Rising Chinese outbound investment may bring benefits and problems

Chinese outbound investment has been growing steadily but may soar this year, bringing considerable benefits and also serious problems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 4:03am

Chinese investment around the world has drawn a great deal of attention and seems like it’s growing very quickly.

In fact, growth has been steady and not at all dramatic.

That could change as early as this year. If it does so, it could bring considerable benefits. Perhaps surprisingly, it could also cause a number of serious problems.

The American Enterprise Institute-Heritage Foundation China Global Investment Tracker is the only fully public dataset on Chinese investment, stretching back to 2005.

It puts outbound investment (excluding bonds) at US$85 billion, rising about 11 per cent last year.

Official data may show faster growth for last year, but it will be still be nothing like the explosive gains in the middle of last decade.

Why not? Beijing just pegged foreign exchange reserves at US$3.82 trillion. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign currency more at domestic banks. In that light, another US$50 billion last year would have been a drop in the bucket.

It used to be that China had the money but not the companies that knew to invest. No longer.

The oil majors and the two sovereign wealth funds have been joined by other state giants such as State Grid, regional state firms such as Guangxi Beibu and private investors such as Fosun.

The money is there, the business capacity is now there, and the well-known desire for energy, metal ores and technology has expanded into property and agriculture purchases.

Headlines aside, we haven’t seen stunning growth. But the conditions are present for it.

What if it did happen? The obvious result is mutual benefit.

Almost all, if not all, Chinese outbound investment is voluntary on both sides and only happens if both sides think they will gain.

Watch: Chinese foreign investment: Will China own America?

Like all business transactions, the investments can work out badly for one or more parties, but that kind of deal doesn’t get made again.

Chinese firms and their foreign partners made some bad mistakes from 2005 to 2009, but the errors have become less frequent as all the parties gain experience.

Chinese outbound investment as a global phenomenon arguably began with a private-sector acquisition – Lenovo’s US$1.7 billion purchase of IBM’s personal computer division.

But large private-sector deals remained very rare and, through 2010, the state share of outbound investment was close to 100 per cent by value.

There were private investments, but they were dwarfed by spending in oil, finance, and iron ore by state firms.

In 2011, Sichuan Hanlong broke the ice, becoming an aggressive private investor. Hanlong has since run into difficulty, but it was succeeded as a major private player by Dalian Wanda.

Last year, Wanda was joined by Fosun, as well as a number of private buyers snatching up foreign property. And the main event last year was Shuanghui International’s record-breaking private purchase of Smithfield Foods in the US.

The state share of investment by value still exceeds 90 per cent, but the private role has grown noticeably in each of the last three years.

Chinese investment thus benefits most Chinese buyers and most foreign sellers of gas fields, bauxite, medical technology, commercial buildings and farmland, among other things. If the total shoots past US$100 billion and heads quickly towards US$200 billion annually, that’s a lot of benefit.

More investment means more political problems, which could … sour relationships

The surprising part might be the risks which would come along for the ride.

The first is the global reaction. Individual sellers would still be very comfortable with Chinese buyers – as long as the price is right! – but their host countries could become quite uncomfortable.

“China is taking over everything” may be a silly reaction with spending at US$85 billion, but it will seem a lot less so at US$185 billion.

More rejections by national governments will inevitably follow. These often seem to have disproportionate weight in bilateral diplomatic relations.

For example, Chinese spending in the US set a record last year, yet Huawei’s setbacks are brought up constantly .

More Chinese investment means more political problems, problems that could potentially sour important relationships.

Another unavoidable irritant is fraud.

When legitimate Chinese investors are more common, it’s more inviting for criminals to pretend to be legitimate Chinese investors or for foreigners to pretend to have Chinese backing. These will harm legitimate Chinese firms, foreign firms and, most important, foreign communities.

Fraud can be pretty controversial, but the final risk in an investment surge is even more so.

China is not a rich country and will not be one for some time to come. A lot of money leaving for foreign economies in the next few years would strongly suggest something is wrong on the home front.

The reform programme announced at the Communist Party plenary meetings in November is supposed to create more market opportunities, especially for private firms.

Private Chinese investment might be especially welcome overseas, but too much of it heading in that direction indicates entrepreneurs do not like their options at home.

The happy story is that outbound investment maintains its gradual rise, with most money staying put because domestic opportunities are so inviting.

Outbound investment has the potential to soar this year, next year or the year after, but we probably shouldn’t hope for that.

Derek Scissors is a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on Asian economic issues and trends