Germany to create fund to foil foreign takeovers after China moves

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Staff members of the booth of Kuka watch the “Smart Factory” during the Hanover Fair 2018. In 2016, a Chinese company took over Kuka. Xinhua

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany plans to pass legislation by the end of 2019 to create a state-owned fund that can protect key companies from takeovers by Chinese and other foreign firms, government sources said, in a marked shift from its “hands-off” approach to business.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier proposed the fund in February as part of a more defensive industrial strategy and three officials told Reuters the government was now working on draft laws so the fund could be up and running next year.

Two senior government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the idea was for the state-owned investment fund to work with the private sector when buying company stakes to foil unwelcome takeovers.

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One official said the state could buy a stake initially and then sell it on as soon as possible to private investors while the other official said in some cases the fund could work with private investors from the start.

“In the past, Germany was too reluctant to define its national interests. This is changing now,” the first government official said.

“We see that we cannot lean back anymore and let everything be decided by the free play of market forces,” he said. “And this means more protection from the state.”

Long an ardent advocate of free markets, Germany’s move is a response to China’s state-driven metamorphosis from customer to competitor and US President Donald Trump’s threats of unilateral trade sanctions and higher tariffs, the sources said.

For decades, German politicians followed the “ordoliberal” principles of post-war economy minister Ludwig Erhard who said free markets should decide winners and losers, with the state only providing a framework for fair competition.

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The German move also comes at a time the European Union as a whole is reconsidering the bloc’s industrial strategy and relations to China in the face of increased investment in critical sectors by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

The European Commission has urged the bloc to back its ideas to curb Chinese companies and EU leaders are due to discuss the issue at a summit in Brussels this week.

In Germany, the Chinese takeover of robotics maker Kuka in 2016 was the wake-up call for the government that underlined the urgency for the state to become more active, the officials said.

An attempt by China’s State Grid last year to buy a stake in power grid operator 50Hertz also focused German minds. After Berlin failed to find an alternative private investor in Europe, German state-owned bank KfW.

That’s why the German government is now aiming to pass new laws creating the investment fund by the end of the year so it can be ready for use in 2020, the first official told Reuters.

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“Ideally, there will be stake acquisitions together with private investors,” the official said, adding that Berlin had no plans to intervene in daily business decisions. “It’s not about the state becoming entrepreneurial.”

The state-owned fund could be managed by KfW, or be an altogether new entity empowered to hold company shareholdings, the second official said.

The plan goes hand in hand with a decision by the government in December to lower the threshold for screening, and even blocking, purchases of stakes in German firms in strategic areas by non-European investors.

An economy ministry spokesman said investment by the state fund would be limited to “very exceptional cases” and stakes would only be bought for a restricted period.

Such cases would mainly involve the protection of critical infrastructure where the government viewed a non-European investor as a threat to Germany’s national interests, the ministry spokesman said.

“The idea and its possible implementation are being discussed now in the further process of the industrial strategy,” said the spokesman, who declined to comment on the fund’s expected size.

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