THIS IS NO TIME TO BE PUSHOVERS FOR FOREIGN BUYERS
- Bryan Gould
A post-Covid economy will look very different in many respects from the one with which we started 2020. Some of the changes will have been for the better, some for the worse. There will of course be problems to overcome, but also opportunities to exploit. Many of those changes will affect the way we run our economy in domestic terms. It might be hoped that we will find a way to lock in the improvements to air and water quality we have experienced during the lockdowns, and that we will apply some of the lessons we have learned about better ways of working.
We might have a better understanding of the adverse impact our economic activity has on the natural world and environment, and of how much work that is usually under-valued, such as caring for others, is really worth to us. We might even pause to ask ourselves whether running our economy as a trade-off between the interests of the owners of capital and those of the suppliers of labour, with the trump cards all in the hands of the owners of capital, and with the rights and interests of the suppliers of labour dependent on the willingness and ability of capital owners to pay and employ them on reasonable terms, is necessarily the best way to build an economy that is sustainable and that produces acceptable social and environmental outcomes.
The urgent need, as businesses struggled on the point of failure during lockdown, to subsidise wages from the public purse surely suggested a different model - one in which the value of labour and the purchasing power of its suppliers do not depend on and are not decided solely by the supposedly prior and clearly sectional needs of private capital, but are seen as critical to the health and wellbeing of both the economy and society as a whole. We will face, of course, post-lockdown, the inevitable consequences of recession, unemployment and business failures. But the outlook is not all gloomy - far from it.
On the credit side of the ledger, we will start our post-Covid recovery with some healthy advantages. We will start with the boost to our international reputation flowing from our successful containment of the virus - evidence, it will be seen, of our competence and reliability, and of the fact that we are a safe place to do business - and all this against the backdrop of a global economy in which the pandemic continues to rage. And while our tourist trade may take some time to recover, given the need to protect our borders, there is no reason why our trade shouldn't expand and prosper. We are, after all, suppliers of some of the products - food, timber, raw materials - for which global demand never slackens.
Nor should we suffer any shortage of interest from overseas investors and businesses seeking to establish an operation here. We will no doubt be seen as a safe haven in a world of turmoil and uncertainty. And the recession will no doubt reduce, in international and comparative terms, the capital value of our assets and enterprises and make them an attractive proposition to those from overseas seeking a bargain.
Need To Recognise Downsides
But before we throw our caps in the air, we should pause to recognise the downsides. There is no point in turning opportunities into risks. The last thing we need, at a time of national crisis and of the need to rebuild our economy, is an influx of foreign purchasers, keen to find bargains at knockdown prices among our undervalued assets and hoping to ride roughshod over national rules and regulations.
Such efforts as we usually make to scrutinise foreign purchasers of our assets to make sure that their purchases serve our interests will need to be redoubled at this time of maximum exposure to risk. We have already seen worrying current instances, in cases like those of filmmakers and overseas sports teams, of how ready we are to accommodate overseas interests who seek concessions (even just in terms of the policing of our borders) when we are offered sight of some foreign currency.
The risks we run when we allow foreign investors to take a dominant position in any given sector are exemplified by the recent and damaging exit of foreign-owned Bauer Media and the resulting closure of some of our most outstanding print publications. And how happy can we be when we discover that a major part of our wine industry is now in the hands of a Trump-supporting mega donor to his re-election campaign?
We might, at the least, promise ourselves that there will be no deals offering exemptions from or exceptions to our domestic laws (on issues like working conditions, labour laws, and health and safety requirements) or privileged access to natural assets like water or hydro-electricity. We have been burnt too often by such deals to fall for them again. And post-Covid uncertainty will inevitably increase the propensity of overseas investors to believe that they can screw an advantageous bargain - advantageous to them, that is - out of us.
If we are to protect ourselves fully, it is essential that the criterion of serving our national interest should mean something substantial, should be treated as a positive requirement, and should be applied fully and thoroughly. It should be given a wide definition, so as to include not only economic issues, such as the control of our banking system and money supply, but also political issues, involving democracy and self-government, and issues involving the protection of our resources, culture and ecology. And, at the end of the day, Ministers should be required to take responsibility for the decisions taken by the Overseas Investment Office.
Apply National Interest Test To All & Those Already Here
The national interest criterion should apply for the foreseeable future to foreign investment of all sizes, and should also - as CAFCA has already argued - be applied to existing as well as new foreign investments. There is no reason why we should continue to pay the price for past derelictions of duty in this respect. Nor should we be misled by the word "national", suggesting as it does that a relevant issue must be something that affects all of us. Our national interest may be at issue, even when the interest affected is that of only a particular group or sector, especially if the impact actually or potentially caused is so egregious that it spills over into the wider community.
And that is to say nothing of judging the impact of such a change, not just in absolute terms, but in terms of the size of an overseas bidder and the proportionate effect of the bid in the area of activity in which it will be felt. An intervention by a big overseas player may have a greater potential for distortion than a similar or similarly sized bid by a smaller player, simply as a consequence of the say the larger bidder might have with our Government. Nor should we judge these matters only in the present. Our policymakers owe it to us to take the long view, and to judge a move to foreign ownership, not just on its impact in the here and now, but also as to how it, and its implications, will play out over decades into the future.
Our experience teaches us that, once having established a foothold and a presence in our economy, overseas interests are adept at exploiting that advantage to screw yet more concessions out of our Government. We must not shoot ourselves in the foot by relaxing our protections when we are at our most vulnerable. Now that we have demonstrated just how tough and effective that we can be with ourselves over the coronavirus, this is no time to be pushovers for those from overseas on other matters.