News Column

China on U.S. Company Buying Spree

May 30, 2013
China's flag

China's appetite for buying large U.S. companies was on display again Wednesday after its Shuanghui International offered to buy U.S. pork producer Smithfield. The question is whether the deal will actually happen.

When it comes to Chinese purchases of U.S. companies, this deal is a whopper. The bid from Shuanghui, China's top pork producer, is valued at about $4.7 billion, or $7 billion including the debt the buyer is taking on.

Including the assumed debt, the deal would be the biggest Chinese buyout of a U.S. company ever, says Dealogic.

But given the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Chinese governments, it's not surprising that periodically some of the biggest deals between companies in the two countries fall flat.

In fact, the largest proposed purchase of a U.S. company by a Chinese one was withdrawn. That failed deal was an $18.5 billion buyout offer of energy firm Unocal by Chinese oil and gas giant CNOOC in August 2005 amid a rival -- and ultimately successful -- takeover proposal from Chevron. Some U.S. lawmakers said American companies would struggle to compete against China's state-owned company, potentially posing national security concerns in the vital energy market. CNOOC called the political opposition "regrettable and unjustified."

Other notable withdrawn Chinese offers for U.S. companies include Qingdao Haier's $2.3 billion proposed buyout, including debt, of Maytag in 2005 and Superior Aviation Beijing's $1.8 billion bid for Hawker Beechcraft.

One of the biggest considerations in any cross-border deal is approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a unit of the Treasury Department, says Jeffrey Stein of law firm WilmerHale. But typically, it's looking for matters of national security, he says.

CFIUS declined to comment on the Smithfield deal or other broad policies. It pointed to a document explaining that it "focused exclusively on protecting our national security."

It is rare for CFIUS to block deals. In 2011, the most recent year with data available, CFIUS was notified 111 times of deals that fell under its purview. Of those, 40 were investigated and just five were withdrawn during investigation. One was withdrawn during the initial review, and the president made decisions on none.

From 2009 to 2011, 269 deals were part of the CFIUS review process. Of those, 100 were investigated; 13 withdrew during the investigation and 12 withdrew during the initial review.

While there's public interest whenever a Chinese company wants to buy a U.S. one, those deals are rare. This year, Chinese companies have bought 10 companies worth $10.5 billion, says Thomson Reuters. That's more than 20% of the 484 U.S. companies worth $43.6 billion that have been bought by foreign companies this year, Thomson Reuters says.

But the size of the Chinese deals is growing, which indicates the increasing ability of Chinese companies to buy large U.S. companies. The $10.5 billion spent by Chinese companies on U.S. companies is nearly double the $5.3 billion spent at this point in 2012 and well above the $863.6 million at this point in 2011.

The proposed buyout is a new chapter in questions about safety of food and the quality of goods from global companies, says Richard Raymond, undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Safety from 2005-09 and now a food safety and public health consultant.

"I'm surprised, disappointed. I just hate to see a large American company like that going under foreign ownership," he says.

But he points out that rules of food safety and regulations regarding mergers are totally different matters. "From a safety standpoint, they're still under USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, so I don't think that's an issue."

That's the key. While regulators have blocked deals before, just because this proposed deal has to do with the U.S. food chain doesn't make it a target, says Matthew Rhodes-Kropf of Columbia University.

"These days we are worried about where our food is coming from and the care taken in China and other places," he says.

But, food is "not defense or something critical to national security," he says.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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