China Decider

29 January 2015

In December Australia’s multi-industry contracting giant Leighton Holdings announced the impending sale of John Holland to the fourth largest construction company in the world. The buyer, state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) stressed that it would be “business as usual” for John Holland customers, that it perceived growth opportunities in Australia. Normal commentary during a takeover.

And while the Chinese company's further remarks about interest in a dynamic market, the desire to put its financial backing behind John Holland, and a desire to learn from one another are also standard fare, it's more interesting when looked at against the backdrop of wider Chinese spending.

In 2011, Australia had been the largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI - the purchase of an active, controlling interest in a foreign company) for a number of years. This was largely fuelled by a flourishing demand for Australian natural resources, combined with a concern for securing supply to its hungry industry, and so focused on that sector. Not a labour-intensive industry, or one caught up in a complex supply chain, China's business interests were relatively straight-forward and did not require much engagement with the Australian corporate or cultural environment.

Still, Australia was excited to have its resources economy driven forward by the Asian powerhouse. Although it seemed that China was only interested in Australia's generous endowment of resources, other sectors were taking notice. This led KPMG, one of the 'Big Four' auditors, to partner with The University of Sydney's China Studies Centre to publish the first of a series of studies into Chinese investment in the country.

By 2013, following the economic downturn, and Chinese growth falling below double digits, Australia fell behind the United States to become the second largest recipient of Chinese FDI. China had begun to diversify its foreign interests to a greater degree. This gave opportunities for new sectors of the Australian economy to nurture relationships with investors.

The November 2014 KPMG-University of Sydney report on Chinese investment was based off a survey of Chinese investors, and concludes that although they are drawn to Australia as a natural and historical trading partner, they feel limited by a lack of integration into Australia's public and private sector.

Australia is an interesting proving ground for these investors. Integration into Australia's marketplace could set them up for success further afield. This is part of a global strategy, not an isolated move into a single welcoming market.

President Xi Jinping recently said Chinese FDI would grow from USD 660bn in 2013 to USD 1.23tn within a decade. It's worth noting, that at the turn of the millennium, USD 1.23tn was more than value of the entire Chinese economy. And with the Chinese economy due to overtake the USA (in purchasing power terms, if not nominal/value terms) in the next couple of years, further investment from China is not in doubt.

The repercussions of Chinese state ownership of foreign companies remain to be seen. In our industry it's a very new phenomenon. But in this case it's simple, Leighton Holdings was looking to sell, and CCCC was looking to buy.