Outlook: Free trade is the real loser from the LSE's misfortune

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The Independent Online

In the story of the London Stock Exchange's aborted merger with Canada's TMX, the short-term loser is the embattled Xavier Rolet, whose failure to pull off this deal could cost the LSE its independence (and thus lose him his job). The winner, meanwhile, is Dwight Duncan, the finance minister of Ontario, who made his opposition to the merger of TMX and the LSE clear from the moment the deal was announced.

It is now clear the LSE played its cards pretty ineptly. Although the deal was portrayed as a merger, it was always obvious who would be the senior partner. That left many Canadians feeling uncomfortable about the deal even before a rival proposal emerged. To make matters worse, Maple's arrival appeared to catch the LSE by surprise, and its subsequent efforts to explain away its opponent's more valuable bid as not properly funded were not convincing. The sweetener announced last week was too little, too late and smacked of desperation.

All that said, the embarrassment of the LSE over this episode is a parochial concern relative to the weighty questions it prompts about free trade and protectionism. This is the second major international transaction involving a Canadian company that has been derailed this year. The collapse of the LSE's merger with TMX follows the reverse suffered by BHP Billiton in its pursuit of the Potash Corporation. In both cases, it was Canadian concern about losing control of domestic assets that motivated opponents of the transactions.

Nor is Canada alone in acting on such anxieties. Australia, for example, has just vetoed a merger between its stock exchange and the bourse in Singapore.

Are we seeing a backlash to the dominant economic trend of recent years – the move towards globalisation and trade liberalisation? If so, the danger is of a spiral, in which countries aggrieved by the actions of the likes of Canada and Australia rebuild their own trade barriers.

Many of the world's leading economies, particularly in the West, are enduring a loss of confidence as they try to bounce back from the financial crisis. In that context, the temptation to put up the shutters is understandable.

It is still a mistake, however. All the evidence is that free trade and economic growth go hand in hand: look, for example, at the growth rates achieved by China and India as they have opened their economies to the world over the past two decades.

Is it fair to expect Mr Duncan – who described Maple Group as "Canadian patriots" – to see the bigger picture as he juggles the demands of domestic politics? Maybe not, but in the long run Canadians will be losers too if the worldsuccumbs to protectionism.

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