out immigrants. Every seller needs a buyer, and if Chinese companies win contracts, it is because they are willing to cough up more money than others. Blocking Chinese buyers means less capital, and politicians need all the money they can get to turn around their beleaguered economies (and remain in office).
As a result, much of the opposition to these deals will be rhetorical; actual rejections will be the exception, not the rule.
European politicians have responded to the occasional nationalist gripe by emphasizing the benefits they can wring from deal making. Besides raising funds, these deals will provide European diplomats a fillip with which to beat Chinese officials into leveling their own playing field for public procurement back in China, addressing a longstanding complaint of European business.
Moreover, a bigger Chinese stake in Europe raises the chances that European leaders can achieve their Holy Grail: convincing China to pump part of its foreign exchange reserves into European bailout funds.
Europe could appeal to China’s self-interest. A downturn in Europe would not only dent China’s economy – shaving a full four percentage points off 2012 GDP growth, according to the IMF – but also damage Chinese investments in the continent. Recent statements by China’s top leaders suggest they are warming to the idea of preventing a crisis in Europe now, rather than curing the fallout in China later.
Of course, European politicians will probably try to have their cake and eat it too, welcoming foreign capital even as they rail against those who would steal national treasures. Investors should hold their nerves during the political posturing that is likely to ensue; the odds are that deals will go through.
Observers need only look to Iceland to see the mismatch between rhetoric and action. After its effusive rejection, the island’s government quietly re-started negotiations in December with Huang, the Chinese tycoon. Though an agreement has not yet been reached, Icelandic officials flew to China in February to hammer out a compromise. After all, they still need the money.