Wall Street firms love deep-pocketed corporate clients eager to make splashy deals. Right now, that means Wall Street loves China, where companies are cash rich and often enjoy low-cost (or no-cost) financing from state-controlled banks.
In the past few months, Chinese firms have emerged as major players in a handful of big deals, including Lenovo Group Ltd.'s purchase of International Business Machines Corp.'s personal computer business, oil company Cnooc Ltd.'s bid for Unocal Corp., and appliance maker Haier Group's play for Maytag Corp.
Many other deals have taken place outside the United States.
In 2003, Chinese consumer-electronics firm TCL Corp. agreed to buy the television business of Thomson SA of France, in the process acquiring the venerable RCA brand. Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which says it hopes to become one of the world's six largest carmakers, has snapped up Korea's Ssangyong Motor Co. and is trying to buy the British MG Rover Group Ltd. Cnooc and other Chinese energy companies have been pouring huge sums into Canadian oil sands development projects.
Wall Street analysts say the dealmaking will only intensify in the coming years as Chinese firms, often at the behest of the government in Beijing, seek to use joint ventures and acquisitions to achieve an ambitious set of goals, including adding recognizable global brands and distribution networks (Maytag), securing access to more natural resources (Unocal) and tapping into Western management and technological expertise (IBM).
"The Chinese government is very explicit about its desire to see Chinese businesses grow into global players," said Ohio State University business school professor Oded Shenkar, author of "The Chinese Century." "And they fully realize that is not going to happen organically anytime soon, so they are very supportive" of big acquisitions, Shenkar said.
The Maytag bid is a perfect example of one part of the Chinese strategy, experts say. Maytag has well-known brands and enviable distribution to big U.S. retailers but has been beset in recent years by high costs and rising competition. Haier could switch more manufacturing to lower-cost China and then distribute products under Maytag's brand in the United States and globally.
China's strategy in this area contrasts with that of Japan and Korea, countries that spent decades turning homegrown brands such as Toyota and Samsung into respected global names.
"The Chinese recognize the cost and time it would take" to do what Korea and Japan did, said Ravi Chanmugam, head of the mergers and acquisitions practice at consulting firm Accenture Ltd. "The amount those countries spent over 30 to 40 years is tremendous," especially when compared with the cost of acquisitions, he said.
Political opposition is one factor that could stand in the way of Chinese business expansion. Cnooc's bid for Unocal sparked tremendous fear in the United States of a Chinese oil grab that some opponents of the deal said could threaten national security. Experts say political opposition is likely to remain a factor whenever natural resources are concerned, though countries such as Canada have reacted with much less fury to Chinese investments.
But China's unique approach to acquisitions could also give Chinese acquirers a potential political edge. Unlike many global corporations, when Chinese firms buy a company, they often try to keep the managerial and technical workforce. Cnooc, for its part, has said it would keep nearly all of Unocal's U.S. workforce. Lenovo said the same thing about IBM and said it would run the personal computer business from New York. The reason, experts say, is that Chinese firms often lack managerial and technical expertise. They also face less pressure to realize immediate savings from mergers, compared with U.S. firms.
"The Chinese are very weak on the innovation side," Shenkar said. "And the learning angle is very important to them. They are looking to learn from these acquisitions how to run a global business."
The promise of job retention means the Chinese can sometimes count on support from unions. In England, Shanghai Automotive Industry has won some union support for its MG Rover bid in part by promising continued employment for designers and engineers. Analysts also note that, as with Haier Group's bid for Maytag, Chinese companies are increasingly eager to add U.S. investing partners to make their expansion efforts more politically palatable.
Meanwhile, one of the only guaranteed winners in the Chinese merger mania is Wall Street. Firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers have been adding top bankers and analysts in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing for years. Lehman Brothers reported 2004 revenue of $1.2 billion from the Asia Pacific region, a 43 percent increase over 2003. In December, Goldman Sachs received permission to open a joint venture investment bank in China. This year, Goldman played a key role in engineering the Cnooc bid for Unocal.