Tuesday, February 28, 2006

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So, You Want To Buy a Strategic American Company …

That's the title of my latest essay for Slate:

Political resistance to foreign takeovers is not all that shocking, even in the supposedly laissez-faire United States. Foreign corporations are the perfect political bogeyman. By definition, they are un-American. Critics are usually correct when they claim that these firms are only concerned with making money (our multinationals would never act like that!!), and if they are state-owned, well, then their purposes must be even more nefarious. The targets of many of these takeovers—infrastructure, utilities, steel—are perceived to have some strategic value, which makes ordinary citizens even more sensitive....

So, what's a foreign CEO to do? How do you take over a national treasure in such a hostile political environment? Here are a few lessons that can be learned from recent experience.

You'll have to read the essay to see my meager bits of advice.

For readers clicking over from Slate, click here to see a list of blog posts on the Dubai ports deal. Then click here for my post about Euro-hysteria on hostile corporate takeovers. And, finally, click here to see my musings on CNOOC's proposed takeover of Unocal back in the summer of 2005.

posted by Dan on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM


Dan -
I read your post on Slate and clicked through to this site. You seem to have a very reasoned view of the ports deal. I'm mystified at what those folks opposed to the deal think is going to happen if it is somehow blocked. The actual deal - DP World's purchase of P&O - is done. P&O now operates these ports; DP World is only assuming those operations, pending the now-suspended approval of CFIUS. If a bill is passed blocking DP World's assumption of those operations, to whom do they go? There's no U.S.-based ports operator with a capitalization greater than about $1.5 billion as far as I know; and none are public co's, so it hard to even pin that down. This is a $6.8 billion, all-cash acquisition. No U.S. operator could afford that. Does the gov't step in and buy P&O back from DP World, or foreclose in an eminent domain fashion (for $6.8B!), and parcel these ports out to local or proximate (and much smaller) operators? Do we give it to Temasek (Singapore), the next highest bidder for P&O ($6.3 B) or some other foreign operator? How would that work? Do we have the ability to reverse the takeover? I just can't see where else this could go but to approval, with all the usual grandstanding from all parties involved, of course. Any insights? Thanks.

posted by: stc on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

There have been times when Daniel Drezner has not exactly been on the side of the angels. His support, for instance, of John Kerry in 2004 was indefensible. However, on this particular issue---Drezner has finally got his act together. The current hostility to the Dubai Port World agreement is utterly ridiculous. Humiliating our allies in the Arab world is not a great way to win friends and influence people. We need then to fight the terrorists. Also, the Saudis and Red Chinese have been here for years! It’s a little late in the day to worry about a “foreign invasion.”

posted by: David Thomson on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

Besides the ports deal another area where protectionists are waving the flag to stave off foreign takeovers is the airline industry. I think this is an issue that is only going to get bigger:


posted by: Colin on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

hi.....The venemence against the port deal is due in large part, IMHO, to a rather long list of things that the White House has done to aggrivate we "Right Wingers" over the past several months. The rage just spilled over on this particular issue.

However, emotions aside, a few have actually researched the law on this little foible. Pro or Con, justify or demonize it all that you want to, what it boils down to is that the deal is illegal. The laws in question deal with firms and I beleive governments who boycot Israel. This government owned firm does, and was quite vocal about it. End of discussion. If the deal is to go through, the law needs to be amended. Politically, of course, they may just ignore it and let the thing go through anyway, but the GOP has enough problems with its integrety questioned as it is....breaking a terrorism law is not the best way to remedy that.

My 2 cents worth anyway.


posted by: paul on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

I have a parochial-sounding reason to welcome the controversy over the purchase of P&O. One of my hobbyhorses in recent years has been the decline of Congressional oversight; port security is a fairly important issue, but requires time and attention to understand. Absent a controversy like this one few members of Congress would spend any time on it. Because of the uproar now some of them may learn things that will be helpful later.

This aside, the salient point about this controversy is what it says about public attitudes toward Arabs. Government policy -- and not just the policy of the present administration -- is one thing; government policy is to deal with Arab countries individually, resting our relations with them on their conduct toward us (and, recently and to varying degrees, on their internal political arrangements). In most respects, and no doubt with important exceptions government policy is to treat Arab countries like any other countries.

In the public mind, though, Arabs still tend to be identified with two things, oil and terrorism. This attitude, which is really no more than that, is easy to mock -- for example, by pointing out that the largest Arab country (Egypt) has little oil or that if most Arabs wanted to blow themselves up there wouldn't be any of them left. It is certainly unfair to DBP as far as the ports issue goes.

Yet if government policy cannot reflect public attitudes on a matter like this, the ports controversy shows why it cannot assume these attitudes do not exist or do not matter. From the public's point of view there is no obvious firewall between Arab terrorism and an Arab company. This view may be wrong, and in this case it probably is. The public could be persuaded, but it can't be expected to accept on faith an administration finding. President Bush may find this especially difficult to accept, but an administration headed by anyone else would have gotten the same reaction.

posted by: Zathras on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

You write in your Slate piece:

In the United States, the furor rages over Dubai Ports World, a government-owned firm from the United Arab Emirates that has received provisional approval to operate ports in six U.S. cities.

Such incorrect reporting as yours is one reason why there has been so much controversy over this issue.

Dubai Ports World will not "operate ports in six U.S. cities." It will take over leases at terminals within those ports. The states of New York and New Jersey own the port of NY/NJ for instance, which is operated by that state agency. The same applies in Oakland, Calif., with the city owning the port and a city agency operating it.

To imply leasing a terminal is akin to operating a port is like saying I operate my apartment building because I rent a unit there.

Really poor writing, assuming this was not an editing error that was out of your hands. This is especially baffling on Feb. 28, about a week or so after this story first broke.

You owe us a correction.

posted by: ML on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

If an issue can be linked to terrorism, justly or unjustly, the public's reaction is always the same: better safe than sorry. Whether it's phone-tapping or torture or invading Iraq or the ports take-over, as soon as anyone draws the terrorism link, the public mind is made up.

The Bush administration has done more than anyone to create this atmosphere, and it should have foreseen the ports fiasco. Bush preys on fear more than anyone else, perhaps because it's what seems to motivate him.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

He who controls paperwork controls security.

U.A.E. already controls the paperwork.

America...Soon to be a dead place.

Bye Bye...

posted by: James on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

Kleiman comments on some of the confusion/misinformation here.

posted by: rilkefan on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

Very good site. Thanks!

posted by: moen extensa 7560 on 02.28.06 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

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