Large Chinese companies; with close ties to the government of the People’s Republic, are making acquisitions abroad that may blur the line between investment and interference in the affairs of other nations.
Examples of acquisitions that are raising questions in other countries include:
The China National Chemical Corporation; or ChemChina, has agreed to pay $43 billion (€40.6 billion) for the Swiss company Syngenta (NYSE: SYT). The deal, the largest Chinese foreign acquisition yet, is raising some questions because Syngenta is a major supplier of crop chemicals such as pesticides. It already owns Adama, an Israeli company that that is one of the largest suppliers of generic pesticides. ChemChina’s parent organization is the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, which is controlled by the Communist Party. This deal effectively gives the Chinese government control of Syngenta. Ownership of Syngenta gives Beijing leverage over food producers whose help it needs to keep 1.386 billion people fed.
Tencent Holdings Ltd; the investment company that owns social media giant WeChat, has invested around $2 billion (€1.89 billion) to buy 5% of Elon Musk’s electric car, battery maker and solar company Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA). The deal can be as interference in American affairs because it promotes green energy which runs counter to President Trump’s policies. Trump has been promoting fossil fuels rather than coal. It can also be seen as stimulating the U.S. economy which helps China because America is the main market for its products. Tesla is making major investments in US infrastructure such as the $5 billion (€4.72 billion) “gigafactory” in Nevada and a solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York. Another benefit is that helping promote Tesla’s electric car, solar and battery technology might lower greenhouse gas emissions which will limit global warming and limit global warming which would hurt China. Tencent is not owned by the Chinese government but is heavily regulated by it.
Ant Financial; the Fintech unicorn that Jack Ma spun off from Alibaba Holdings (NYSE: BABA), tried to buy the American money wiring service MoneyGram (NASDAQ: MGI). This deal raised some concerns in the US because between 5% and 15% of Ant is owned by a sovereign wealth fund controlled by the Chinese government. The San Diego Union Tribune raised concerns that controlling MoneyGram would enable Chinse spies to track US troop movements because many service personnel use MoneyGram’s services.
China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin has made major investments in Hollywood through his real estate company Dalian Wanda Group. Dalian Wanda owns Legendary Entertainment; which produced Jurassic World and Interstellar, and a major US movie theater chain AMC. Wang has made no secret of his desire to buy one of Hollywood’s big six studios and he tried to buy Dick Clark Productions which produces major TV events like the Golden Globes. Controlling TV and movie production organizations would give China influence over US television networks and potentially public opinion.
Is it Investment or Interference?
Such acquisitions raise concerns that these companies are acting as agents or arms of the Chinese government rather than business enterprises? Financial information indicates that large Chinese companies are buying into money losing enterprising.
Some of the moves such as the Tencent/Tesla deal make little business sense. Tesla reported a negative income of -$671.91 million (-€634.39 million) and a negative profit margin of -5.31% on December 31, 2016. The Ant Moneygam deal is also questionable; that company reported a net income of $16.4 million (€15.48 million) on December 31, 2016.
This raises the possible that Tencent and Ant were really seeking to buy political influence or technology rather than assets. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is trying to ingrate himself with President Donald J. Trump. Musk is also an old business partner of a well-known Trump associate Peter Thiel. Thiel and Musk worked together when they helped form PayPal.
Are Chinese Investments in the USA Politically Motivated?
Even the Chinese investments in Hollywood can be seen in a political light. Influence over entertainment can be a powerful weapon, during World War II Winston Churchill praised the Hollywood movie Mrs. Miniver as more useful to the war effort than five battleships or 50 destroyers.
Not coincidently Mrs. Miniver was produced at MGM; a studio headed by Louis B. Mayer who grew up in the British Empire, in St. John, News Brunswick, Canada. During World War II, Canada was a British Dominion, so Mayer was a former British subject.
Mrs. Miniver’s strangest fan was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels who praised it as excellent propaganda. The BBC even described the movie as “The Film that Goebbels feared” in a 2015 article.
It looks if as the Chinese are trying to use capital as a “weapon” to buy influence and they might even be willing to lose money to do so. Such deals will certainly raise questions and suspicions in other countries.
Politicians like Trump; and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, have already won votes and attracted influence with anti-Chinese rhetoric. Their success is likely to lead to further scrutiny of Chinese investment and possibly efforts to block such deals.
Strangely enough the Chinese government might share these concerns. News reports indicate that it has moved to block some questionable investments; such as Wang’s foray into Hollywood, with currency controls and restrictions.
Distorting the Markets
Investors should pay attention to such deals because they are already distorting the markets. A week after the Tencent investment was announced Tesla had a higher market capitalization than Ford Motor (NYSE: F), an automaker that actually makes money.
Tesla had a market capitalization of $40.53 billion (€38.53 billion) €on March 21, between the Tencent stake was announced. After deal was made public on March 28, Tesla’s market capitalization rose to around $49 billion (€46.26 billion).
On April 7, 2017, Tesla’s market cap $49.38 billion (€46.62 billion) while Ford’s was $44.63 billion (€42.17 billion). Ford reported a net income of $4.569 billion (€4.31 billion) and generating $19.79 billion (€18.68 billion) in cash from operations on December 31, 2016. Tesla reported losing $123.83 million in cash from operations on the same day.
Cynical observers will wonder if the markets saw the Tencent deal as Beijing’s stamp of approval on Tesla and its technologies. Perhaps the market is betting on Chinese influence at a time when it is increasing around the world. If somebody were able to identify the next big Chinese acquisition he might be able to make a lot of money from it.