France's plans to nationalize major banks and industries and Kuwait's takeover of Santa Fe International Corp. have spurred a comprehensive review by the Reagan administration of foreign investment in this country and the implications of foreign government ownership of U.S. enterprises.
The administration has a broad policy of favoring foreign investment in the United States, but an interagency team headed by Marc Leland, assistant Treasury secretary for international affairs, is studying possible changes in the way the United States monitors and controls some transactions.
Foreign government ownership of U.S. corporations, "while not new in concept, is new in practice," Leland said in an interview. Regulatory and antitrust restrictions applied to privately owned concerns "can quickly become a diplomatic incident" when state-owned enterprises are involved, "and we are trying to bring out what the potential problems are, if any," he said.
Leland cited several questions that recent transactions have raised within the administration:
What are the implications of the nationalization of French banks that own or have interests in banks in the United States? "Can the French government own a string of banks around the United States when no private bank could do so?" he asked. "Nationalization means there are new purchasers in our economy. What should we do about that?"
How should Washington respond, if at all, to Canada's new policy restricting foreign ownership of Canadian corporations?
If Kuwait's $2.5 billion takeover of California-based Santa Fe International Corp. indicates a new Kuwaiti policy of direct state acquisitions abroad--which it apparently does--what are the foreign-policy implications for this country?
Also, does the Mineral Lands Leasing Act, which restricts mineral exploration rights on federal lands to foreign countries that grant reciprocal privileges to Americans, now apply to Santa Fe?
What are the regulatory, antitrust and political problems implicit in the takeover of Texasgulf Inc. by Elf Acquitaine, which is two-thirds owned by the French government?
Do state-owned foreign corporations operate primarily to make money or do they sacrifice profit to other objectives such as full employment, and, if so, what does that imply for their competitive position in the United States?
Leland said that representatives of virtually every Cabinet department except Health and Human Services is participating in the study, which he said should result in a report and recommendations to the Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs within six months.
"Our basic policy is an open attitude toward the free flow of private foreign investment," Leland said. "The issue here is government-controlled investment as distinguished from private investment. What are the competing interests of governments if they own the banks and the industries? Should you look at it the same way as if individuals owned it?"
The working group also is examining the operations of the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which was set up in 1975 to review the strategic, economic and national security implications of foreign investments.
Leland's group will report to the Cabinet council its views on whether the committee "is an appropriate vehicle and its authority is too broad or not broad enough."
The committee never has opposed publicly any transaction it has reviewed. "Do you need it, or do you have other agencies that could do the work better?" Leland asked.
Despite the publicity given to some large transactions such as the Santa Fe deal, direct foreign investment remains a tiny element in the overall U.S. economy. Government figures show that foreign individuals, corporations and governments had holdings in U.S. corporations worth about $65.5 billion at the end of 1980, and own less than one percent of U.S. agricultural land. Foreigners hold more than $100 billion in marketable Treasury securities, according to the Federal Reserve Board, but that is only about 10 percent of the national debt.
"The issue is not a substantial foreign presence in the American economy, because there isn't any," Leland said. "But what about the foreign presence in certain sectors of the economy?"
Leland and other representatives of the administration have told Congress repeatedly that the administration favors and wants to encourage foreign capital investment because it stimulates economic development and conforms to their overall free-trade philosophy.