Why Chinese investment is nowhere near as big as you think

by James Laurenceson
Australian Financial Review
May 26 2016

When it comes to foreign investment in Australia, nothing generates a headline quite as reliably as when the money comes from China. If a Chinese investor is snapping up residential real estate, a farm or infrastructure such as a port, the font size just gets bigger.

Yet according to new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data published earlier this month, tiny Belgium invested $22.3 billion in Australia last year, compared with just $7.8 billion from China. Even if investment from Hong Kong is also included, the total from China in 2015 still only amounted to $14.6 billion.

And don't think that last year was an exception. The accumulated stock of investment from Belgium in Australia now stands at $238.5 billion, more than triple that from China. While the Chinese may be fond of Australian real estate, the Belgians have taken a particular liking to our government and corporate bonds.

In 2015, China didn't even come close to the country buying the most Australian assets, the US with $55.9 billion. In contrast to the Chinese and Belgians, who have more selective tastes, the Americans have been busy buying everything. The accumulated stock of US direct investment in Australia is five times larger than that of China, while it also holds 16 times the value of equity securities and 123 times the value of debt securities.

There was another standout observation in the ABS data. In 2015 Australians acquired Chinese assets worth $10.5 billion. Yes, that's correct, $2.7 billion more than the value of Australian assets acquired by the Chinese. This means that Australians now hold a total stock of Chinese assets worth $70.2 billion, almost as much as the $74.9 billion stock of Australian assets held by the Chinese.

The Chinese asset classes that draw Australian affection vary from year to year. Perennial favourites include holdings of Chinese currency, and loans to China-based corporates. But 2015 also saw particularly strong interest in China's bond market.

Even the Australian stock of direct investment in China now stands at more than $14 billion. That covers activities from ANZ branches in China to its 20 per cent equity stake in Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank. Australian direct investment in China is also set for rapid growth led by star local performers such as Blackmores and Ramsay Health Care.

How is it possible that ABS data points to investment from China being so modest when just last month the Foreign Investment Review Board reported that the value of approvals to Chinese investors had jumped by 68 per cent in 2014-15 to reach $46.6 billion, nearly double that granted to US investors?

First, FIRB approvals and deals actually completed are two different things. Consider the $10 billion sale last year of the NSW electricity network, TransGrid. Chinese company, State Grid had reportedly received FIRB approval to purchase the asset but in the end were beaten out by a consortium that included investors from Canada and the Middle East.

Second, FIRB data gives no indication of the scale at which Chinese investors might also be selling Australian assets. If you want to know how important a country is to Australia as a supplier of capital, it's net flows that matter, not gross. Take Chinese property developer, Aqualand as an example. In 2014 it paid $135 million for a Melrose Park site but then flipped it in 2015 to Australian listed developer, Payce.

Third, FIRB approvals data almost certainly understate investment from countries such as the US. One reason is that the approvals thresholds for the US are far more generous. A US investor can buy an Australian agribusiness worth up to $1.1 billion without needing FIRB clearance, while for a Chinese investor the figure is just $55 million.

If not scale, then why else might some commentators choose to hype Chinese investment: is it qualitatively different to investment from other countries? Some are keen to suggest it is. When the lease to operate Darwin Port was sold to a Chinese privately owned company last year, some defence hawks claimed this might facilitate spying by the Chinese state and undermine Australia's security alliance with the US.

But the chiefs of the Department of Defence, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) all rejected such fearmongering. And as far as the general public is concerned, a recent survey of 1000 Australians by the Australia-China Relations Institute and the Centre for the Study of Choice at UTS found that what worries the average Australian most about foreign investment are issues around overseas ownership and control, not which country the money is coming from. It's high time that Chinese investment is treated for what it is: valuable for supporting Australian jobs and asset prices, but compared with investment from other countries, utterly unremarkable.

James Laurenceson is deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney

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