Over the past year, China and Middle Eastern petro-states have spent billions of dollars purchasing stakes in some of America’s most prominent financial houses and high-tech firms.
The reaction from the usually rambunctious Congress: muted to outright enthusiasm.
There have been scattered complaints, but the response stands in stark contrast to the furor that arose in 2006 over the Dubai Ports World deal.
Absence of an uproar is no accident. The strategy of the countries and their political advisers has been deliberately calculated to soften the ground on Capitol Hill ahead of the purchases.
Even the structures of the deals themselves appear to have been carefully designed not to set off regulatory red flags.
From the congressional schmoozing standpoint, the approach has been twofold: Allow no surprises, and let the domestic company do the talking.
According to lobbyists and congressmen, over the past several months, U.S. executives and their handlers have been visiting with members and staff to shore up support before the deals become public.
Among the minefields they are navigating are economic anxiety, anti-immigrant sentiment and populist electioneering.
The strategy is paying off.
One of those briefed before the announcement that the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority was going to purchase $7.5 billion worth of Citigroup stock was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer led the outcry against the Dubai Ports deal, but he called the Citigroup purchase “a good thing” after a briefing by a company executive.
His reasoning: It doesn’t raise the same national security concerns and provides needed investment.
“Openness is always a good thing. One of the worst aspects of the Dubai Ports deal was that it wasn’t vetted. That’s what led to most of the problems,” Schumer said in an e-mail.
Other recent deals have included multibillion-dollar investments by China in Bear Stearns and the private equity group Blackstone and by Abu Dhabi in the politically connected takeover firm The Carlyle Group.
“If they want to send us money, that’s not a problem,” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told Politico.
“I don’t think we should get into an ‘everything foreign is bad’ situation. This is the flip side of American capital being sent overseas.”
The recent spate of investments is expected to signal a trend as rapidly growing China and Middle East countries flush with oil profits take advantage of the fallen dollar.
Sovereign wealth funds, as the countries’ investment vehicles are known, are estimated to wield $2.5 trillion in assets.
That could grow to $17.5 trillion in the next decade, according to a Morgan Stanley report.
In fact, say budget hawks from both sides of the aisle, the escalating investment by foreign countries in crucial domestic assets stems in part from U.S. policy decisions on everything from energy to the Iraq war.
“We burned the oil, we paid for it with pieces of paper, people want to use those pieces of paper in this economy. I don’t see how we have any complaints. At some point, those IOUs will have to be redeemed,” said Brooking Institution scholar Martin Mayer.
“My children and your children are going to spend part of their lives working for foreigners, because we have placed a lot of assets in foreign hands,” he added.
Labor leaders are sounding alarms about pension funds invested in firms with a growing foreign presence, particularly in Persian Gulf states.
The Service Employees International Union points to a 2006 State Department Human Rights report on the United Arab Emirates that described sex discrimination, human trafficking and labor exploitation.
For some lawmakers, the fact that money is coming from foreign governments, as opposed to independent companies, has raised concerns.
“Sovereign wealth funds are inherently different than private investments. Government-owned entities may have interests that will take precedence over profit maximization,” said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who chaired a hearing on the issue in the Senate Banking Committee several weeks ago.
“Why should we assume that other nations are driven purely by financial interests when we are not?”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking minority member, expressed concern about the lack of disclosure from foreign-government-controlled funds. “If we let this continue to grow, we will not be in control of our own economic destiny as we have been in the past,” said Shelby.
Overseas investors are well-aware of U.S. fear of foreign takeovers, which sparked a backlash two decades ago with the purchase of prestigious properties such as Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures.
That explains why many of the recent high-profile purchases, although in the billions of dollars, do not give the countries controlling stakes.
The Citibank purchase gives Abu Dhabi 4.9 percent of the company — meaning it slips under the threshold that would trigger an in-depth review of the transaction by government regulators.
The deal that has sparked the most controversy is the proposed purchase of electronics manufacturer 3Com by a partnership that includes Huawei Technologies, a Chinese firm with alleged links to the country’s military.
It is the subject of an in-depth investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the Treasury Department.
The company partnering in the deal with China is Bain Capital Partners, a firm once run by Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and current GOP presidential primary contender.
Romney received more than $7 million from his holdings in the firm last year, according to financial disclosure forms.
In a statement to Politico, a Bain Capital spokesman said the firm believed that the government would find that “the company will be firmly controlled by an American firm, have only a small minority foreign shareholder, and that the deal presents no risks to national security.”
Bain Capital has engaged the politically potent firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to help smooth the way for the deal.
The firm has 11 lobbyists registered to work on the issue, including Hal Shapiro, a former White House economic adviser; Josh Tzuker, a former senior aide to House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.); and former congressman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.).
The deal has drawn the ire of senior Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Dan Burton of Indiana and Dana Rohrabacher of California.
They have introduced a resolution calling for the administration to block the acquisition on national security grounds.
“U.S. regulators ought to reject the proposed buyout of 3Com by one of the least transparent companies operating in China, a firm with shadowy ties to Chinese army and intelligence services,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement last week.
Chinese officials warned that too many trade barriers could deter investment. “We hope U.S. policies and regulations do not become barriers for Chinese investors,” Zhang Xiaoqiang, a senior government economic planner, told China Daily.
Some Republicans, though, are embracing the influx of foreign capital.
Ryan Ellis, director of tax policy for Americans for Tax Reform, a leading conservative advocacy group, said, “The general protectionist streak comes out most among Sunbelt conservative House Republicans. They’re freaked out by the rest of the world. They are not for a free flow of capital across borders. They have a Fortress America mindset.”