China’s investments in U.S. up sharply

Made in China now has a fast-growing sibling: Bought by China.

Beijing is using its accumulation of billions of American dollars to step up its investments around the globe. In the last year, Chinese acquisitions in the U.S. have ranged from a relatively obscure theater in Branson, Mo., to stakes in such famous brands as Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson.

China’s huge stockpile of dollars stems in part from Americans’ enormous purchases of relatively inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods and the significantly smaller volume of U.S. exports to the Asian country.

By recycling much of its dollar trove over the years back to the United States with the purchase of U.S. government debt, China has in effect helped Washington finance its deficits.

Now, Beijing is branching out. The country’s direct investments overseas rose 6.5% in 2009 to $43.3 billion -- despite a global slump in such investments -- and could jump to $60 billion this year, Chinese state media reported last week.

Formal estimates of Chinese investments in the U.S. last year, excluding bond purchases, range from $3.9 billion -- a figure put out by New York research firm Dealogic -- to $6.4 billion, a number that comes from Derek Scissors, a Heritage Foundation research fellow who tracks China’s global transactions.

The real number could be even higher, Scissors says. In any case, the total is up sharply from several years ago, when Chinese investments hardly registered a blip on U.S. financial radar screens.

One goal of the increased investment in the U.S., led by the government’s vast sovereign wealth fund, is to buy assets while prices are depressed.

The strategy also seeks higher earnings from Beijing’s pile of assets denominated in foreign currencies, which is estimated at $2.5 trillion and mostly held in low-interest U.S. government securities and other low-risk, dollar-denominated investments. Chinese officials worry that a weakening dollar will erode the value of these holdings.

A sign that Beijing is acting on that concern came last week when the U.S. government reported that Chinese holdings of Treasury securities slid to $894.8 billion in December, down 3.7% from November and the lowest level since May.

Even at their increased level, Chinese investments last year in U.S. companies and property used up only a speck of Beijing’s foreign reserves -- and, according to Dealogic, accounted for just 3% of total foreign investments made in the U.S. last year.

Although the injections of cash from overseas are welcomed by many U.S. companies and communities, the step-up in Chinese purchases comes against a backdrop of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. Relations have been strained as the two superpowers have traded tough words over China’s currency policy, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting last month with the Dalai Lama, not to mention disputes over global climate policy and Google’s bid to challenge government censorship.

“Now that we’re getting a protectionist push [in the U.S.], you’re going to see hostility toward Chinese investments,” Scissors said.

Chinese government officials have visited Scissors’ office in Washington, he said, to gauge the potential “storm of protectionism coming out of Congress” before the midterm elections in November.

U.S. lawmakers agree that political heat will increase on China to loosen its grip on the value of its currency and open its markets.

“Absolutely, China’s going to have to give and make more movement,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Beijing hasn’t forgotten what happened in the summer of 2005 when state-controlled oil company CNOOC Ltd. dropped its bid to buy El Segundo-based Unocal Corp. after intense opposition from lawmakers who cited concerns about U.S. energy and economic security.

Chinese investors retreated from the U.S. market for much of the rest of 2005 and 2006, focusing instead on securing oil and natural resources in Africa, Australia and elsewhere.

Since then, Chinese investors have increasingly sought service companies. The largest Chinese investments in the U.S. have come from state-owned firms, primarily a $300-billion fund known as China Investment Corp. It initially targeted well-known financial companies, spending billions to buy stakes in private equity giant Blackstone Group and investment bank Morgan Stanley.

But after getting burned by the financial crisis that emerged in 2008, the sovereign wealth fund has been shifting to real estate.

Its investments in the last year have included hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate-related funds managed by Oaktree Capital of Los Angeles, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and BlackRock Inc.

The move into real estate appeared to be motivated by bargain prices. “In the past year, the U.S. real estate market seemed to have hit bottom and signs of recovery were obvious,” said Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing.

China’s growing investments should be viewed not as an effort to exert influence in the U.S., Mei said, but rather as an attempt to do some American-style business. “There’s a saying in America, ‘Business is business,’ ” he said. “People should not politicize business activities.”

In a filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, China Investment said its stakes in U.S. companies included stock in Apple and Visa, among other global brands. Its biggest announced transaction in the U.S. in the last year was buying a 15.8% stake in power company AES Corp. for $1.6 billion.

Other Chinese enterprises have invested in such companies as Honolulu-based alternative-energy technology company Hoku Scientific Inc., auto-parts supplier Delphi Corp.'s automotive-brake business and Solix Biofuels, a Colorado firm working on a way to turn algae into energy, according to Dealogic.

Chinese officials are mindful of the backlash that Japanese investors endured two decades ago when they bought, at the height of Japan’s real estate boom and ascendance in the global economy, landmark properties in the U.S., including Rockefeller Center in 1989 and Pebble Beach Golf Course in 1990.

Private Chinese investors have begun to get into the action but, according to analysts, have generally been involved in small transactions, buying houses for their families and investing in factories and other facilities to be closer to the North American market.

Chinese real estate acquisitions to date have hardly been trophy properties. In December, a Beijing-based performing arts company took ownership of the White House Theatre -- built to look like it belongs on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington instead of in Branson, a popular tourist destination in the Ozarks. The China Heaven Creation International Performing Arts Co. paid $3.5 million in cash for the property, said Pam Critchfield, a marketing consultant for the theater.

In a deal announced in December, Shanghai Jin Jiang International Hotels -- part of a big state-owned company that owns hotels and travel operations in China -- formed a 50-50 joint venture with Thayer Lodging Group of Annapolis, Md., to buy Interstate Hotels & Resorts. Interstate, based in Arlington, Va., manages 232 properties in the United States and elsewhere. Interstate valued the transaction at $307 million.

Chinese companies have learned that allying with partners tends to draw less attention, said Wenran Jiang, a China expert at the University of Alberta who has studied Chinese investments around the globe.

When multiple parties are involved in a deal, he said, the Chinese buyer’s stake gets diluted. “So you can’t report that the Chinese are taking over.”

Clement Tan in Washington and Tommy Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.