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Germany bolsters corporate defenses against Chinese 'predators'

European officials worry coronavirus-weakened companies could be acquisition targets

German politicians have been on guard against Chinese acquisitions of local companies with advanced technologies since Midea Group’s 4.5 billion euro buyout of robot producer Kuka in 2017.   © Reuters

HAMBURG, Germany -- Germany and other governments are bolstering corporate defenses to address worries that coronavirus-weakened companies could be easy prey for opportunistic Chinese buyers.

"We will avoid a sellout of German economic and industrial concerns," German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier said last week as he announced plans for a fund to take stakes in or buy out local companies needing a lifeline.

Cabinet colleague Andreas Scheuer had warned a day earlier of a possible "economic attack" by predatory foreign buyers. Their administration also launched a separate initiative to provide guaranteed liquidity to troubled companies.

While introducing support funds for local companies, Spain, Italy and Australia have also been moving to tighten controls on foreign takeovers.

"We are going to block foreign companies from taking control of strategic Spanish companies by taking advantage of the share price collapse," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on March 17.

Sanchez and other government officials have made no explicit mention of Chinese investors. But the record of Chinese companies, especially state-owned ones, buying up dozens of high-profile assets in countries hit by the European debt crisis, especially Greece and Portugal, weighs on policymakers across the continent.

"Germany is on high alert over any possible attempts by China to exploit the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus to take over companies," Reinhard Hans Butikofer, a European Parliament representative for the Greens, Germany's main opposition party, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Although we welcome China's medical aid for individual European countries, it is bad if Chinese enterprises go ahead and blatantly exploit the crisis," he said.

Public concerns in Germany center especially on carmaker Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz.

Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, the private Chinese auto group that controls Sweden's Volvo Cars, and state-owned BAIC Group held a combined stake of 14.7% in Daimler as of the end of 2019. Under German disclosure rules, this combined interest could rise to just under 20% without further announcement.

"Our share price is a steal," Michael Brecht, Daimler workers' council chief, said to a local interviewer. "We will have to be vigilant."

Technology companies are another focus of concern. Germany began to put up controls on investments from beyond the EU in the wake of Chinese appliance maker Midea Group's 4.5 billion euro ($4.93 billion) buyout of robot producer Kuka in 2017.

Beijing's "Made in China 2025" technology upgrading program has made German policymakers concerned that buyouts of local companies with expertise in mechanical systems engineering and the setting up of intelligent factories could jeopardize the country's own future competitiveness.

"Many German small and medium-sized companies are strong in their niche and are attractive acquisition targets under China's industrial development strategy, but are outside the 'key technology' and 'critical infrastructure' categories of Germany's tightened investment screening standards," said Max Zenglein, chief economist at Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

It is unclear how much Chinese investors are really on the prowl for acquisitions now in Germany.

Chinese investors' mergers and acquisitions in the country last year amounted to just 1.3 billion euros, according to the German Economic Institute, a fraction of the 12 billion euros of deals seen in 2017. Berlin's heightened controls and Beijing's moves to rein in highly acquisitive private conglomerates to contain financial risk have both weighed down M&A activity.

Deal making has virtually ground to a halt since January as China has battled COVID-19 and it and other nations curtail cross-border travel.

Said Thilo Hanemann and Daniel Rosen of U.S. research company Rhodium Group in a new report this week, "Preliminary transaction data and anecdotal data points indicate that 1Q 2020 will show the lowest volume of new (outbound investment) deals from China in almost 10 years."

Still, they noted, amid the pandemic, "Some Chinese firms are positioned to take advantage of the sharp drop in global company valuations."

One such company that may raise eyebrows in Europe is state-owned Cosco Shipping Ports, which over the past four years has taken control of ports at Piraeus, Greece; Zeebrugge, Belgium; and Valencia and Bilbao, Spain and large stakes in several others on the continent, including one at Vado Ligure, Italy.

Cosco Ports executives told investors on a call last week hosted by Daiwa Capital Markets that they have allocated $500 million for more M&A deals this year. But Chinese state-owned companies will have to step carefully to avoid stirring further backlash in Europe.

"Virtually any high-profile acquisitions will likely be viewed as predatory under the current circumstances, given the Chinese origin of the COVID pandemic, risking public backlash and drawing in political intervention," Hanemann and Rosen wrote. "Beijing is aware of this risk and would likely lean in to prevent such outcomes through its outbound approval process."

Some countries have already seen signs of such a backlash even without word of deals.

This week, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg removed a threshold that exempted foreign investments of less than 1.2 billion Australian dollars ($730.5 million) from official review.

Domestic media linked the announcement to uproar over reports that the Australian units of two large Chinese property development companies bought up large quantities of medical supplies to send back to their homeland even as locals scrambled for masks and other protective gear amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Without mentioning China, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last week urged member states to be on their guard against corporate predators. "As in any crisis, when our industrial and corporate assets can be under stress, we need to protect our security and economic sovereignty," she said.

Some observers see potential Chinese corporate rescues more positively. Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor with the Institute for Customer Insight at Switzerland's University of St. Gallen, cites Geely's success at turning around Sweden's Volvo to dismiss worries about Chinese buyers.

"The Chinese do not buy into German companies to enslave Germany or implement some conspiracy," he said.

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