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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Foreign Government Ownership of US Companies

What if China tries to buy, say, the Wall Street Journal?:

Globalization's Stir-Fry, by Harold Meyerson, washingtonpost.com: ...Now let's consider the suddenly hot issue of government ownership of private American companies. Nobody on the left has seriously proposed nationalizing private concerns for the past 60 or so years. During the 1980s, we did debate what was called "industrial policy" -- whether the government should invest in certain strategic industries -- but the idea was defeated by free-marketeers who argued that our government should not be in the position of "picking winners" in the U.S. economy, and that it probably couldn't pick winners anyway.

But, improbably, industrial policy is back. Only, it's not our government that is buying up our companies and picking the winners. It's China's, and will surely soon be those of Russia and other oil-rich states. ...[F]oreign governments control a cool $5.4 trillion in foreign currency reserves and have begun to invest a chunk of that in American companies. ...

To be sure, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has the power to nix such purchases if they compromise national security. But what is the proper response of laissez-faire advocates to this sudden wave of foreign government investment in non-security-related companies? It's okay if the Chinese government owns a slice of our economy but not okay if our own government does? We trust every other government more than we trust our own?

I posed this question to William Niskanen, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute... Foreign government ownership, he argued, shouldn't pose a problem unless that government obtains a controlling interest. When I then asked whether it would be a problem for the U.S. government to buy into such a company, he answered immediately, "I don't think I would want to be a shareholder in a company in which the U.S. government owned a good bit of the shares," and then, pausing, continued, "I haven't thought about this" -- "this" being the distinction between U.S. ownership and, say, Chinese.

Niskanen is hardly alone. None of us have thought sufficiently about how the belief in untrammeled capitalism could lead to foreign governments, whatever their agendas, controlling more and more of the American economy.

Upset that Rupert Murdoch, who kowtows to China, will buy the Wall Street Journal? What if China itself buys the Journal? Would the Journal's hypercapitalist editorial board oppose that free-market transaction? Globalization, as I said, scrambles everything.

There's been quite a bit on foreign government ownership of companies located in the U.S. recently so I'm starting to wonder, should I be more concerned about this?

    Posted by on Thursday, June 28, 2007 at 04:05 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (16)

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