China Oil Deal: Pols Stay Away!

What's all the fuss? An energy company based in Hong Kong called CNOOC, Ltd.--small by international standards--a few weeks ago bid $18.5 billion in cash to buy another small energy company, Unocal, based in California. The bid was nearly $2 billion higher than a previous offer for Unocal by Chevron, a larger U.S.-based firm.

It's a straightforward transaction--one of dozens of billion-plus deals each year that involve global corporations. But it has ignited a storm of controversy.

The House of Representatives voted to deny the Treasury Department any funds that might be used to recommend approval of the offer and then passed a resolution that asked President Bush to review the deal. A co-sponsor of that resolution, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called CNOOC a "front company for the Chinese communist government."

It's true that 71 percent of the company is owned by China National Offshore Oil Corp., which is controlled by the Chinese government. But it's also true that CNOOC, Ltd., is capitalist enough to list its stock on the New York Stock Exchange as American Depositary Shares.

Should Americans worry that the Chinese want to buy one of our energy companies? Absolutely not. What we should worry about is the intervention of politicians into areas that are none of their business.

Unocal shareholders will be big winners (their stock is already up more than 50 percent in the past six months), and they can recycle the money the Chinese pay them into other U.S. investments--or buy a new Cadillac, for that matter.

CNOOC shareholders are another matter. Does it really make sense to spend all that money on an energy company when oil prices are at an all-time high? Buying low is usually a smarter strategy.

It appears that the Chinese want to purchase Unocal to secure future energy supplies. China is gulping huge quantities of oil and gas to keep its economy growing at 9 percent, so its leaders want to be sure of meeting needs down the road.

That's the logic of central planners, but it makes little sense in a global market. While some of Unocal's reserves are in the United States, the majority is spread around the globe, in countries like Bangladesh, Congo, and Indonesia, where political uncertainties mean that supply can be disrupted any time.

Also, China doesn't have to own an oil company to get its oil--any more than a taxi company needs to own an automaker to get its autos. Oil is fungible--it's a commodity the same the world over--and sellers abound.

The Chinese economy has performed exceptionally well in recent years, but government leaders can't resist the urge to direct it--to allocate capital for reasons that have little to do with sound business judgment. That may be happening here.

Of course, U.S. politicians have the same disease. They, too, are stepping in where they don't belong, and, for that reason, you can hardly blame the Chinese. They hear the bleating of protectionists on Capitol Hill and think, "Americans may want to deny us oil years from now, so let's move quickly to secure it while we can."

But there is no reason for the United States to fear CNOOC's bid. Opponents should be ashamed of themselves. China's economy is roughly the same size as Italy's and less than one-sixth the size of our own. As for national security, Unocal has just 2 billion barrels of proven reserves compared, for example, with 8 billion for Chevron. Why are we quaking when a little Chinese company wants to acquire a little American one? (By the way, the Chinese company says, quite logically, that it will continue to sell Unocal's U.S.-produced oil and gas in the United States, where it's right nearby.)

China's acquisition of Unocal's assets will almost certainly lead to more exploration (especially in the Gulf of Mexico and off Indonesia), and that increase in supply should lower gasoline prices at the American pump and electricity-generating costs at U.S. utilities. Still, there are no guarantees. CNOOC may hit dry holes.

All that's certain is this lesson, which applies both to China and America: Pols should stay away. Let managers and shareholders make their own choices, based on sound business judgment, not on fear, jingoism or just bad economics.

James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at the AEI.

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About the Author


James K.
  • James K. Glassman is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Internet and communications policy in the new AEI Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy.

    A scholar, diplomat, and journalist, Glassman rejoins AEI after having served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, during which time he led America’s public diplomacy outreach and inaugurated the use of new Internet technology in these efforts, an approach he christened “public diplomacy 2.0.” He was also chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all US government nonmilitary international broadcasting. Most recently, Glassman was instrumental in the creation of the George W. Bush Institute, where he remains the founding executive director.

    Before his government service, Glassman was a senior fellow at AEI, where he specialized in economics and technology and founded The American, AEI’s magazine, which he led as editor-in-chief until his departure from AEI in 2007.

    In addition to his government service, Glassman was a former president of The Atlantic, publisher of The New Republic, executive vice president of US News & World Report, and editor-in-chief and co-owner of Roll Call. As a columnist for The Washington Post, Glassman wrote about political and economic issues. He was also the host of CNN’s “Capital Gang Sunday” and of PBS’s “TechnoPolitics.” In 2000, he cofounded TCS, a technology and policy website. His most recent book is “The Secret Code of the Superior Investor” (Crown Forum).

    Glassman has a B.A. in government from Harvard College where he was a managing editor of The Crimson.


  • Email: [email protected]

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