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Fight over control of ports spurs debate about foreign ownership

Monday, March 20, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The furor over efforts by an Arab company to buy U.S. port operations has focused attention on a little noticed economic fact of life: America increasingly is foreign-owned.

From the ritzy Essex House hotel in Manhattan, owned by the Dubai Investment Group, to the nationwide chains of Caribou Coffee and Church's Chicken, owned by another company serving Arab investors, foreigners are buying bigger and bigger chunks of the country.

The U.S. must borrow more than $2 billion per day from foreigners to finance its huge trade deficits. In 2005, for example, there was a record deficit of $805 billion in the current account, the broadest measure of trade.

Foreigners sell their televisions, cars and oil to Americans and hold dollars in return. Those dollars are invested in stocks, bonds and other assets, including real estate and factories.

Foreigners already own half of the U.S. government's publicly traded debt. As of January, some $2.19 trillion in Treasury securities were in the hands of central banks, including China and Japan, and private investors abroad.

At the end of 2004, the total foreign direct investment in this country -- actual factories, office buildings and other tangible assets as opposed to stocks and bonds -- came to $1.53 trillion, 8.2 percent more than in 2003.

That investment shows up in all of the 50 states.

In Oakland, Maine, it's a customer service center for T-Mobile USA Inc., which is a subsidiary of German-based Deutsche Telekom. In Glendale, Calif., it's the U.S. headquarters for Nestle, the Swiss-based food and beverage company.

Arab investment has gotten the most scrutiny of late because of the now-withdrawn bid by a Dubai-based company to buy operations at six major U.S. ports. But statistics show that Arab investments represent only a a fraction of the total direct investment in the U.S. by foreigners.

European nations accounted for $977 billion, or two-thirds, of the $1.53 trillion of foreign direct investment, according to figures compiled by the Commerce Department.

By contrast, Arab countries in the Middle East accounted for $9.3 billion, led by $4.7 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates was second among Middle East Arab countries with $1.8 billion in investments, according to the data.

DP World of Dubai said last week it intends to sell its U.S. operations to an American-owned company. But that has not stopped some members of Congress from seeking to overhaul the way such deals are reviewed by a secretive government panel.

A bill by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, would bar foreign ownership of U.S. infrastructure deemed critical to the national security.

"To those who say this is protectionism, I say -- America is worth protecting," Hunter said.

Opponents say his proposal would mean the fire sale of billions of dollars of assets now in foreign hands and end up hurting the U.S. economy.

Consider that for more than a decade, French tire maker Michelin has been the exclusive supplier of tires for NASA's space shuttles. DSM, a Dutch company, makes body armor for U.S. troops, while French-owned Sodexho provides meals for the troops at a number of military installations.

Nearly one in five U.S. oil refineries is owned by foreign companies. Foreign companies also have a sizable presence in running power plants, chemical factories and water treatment facilities in the United States.

"People don't understand how integrated the U.S. economy has become with the global economy, how dependent we have become on other nations," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Some analysts believe such realities are getting lost as politicians try to respond to growing anxiety about the trade deficits, the loss of nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs since mid-2000, immigration problems and the threat of more terrorist attacks.

"We have to be very careful that we don't overreact in the legislative process and enact economic policy masquerading as national security policy," said Todd Malan, head of the Organization for International Investment. The Washington group represents foreign companies that do business in the United States.

To the puzzlement of some economists, the current debate centers on direct foreign investment, the most stable type of investment. Yet the far larger share of foreign investment is in Treasury securities, corporate bonds and stocks.

If foreigners suddenly decided to reduce their holdings of these assets, the dollar could plunge in value, interest rates could soar and stock prices could suffer a big blow.

David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York, cited the 51 percent share of foreign ownership of the federal government's debt -- and that share is rising.

"That strikes me as scary," Wyss said. "When you make yourself so dependent on inflows of capital from the rest of the world, the question is what happens if the inflows slow down."

The amount of federal debt that must be financed each year is climbing because of the budget deficits. On Thursday, Congress acted to raise the debt ceiling -- the amount the government can borrow -- by $781 billion, to nearly $9 trillion.

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said last year he believed market forces would lower the current account deficit before there were serious disruptions to the economy.

A decline in the value of the dollar against other currencies, including China's, would help by making U.S. goods more competitive on overseas markets and imports more expensive and thus less attractive for American consumers.

Falling global energy prices and stronger overseas economic growth to boost demand for U.S. exports would also help.

"A lot of things will have to come together" to reduce America's need for foreign capital, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.


On the Net:

Bureau of Economic Analysis: http://www.bea.gov

Organization for International Investment: http://www.ofii.org


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