Sunday, September 19, 2010

Foreign investment in China is Even harder than it looks

Buying a stake in China Inc is no shortcut to market share

AT FIRST glance, Vodafone has nothing to complain about. On September 8th it sold for $6.6 billion the 3.2% stake in China Mobile that it had bought for $3.3 billion between 2000 and 2002. Such a handsome profit ought to be a cue to crack open the champagne and roast some Beijing duck. Yet the British mobile-phone giant did not get what it really wanted: a way into China. In other countries, Vodafone has had a knack of turning a small investment into a controlling stake, but not in the Middle Kingdom. And it is not alone.

Since the late 1990s, several large state-owned Chinese companies have listed their shares. These initial public offerings typically included “cornerstone” investments by big Western firms. For example, BP, Exxon and Shell (three oil firms) and ABB (a Swiss-Swedish conglomerate) took strategic stakes in PetroChina and Sinopec (two big Chinese oil companies). Alcoa, an American aluminium company, invested in Chalco, a Chinese one. And Western banks bought chunks of the leading Chinese state banks when they were listed.

Foreign firms brought several things to the table: capital, technology, management skills and the prospect of better corporate governance. The Chinese press often referred to them as “elder brothers”. In return, these Western firms wanted access to China’s huge domestic market.

It did not work out that way. The Chinese state-owned firms did not need capital so badly that they were prepared to cede control to foreigners. Some also found that the Westerners had less to teach them than they had hoped. “Fly-in” expat managers were often unfamiliar with China, says David Michael, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group. Chinese firms tended to learn more from multinationals that had taken the trouble to build their own large sales forces in China, he says.

Chinese firms no longer feel like little brothers. China Mobile now has a market value half as large again as Vodafone’s. PetroChina is much bigger than BP. Both Chinese firms are now rich enough to buy whatever expertise they want.

Western energy companies were quick to notice this shift. BP, Shell, ABB and Exxon all sold their holdings in state-owned Chinese firms by 2005. Alcoa got out in 2007. Financial firms followed, in whole or part, during the financial crisis. When China’s state-owned Agricultural Bank was recently listed, no big Western bank bought a significant stake.

Western firms grumble about their failure to turn their stakes in China Inc into a foothold in the Chinese market, but not too loudly, so that they do not annoy the government. Besides, thanks to a rising stockmarket, most made sacks of money from their investments.

A few have not yet cashed out. Telefónica, a Spanish telecoms firm, owns 8.8% of China Unicom and politely rebuffs bankers who advise it to sell. AT&T has 25% of a telecoms business in the Pudong district of Shanghai. Despite regulatory problems, it provides a nationwide service from Pudong, largely to multinational clients. It is a nice business, but a far cry from the dreams some Westerners once had about China. The Economist

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