China investment wave unlikely to swamp EU

The sign in a boutique selling glass hand-crafted on the Venetian island of Murano betrays an uncertain grasp of English. But the owner is very sure who is to blame for the tough times confronting the 700-year-old local glassmaking industry.

"Everything in this shop is not made in China," it proclaims. A few doors away, imported Murano lookalikes sell for much less. To the untrained eye, they appear identical.

With Europe drowning in debt and flirting with recession, China's influence can only rise further. Euro zone governments would love Beijing to plough more of its $3.2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves into their bonds.

China is also likely to chip in with a loan to the International Monetary Fund to provide a financing backstop in case Italy and Spain are shut out of the bond markets.

Last week's $3.5 billion acquisition by China Three Gorges Corp of the Portuguese government's stake in utility EDP (EDP.LS) is also a sign of things to come.

Financiers turn instinctively to fast-growing China as they try to flush out buyers for assets that are going on the block as European governments, banks and companies pay down debt.

But, despite Chinese leaders' expressing interest in diversifying the country's overseas asset base away from government paper, analysts do not expect a sea change in China's traditionally cautious approach to expanding in Western markets. Africa and Asia are likely to remain China's top targets for now.

"There are going to be opportunities, but we're not going to see China buying up Europe," said Thilo Hanemann, research director at the Rhodium Group, an investment advisory and strategic planning firm in New York.

Treading Softly

There are many reasons for the wariness.

Lengthy delays in obtaining the approval of regulators in Beijing put Chinese companies at a disadvantage in mergers and acquisitions when the seller wants a quick deal. Companies lack the management skills to integrate overseas acquisitions. And, perhaps most importantly, prospects are much brighter at home than they are in Europe.

"If you compare the rates of growth in China and in Europe, are you sensible buying into a brand that's seen its best years of growth? said Edward Radcliffe, a partner in Shanghai with Vermillion, an M&A advisory boutique that focuses on cross-border China deals.

Still, he said some larger Chinese groups, both state-owned and private, had started to explore opportunities in Europe and the United States.

The 27-member European Union is China's biggest export market. But foreign direct investment (FDI) has badly lagged, totaling $8 billion by the EU's reckoning or $12 billion on China's count - less than 0.2 percent of total FDI in the EU, according to Rhodium.

The firm has kept its own tally since 2003, but its total of $15 billion through mid-2011, though greater than the official data, is still small.

Hanemann said he was sure 2012 would see deals in Europe in technology and consumer products to enable Chinese firms to climb the value ladder and build their domestic market share.

"Ultimately, Chinese companies have to become true multinationals, like Japanese and Korean firms before them," he said. "Over the longer term, there's no reason to believe that China is going to take a different path."

But he was skeptical whether most Chinese companies would be able to seize the opportunities that were likely to crop up in the coming year. To do so, they would have to manage public perceptions in Europe and obtain quick regulatory approval at home.

"There are a lot of deals that the Chinese cannot take on. If the Chinese government sees a company making a bid for troubled assets that risks provoking a political backlash in Europe, I think they'd step in to make sure there's no embarrassment for the Chinese side."

Political Overlay

The failure of Chinese firms to buy Saab, the Swedish car maker that was declared bankrupt last week, was a telling example of the difficulties facing Chinese investors, Hanemann said.

But the picture is not black and white. After all, Volvo, another Swedish car maker, was successfully acquired by a Chinese rival from Ford Motor Co in 2010.

Christine Lambert-Goue, managing director in Beijing at Invest Securities China, said companies were not looking mainly for outright acquisitions but for brands, patents and technology that would bolster their position at home.

"Companies are only ready to pay for assets from Europe that will enable them to gain market share in China," she said.

Investment in Europe will take off eventually, but a deteriorating political climate represents an obstacle in the short term, said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.

The EU, like the United States, is talking tough about Chinese "state capitalism" and is crafting a more assertive trade policy to counter what it sees as a playing field tilted against foreign companies.

For its part, Beijing smells protectionism in the air in response to its growing economic clout.

"The European Union is disappointed with the reluctance of Beijing to open its economy further, whereas Beijing complains about Europe being too reluctant to share its knowledge or to allow Chinese investors to expand their presence in important sectors like infrastructure," Holslag said.

And if Europe fails to snap out of its economic malaise, the risk is that a super-competitive China will be made a scapegoat.

"The more governments are confronted with high unemployment figures, the more we will start to see China as a challenger rather than as a savior," Holslag said.

[Source: By Alan Wheatley, Global Economics Correspondent, Reuters, Venice, 26Dec11]

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