America for Sale

Foreign firms are buying U.S. companies at the fastest clip in five years, creating concerns on Capitol Hill.

Once again, foreigners are heeding the call to “Buy American.” Acquisitions of U.S. companies by foreign firms rose 27 percent in value last year, according to FactSet MergerStat LLC, a financial-publishing firm. Government statistics that track so-called foreign direct investment also suggest this trend. In 2004, acquisitions in the U.S. financial-services industry, as well as the banking and manufacturing sectors, boosted the value of foreign purchases 31 percent to $72.5 billion, the third annual increase in a row. To be sure, that is still less than a third of the recordbreaking $322.7 billion posted in 2000, when foreigners poured money into a roaring economy. But all signs suggest that the buying spree continues.

Who are the big buyers? Not the Chinese, despite all the protectionist yammering these days in the halls of Congress. Canadians were the single biggest buyers of U.S. firms in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Indeed, 40 percent of the investment in U.S. companies came from Canada, surpassing Britain, historically the most active investor in the United States.

Canadians are keen on U.S. technology. Consider one of last year’s bigger deals: Nortel, Canada’s telecom giant, spent $448 million to buy PEC Solutions, of Fairfax, Virginia, which provides information-technology services to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Secret Service, and the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, investment flows both ways across the nation’s northern border. For years, American firms have been one of the biggest sources of foreign direct investment in Canada. The BEA says U.S. firms and individuals invested $22.4 billion in Canadian companies in 2004, only a fraction less than the $22.9 billion that U.S. companies invested in Britain.

Steel and Beer

In contrast, China invested only $490 million in U.S. acquisitions in 2004 — less than 1 percent of the total, according to the BEA. Other emerging nations have been moving more quickly to invest in the States since 2002. “China was a giant in the press,” observes Marc Zenner, head of the financial strategy group at Citigroup, but he points out that until recently, its investment in the United States lagged that of other emerging nations, most notably India and South Africa. India’s Mittal Steel spent $4.5 billion to buy International Steel Group, in Cleveland, in late 2004. South African Breweries bought Miller Brewing Co. in 2002, and the combined company, SABMiller, snapped up half a dozen other breweries around the globe in 2005.

Still, China’s $800 billion in dollar reserves gives it a fat purse with which to shop. Although the BEA hasn’t yet released statistics on foreign direct investment in the United States for 2005, China no doubt will have moved up in the rankings. Two Chinese companies made multi-billion-dollar bids for trophy acquisitions in the United States — oil giant Unocal and consumer-products maker Maytag. Those bids ultimately failed, but dealmakers say the Chinese will continue aggressively bidding — and buying — in 2006. One successful bid: China’s Lenovo bought IBM Corp.’s personal-computer business for $1.25 billion in 2005. That one deal accounted for more than double the total invested by China in the United States the year before.

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