The color—and nationality—of money

In 2005, the Chinese company, Lenovo, bought the personal computer division from IBM for $1.75 billion.  Both the financial and industrial worlds were taken by surprise: in general, companies from rich nations buy assets from nations struggling to emerge from underdevelopment.  In this case the opposite was true, a symbol of China’s ascension and maybe the passing of the baton for the future global superpower.  After years of successes, Lenovo is still not satisfied.  Last December it inaugurated its first production site in the US in Whitsett, North Carolina, where is employs 115 people.  Lenovo’s managers have expressed the motivation for the choice candidly: salaries are rising in China and falling in the US.  There is still a difference, but the choice allows them to stay closer to their customers in the US.  The Lenovo case illustrates the terms of the debate in the US to understand if Chinese investments in the US are useful or damaging to the local economy.  Consequently, government actions should be undertaken to foster, limit, or actually prohibit China’s expansion.  There is agreement over welcoming job creation.  Doubts surface when certain sectors claim that China creates new jobs after eliminating old ones, or at least contributing to their reduction.  Beijing’s dual intervention is notable, having both financial and industrial aspects.  The purchase of Washington’s debt is at this point consolidated, albeit in colossal dimensions.  In any case, it’s Beijing’s presence in US companies that is increasing fears and hopes.  Supporters believe that opening doors to Chinese capital belongs to free market philosophies—yet profitable.  The US should not abandon a business model that has seen them win until now.  Therefore, China should be encouraged to invest, in full accordance with the law.  A cure for the temporary decline can be found in the dynamics of American society, delegating the solution for investments that threaten balance and security to negotiations between governments.  On the other hand, critics believe that Beijing’s intentions are ambivalent, therefore tending to acquire political power through economic results.  They complain about the role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that pursue ends that are not exclusively commercial, like acquiring technology, playing a dominant role in the market, and receiving aid that alters competition.  They believe that the prevalent activity isn’t cutting inauguration ribbons for new factories as much as changing their ownership.  The story of Lenovo in North Carolina would therefore be the exception rather than the rule.  For this reason, opponents believe that opening the doors to China would be dangerous, and they are pushing to strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), which gives the President elements to evaluate the impact of foreign economic presence on national security.  The issue is not resolved, also because the sum of Beijing’s investments is not notable.  Officially, the data are collected by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) that measured the stock of Chinese investments in the US at $5.1 billion in 2012.  It’s another growing figure, but still equivalent to 1/10 of the opposite flux, given that US investments in China have reached $51.4 billion.  However, capital flows from uncertain origins exist, likely coming from Hong Kong and tax havens that could be redirected to China.  BEA estimates these ulterior contributions at $5.4 billion.  Including ultimate beneficial owner (UBO), the Chinese presence is more than doubled.  The Rhodium Group’s evaluation appears even more significant: their study counts Chinese investments at $12.2 billion in September 2013.  The different repercussion that would occur compared to these last figures is evident.  Their likelihood casts shadows on the possible control of capital flows and maybe on its efficiency.  Until now, the business world has paid greater attention to the size of investments rather than their origin.  It appears more porous than institutional capital flows.  Tracking the money’s origin is difficult in a globalized world, because the free circulation of capital has enabled unparalleled freedom.  Today, China can take advantage of this, because the productive apparatus need resources even before their flags can be identified.