Foreign Ownership

Airbus and the Perils of Foreign Ownership

Crafty kids don’t just share their dessert—they use it to make friends, build relationships and influence others. Similarly, politicians use international corporations to further national aspirations and get what they want.

Events surrounding the recent Airbus scandal highlight the dangers the English-speaking economies of the world face by allowing their strategic corporations to be purchased and controlled by foreign nations.

Over the past several months, Airbus, the domestic aircraft manufacturing subsidiary of European-owned eads aerospace technology group, has been plagued with financial problems—problems so severe, the company recently announced the possibility of closing up to five airplane manufacturing complexes and laying off up to 10,000 employees.

As can be imagined, the negative news has caused eads shares to cascade. Adding even more intense downward pressure on eads’ share price was the fact that Germany’s Daimler-Chrysler, one of eads’ largest shareholders, announced plans to sell off a chunk of the company.

According to the Times Online, Daimler-Chrysler, “which often acts in the German interest” owns approximately 22.5 percent of eads (October 5). The French government also owns 22.5 percent. Russia and Spain, which hold smaller amounts, have both announced their interest in buying up any shares Daimler-Chrysler will sell. To prevent the resulting erosion of German influence over eads, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acted quickly to ensure that the German state-owned bank KfW would buy Daimler-Chrysler’s eads shares. “We want France and Germany to have an equal say in the eads project,” Merkel explained.

The potential corporate restructuring of eads has created a political firestorm between France and Germany, both of which are struggling to influence where the layoffs and plant closures will occur.

As Airbus’s ceo has quickly learned, this political maneuvering makes it extraordinarily difficult to accomplish meaningful corporate changes. “[It’s] a fact of life” that “economic logic often contradicts the political logic that is so important in shaping behavior within the company and its executives,” says German newspaper Spiegel (October 16). In other words, with Airbus at least, the company is more than just a business—it is a political tool. Decisions are heavily influenced not only by business fundamentals, but also by political motivations.

The idea of corporations acting as extensions of national governments brings up an important question—one that any nation promoting foreign ownership of domestic industries should consider. Is it in the best interest of a country to allow widespread foreign ownership of domestic industry? And what about in the case of strategic industries?

In general, American, British, Canadian and Australian economists don’t seem to think it matters whether or not a company is domestically owned. In fact, free trade and the unrestricted movement of goods, services and finances are hailed as representing market efficiency. For everybody to be best off, borders must be completely open, they say. Consequently, foreign acquisitions of domestic companies are just seen as the economic marketplace at work—nothing of concern.

Britain sports an especially casual attitude over the sale of strategic corporations. The UK is the world’s leading takeover target. “[M]any of the world’s largest cross-border takeovers in 2005 targeted UK-based companies,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported.

According to the Guardian,

Britain is being sold off at a rate unprecedented in modern times. If the foreign takeover bids announced or hinted at over the past few months all go through, airports, ships, banks, gas pipelines, stock exchanges, chemical plants and glass factories will fall into foreign ownership. Yet there is no debate; scarcely an eyebrow is raised. In any other country, there would be uproar.

In Canada and Australia, a similar situation is occurring—except that in these countries it is the natural resource sector that seems to be experiencing the brunt of foreign takeovers.

Of the major English-speaking nations, only America has seen any real resistance to unrestricted foreign takeovers—albeit a limited one. Recall the outcry in February this year that resulted in blocking the United Arab Emirates state-owned company Dubai Ports World from purchasing the company that operates some of America’s largest port complexes. Yet what many people don’t realize is, operations at most of America’s major port complexes were already foreign owned, including the ones Dubai Ports was attempting to gain control of.

Later in 2006, when Japan’s Toshiba Corporation bought Westinghouse—a nuclear technology company with operations based primarily in the U.S.—hardly an eyebrow was raised. When Engelhard, the strategic catalyst manufacturer, was targeted for hostile takeover by German-owned basf, this too provoked little concern. Although foreign ownership may not be as widespread as it is in Britain and Canada, much more of America is foreign owned than many realize.

The open-market and largely unrestricted-ownership economic philosophies that the U.S. and other English-speaking nations live by may be efficient in an idealized, peaceful world—but sadly, this is not the world today.

America, Britain and the English-speaking world must wake up. The world’s nations are not playing on a level field. Many Asian and European countries, for example, limit foreign ownership of domestic industry. They see the danger in allowing foreign entities to control industries essential to the functioning of the state.

Remember the lesson that Gazprom, the Russian energy company, taught Europe at the beginning of the year when it shut off the gas to the Ukraine in what was seen as a political dispute. When the natural gas stopped flowing to the Ukraine, the pressure dropped all the way down the pipeline into Germany and other parts of Europe.

As the eads situation shows, Germany’s Angela Merkel hasn’t forgotten the Gazprom lesson. She isn’t about to relinquish German influence over one of the world’s most strategic aerospace manufacturing, military and technology companies.

Contrary to what many economists and open-market enthusiasts believe, corporations are more than just economic statistics, profit streams, share prices and employment numbers. Increasingly, corporations are political tools used by nations to exert influence over other nations.

In times of peace and economic prosperity, foreign control of strategic industries and infrastructure may not be an immediate threat. But during major economic recessions—or, worse, times of geopolitical upheaval and war—the loss of ownership and full control of national industries can be catastrophic. 

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