Acquisitive Asian firms spreading their wings to distant horizons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 July, 2005, 12:00am

Early this week, Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand's biggest publicly traded chicken farmer, announced plans to spread its wings to Russia, Ukraine and Britain.

In today's world of mega-zillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions, Pokphand's plan is definitely nothing to crow about. Still, with its global ambitions, it shows that Asian companies are getting cocky indeed.

From Malaysia, gaming and power firm Tanjong, with about 1.2 billion ringgit ($2.48 billion) in cash, is about to take over two Egyptian power plants from Electricite de France.

And last month, Genting, another Malaysian blue-chip known for its gaming and leisure businesses, paid US natural gas producer El Paso Corp more than US$70 million for stakes in its four power plants.

Within Asia, food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp of the Philippines is busy snapping up assets in Australia and New Zealand, although some analysts fear it runs the risk of financial indigestion.

Another fledgling Philippine multinational, fast-food giant-killer Jollibee, was last week reported to be sniffing around India.

Of course, Singapore is a veteran in this game, propelled largely by that investment juggernaut, the government-owned Temasek.

Most of these acquisitive companies have been made financially fat by rising domestic consumption, as Asia's burgeoning middle class continues to expand.

Corporate profits in South and Southeast Asia have been remarkably buoyant, allowing these erstwhile domestic players to go shopping overseas.

Commercial lending by banks has also increased in Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines. And the rise in their currencies versus the dollar - which has made overseas acquisition cheaper - is icing on the cake.

That icing received a frothy topping on July 21 after China decided to revalue the yuan by about 2.1 per cent to 8.11 against the dollar, ending the peg of 8.30 set in 1995.

And although most Asian currencies have lost a bit of that froth since Thursday last week, their levels against the greenback are still much higher than a year or so ago, as the table shows.

With the exception of Indonesia's rupiah, the region's major currencies have appreciated by 5 per cent to 15 per cent since early last year.

And although the baht and the Philippine peso have weakened, they are still 6 per cent and 19 per cent higher than in early 2002, respectively.

In contrast, Indonesia's rupiah has yet to play catch-up with its Asian counterparts, making its companies cheaper in dollar terms. Not surprisingly, Indonesia's corporate jewels have been a favourite target for acquisitions, especially as the country's economy is starting to show promise.

Telekom Malaysia is about to secure a majority stake in Indonesia's Excelcomindo Pratama, while rival Maxis Communications is building a 3G service for its Indonesian unit.

Just this week, Bloomberg reported that Central Retail Corp, Thailand's biggest department store and supermarket operator, has set aside 10 billion baht ($1.8 billion) to invest in shopping malls in Vietnam and Indonesia.

The euro's recent retreat - down 10 per cent against the dollar since the start of the year - only signals more acquisition opportunities in Europe, especially in the EU's eastern fringes.

Hence, more and more South Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese companies are setting up shop in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Their Southeast Asian juniors are not far behind. By late this decade, we may just see corporate minnows from Vietnam and Bangladesh turning into fat sharks in the boardrooms of South America, US and Europe.