Hamish McRae: How foreign buyers can prove a boon for British businesses

Economic View

So the Chinese are to buy Sunseeker, the yacht-builders of Poole. If you do not follow this sort of stuff, all you need to know is that you can see their product line in four Bond movies including Quantum of Solace, which actually features three of them. For those of us who potter about in a Mirror dingy, this is top-end indeed.

It is a fascinating story at several levels. It shows how you can build a real business in Britain by making things.

Back in the 1970s Sunseeker was making rather sweet, little 17-footer launches, and was persuaded to start building rather larger and sleeker ones. Gradually, as most of the British shipbuilding industry was disappearing, it grew into what is now one of the top luxury yacht-builders in the world, along in Britain with Fairline, Princess and a few others.

It shows that top-end craft manufacturing is not just alive and well; it is one of the areas of economic competition where the UK has a clear advantage.

Another aspect of the story, noted in these columns before, is that luxury is a big business, particularly for Europe.

We don't know what the next generation of rich people – most of whom are living in the emerging markets – will ultimately want to do with their wealth. But for the time being at least they seem to want to do much the same as the previous generation, and yachts, racehorses and private jets come pretty high up the scale.

Even so, from a UK perspective, the boom in foreign investment in British companies raises a huge question. Basically, are we wise to be selling so many of our companies to foreigners? It is a deceptively simple query.

For a start it presumes that we could stop it, which would be difficult. We should remember, too, that we earn much more from our foreign investments than we pay out to foreign investors in the UK, earnings which go a long way towards covering our deficit in manufactured goods.

But it also goes to the heart of the debate about our attitudes to globalisation. The UK is about the most open market in the world to foreign investment. To what extent are we really benefiting from that and to what extent are we being taken for a ride?

There used to be a rather crude rule of thumb that inward direct investment was generally to be welcomed but other forms of investment were to be regarded more cautiously. So if a company wanted to build a factory here, we not only rolled out the red carpet and got the local MP to open the plant; we also gave it large grants to set up here rather than somewhere else.

By contrast, foreign takeovers of existing companies, which in the first instance at least did not result in any new factories, were more suspect.

I think that has changed somewhat. We learnt the hard way that foreign factories built with taxpayers' money often were the first to be shut when times grew hard and in some cases the project barely got off the ground. Think of DeLorean. On the other hand, some foreign purchases of existing British companies have proved very successful, of which the most recent example in that same field is Tata's purchase of Jaguar Land Rover.

So I think the argument now is more nuanced. Where an investment, whatever its form, brings in good management, it brings big benefits to both sides.

But where the investment is in some way artificial – for example it only happens because of a taxpayer subsidy – then it should be regarded with more suspicion. I am afraid we need to see taxpayer-supported foreign investment in nuclear power plants in that light. Besides, it is hard to know in advance whether any particular investment is going to be successful. Again go back to Jaguar Land Rover.

Rationally, ownership by a great US car firm, Ford, and a great German one, BMW, would bring certain success. Rationally, ownership by an Indian manufacturer with no experience of luxury-car production was likely to fail.

But quite the reverse happened and now it is China's turn. We are in the second stage of China establishing an overseas commercial empire. The first stage was ensuring access to raw materials, notably in Africa and other parts of the emerging world. That will continue and develop, taking on new directions. Access to food supplies will become more important.

The next stage, still just beginning, will be acquiring assets in the developed world, and that brings up the great question of what do you do? How do you avoid being ripped off? Can you really add value? Will you be blocked?

Here China is on a learning curve. The Sunseeker bid is actually quite an easy one for both sides. From a Chinese perspective the company produces the iconic products to which the Chinese rich aspire.

Even if this turns out to be a vanity purchase, and I don't think it will be, it will bring improved access to Asian markets and that alone would be enough to justify the deal.

From a UK perspective, there is unlikely to be much push-back, as there was for example in the case of Kraft buying Cadbury.

Most of Sunseeker's yachts were exported and our experience of foreign ownership of UK luxury brands has been pretty positive.

There will, however, be more difficult ones ahead. The great wall of Chinese money is about to hit us. Why keep your money in depreciating US dollar bonds, which give you a minimal return, when you can buy real assets out of which, managed wisely, you can make a lot of money – and in this particular instance also have a lot of fun?

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