Beijing: unsporting laws on M&A

The opening of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics today has the world’s sporting eyes on China. Of course, global dealmakers had their sights on the large (and growing) Chinese markets long before Beijing landed the Olympics. However, as my colleague Anita Cheung notes, those efforts suffered a setback last week when China passed the latest and strictest set of regulations on foreign investment and M&A in 15 years.

The new regulations give the federal government more control over direct foreign investment and take off the table virtually any acquisition of a Chinese company by a foreign firm. Chinese regulators cite national security and antitrust concerns for these recent actions. This is a distressing development for the idea of a global M&A marketplace. While other countries have certainly used regulation to block ‘sensitive’ acquisitions, few have succeeded with a blanket policy blocking essentially all deals.

In the months before these new regulations took effect, several US media and technology companies were able to ink purchases of Chinese companies. For instance, Hearst Business Media acquired, a technology news website for engineers, last month. Also, CNET acquired Beijing-based in June, while Google picked up Chinese search engine one month before. And deals aren’t just being inked by US companies. In June, one of Australia’s largest telecommunications companies, Telstra, picked up a controlling stake in two large Chinese Internet companies, Norstar Media and Autohome/PCPop.

Rather than those transactions being models for future M&A activity in China, we would expect to see more deals break down because of politics. In other words, more deals like February’s aborted $2.2bn leveraged buyout of 3Com, which was led by Bain Capital, with minority participation by Chinese networking equipment vendor Huawei Technologies. In that proposed transaction, US regulators got all worked up over the possible threats to US national security of having partial Chinese ownership of 3Com’s TippingPoint Technologies business. The fear was that the Chinese might be able to spy on the US by using TippingPoint’s intrusion-prevention system to gain access to networks. As silly as that seems, it was enough to sink the deal. And unfortunately, China seems to have adopted that as policy.

Recent foreign deals in China

Date Acquirer Target
July 2, 2008 Hearst Business Media
June 27, 2008 Telstra Norstar Media; Autohome/PCPop
June 17, 2008 CNET
May 26, 2008 Google

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase