This article was originally published in Policy Magazine, April/May 2013

One of the more surprising aspects of the Harper government over the course of its seven years in power has been the evolution of its stance on foreign direct investment (FDI). While in opposition, the Conservatives mostly advocated a policy of minimal restriction on FDI, but the more nuanced demands of governing tested this policy early. As a result of several high-profile foreign acquisitions and takeover bids, the government has continued to adjust its FDI policy to meet political and economic realities.

Early in its first minority mandate, two major takeovers helped to shape the Harper government’s approach to FDI, as Brazilian-owned Vale acquired Inco and Xstrata plc acquired Falconbridge. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched the Competition Policy Review Panel, chaired by L. R. “Red” Wilson, to review Canada’s competition and foreign investment policies. After lengthy deliberations and away from public debate, the Wilson panel’s central recommendation on investment was a “reverse onus” test. In effect, Wilson artfully suggested that the government avoid the politics of major acquisitions by eliminating the so-called “net benefit” test in the Investment Canada Act and put the onus on government to prove why an acquisition should not be concluded.

The suggestion was ingenious, as Wilson knew that the preference of politicians is to sidestep difficult issues. Wilson had no doubt observed that the existing approval process, with its legislated (and lengthy) review timetables, could force governments to bow to public opinion and media pressure on commercial transactions that they ought to leave to the marketplace to decide.

Tellingly, the recommendation was never adopted. The 2008 global economic meltdown forced government and business to retrench. It wasn’t long before foreign investors like Vale, and most particularly U.S. Steel, which had acquired Stelco in 2007, began to reconsider many of the promises, or “undertakings,” they had made to Investment Canada to secure foreign investment approval. In the past, investors were largely given the benefit of the doubt when it came to responding to market changes. So when the meltdown happened, U.S. Steel promptly closed its Canadian steel production but kept its US facilities open until the market readjusted. It was a rash decision that showed complete disregard for the company’s promises and validated the concerns of those who felt that foreign acquisitions hollowed out head office decision making.

In an unprecedented move, the Canadian government sued U.S. Steel and achieved a favourable settlement. The government had concluded that Canada needed to play by much tougher rules when it came to enforcing the contractual commitments of foreign investors. More generally, it came to the realization that it could not take an entirely “free market” view on foreign investment. And Wilson’s recommendation for a reverse onus policy, made before the 2008 meltdown, was soon forgotten – even as think tanks such as the Conference Board of Canada had successfully demonstrated that the “hollowing out” argument against foreign acquisitions was more perception than reality.

In the summer of 2010, the Anglo-Australian diversified mining giant BHP Billiton made an unsolicited offer for Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PCS). Initial outreach by BHP Billiton to federal decision makers showed the offer for PCS was received positively. Even though the offer was hostile, BHP Billiton promised to establish its global potash headquarters in Canada, relocate its entire Canadian operation to Saskatchewan, spend billions to develop the largest potash mine in the world on the Jansen site, and use the management expertise of PCS to help with the process.

The Prime Minister’s early reaction to the transaction was summed up in his comments in the House of Commons, when he said the fight for Potash Corp. was over “a proposal for an American-controlled company to be taken over by an Australian-controlled company.”

Unfortunately for his government, the transaction grew to be a political liability. While most Potash shareholders were already outside Canada, the conservative government of Saskatchewan quickly came to the “rescue,” citing myriad concerns, from the loss of tax revenue to the lack of dependability of foreign investment undertakings. At a time when every vote counted to Harper’s minority government, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was able to marshal enough political opposition to give the federal government pause.

Opponents of the transaction began to question why Canada was so open to foreign investment when other countries were more protective of locally owned companies. The US, that bastion of free enterprise, had just blocked the sale of a string of US ports to a United Arab Emirates-owned enterprise, as well as the acquisition of Unocal by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Australia itself had blocked the sale of Woodside Petroleum to Shell Oil. So why was Canada being so naïve in allowing this transaction to take place, particularly in an industry where Canada is a world leader? We had allowed “our” ownership of nickel, iron ore, and aluminum companies to slip away, and allowing BHP Billiton to buy PCS would have given the Australian concern control of 70 percent of the world’s potash production. At least, that’s how the argument went.

Less hysterical observers noted that the resources were not actually sold, but remained provincially owned and regulated. But in the world of politics, perception matters more, and the federal government was not going to spend any political capital explaining this to the public when the politics was with “the crowd.” Rejecting the application, despite unprecedented economic and other commitments, soon became the expedient decision.

Out of this debate emerged an attitude that has become a tenet of public policy in the approval process, despite having no legal basis in the Investment Canada Act: namely, an inherent skepticism about the benefits of acquisitions of Canadian companies that have strategically significant industry positions globally. Jason Kenney, the man who led the internal opposition to last year’s $19-billion acquisition of Nexen, Inc. by CNOOC, said as much when he stated in December 2012 that “I make no bones about it… I have concerns about wanting to ensure that foreign governments do not directly or indirectly end up with a disproportionate control of key Canadian industries, or large parts of the Canadian economy.” Not surprisingly, the CNOOC/Nexen deal has created a whole new test around foreign investment even though, like the BHP Billiton bid for PCS, the initial reaction to the bid was positive. For CNOOC’s limited entry into Canada raised the stakes aboutstate-owned enterprises (SOEs) controlling a significant part of our economy.

CNOOC had studied the BHP Billiton case well, and learned from its own Unocal mistakes in the US in 2005. It came with a friendly deal for Nexen, premium-priced for shareholders and with significant commitments to the Canadian government, including the full retention of Nexen employees and management, establishment of a North American headquarters, and a public listing on the TSX – a significant concession designed to clearly meet SOE guidelines introduced by the government in 2008. These guidelines stressed the transparency of reporting and the commercial operations of the investment. The government had correctly anticipated the next wave of foreign investment; indeed, the guidelines represent one of the few occasions where the government anticipated a policy requirement rather than being forced by events into preparing one.

The CNOOC transaction was crafted to meet the “net benefit” test and existing SOE guidelines, and was the first major investment by a Chinese company since Prime Minister Harper travelled to China and announced that Canada was “open for business.” But as time went on, the federal government’s support for the deal began to erode. Concerns soon arose from conservative quarters about a Chinese government-controlled company paying a premium for a publicly traded Canadian company. Opinion polls show that acquisitions of Canadian companies by foreign ones are never broadly supported by the public, but an acquisition by a company owned in part by the Chinese government was particularly problematic. An Ipsos poll for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives last September found that while Canadians were generally in favour of foreign investment, 76 percent of respondents were concerned about ownership of the resource.

Ultimately, the government allowed the deal to proceed because it met its legislative and SOE test, but the transaction resulted in further refinement of the approval test, as it brought total Chinese investment in the oil sands to above 10 percent of production, and total SOE investment, including the OECD-based Statoil and Total, above 20 percent. As the PM said when announcing the approval of the CNOOC/Nexen deal: “To be blunt, Canadians have not spent years reducing the ownership of sectors of the economy by our own governments, only to see them bought and controlled by foreign governments instead.” The government then announced it would restrict further SOE investment in the strategically important oil sands, except under “extraordinary circumstances.” Harper also said: “When we say that Canada is open for business, we do not mean that Canada is for sale.”

Simultaneously announcing approval of the $5.2 billion takeover of Progress Energy Resources by Petronas of Malaysia, the PM pointedly added: “It is important that Canadian and also foreign investors understand that this is not the beginning of a trend but rather the end of a trend.”

Much speculation has gone into what “extraordinary” means, with critics trying to anticipate the loopholes, but this misses the point. What is really significant is that the oil sands, like potash, are now (at least informally) designated as a strategically important asset. The CNOOC/Nexen transaction affected only three percent of oil sands output and has no strategic significance on production, but the concern was more for the precedent it set for possible future acquisitions of larger Canadian companies like Encana, Canadian Natural Resources, or Suncor.
So what lessons can we learn from this unpredictable evolution in Canadian investment policy? First, each transaction must be assessed as a separate event. The Investment Canada Act sets out some specific criteria that can offer guidance but there are no clear rules on whether these transactions will be approved. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Retaining some flexibility is important for government because it is impossible to anticipate all the implications of future transactions. That said, the process has become very political, and companies investing in Canada must manage on that basis.

Second, don’t be confused by the Harper government’s “Conservative Party” label. This is not a government driven by ideology. As the Prime Minister has said, “Practical government rarely permits such simplicity”. The Harper government is highly attuned to public opinion and will not turn a blind eye to a foreign acquisition if it has an impact on its own popularity. Some sort of risk mitigation for the government’s own interests will likely be required for any potentially controversial transaction. Third, the government is increasingly defining its economic policy in terms of the national interest, and all of its actions need to be seen in light of whether the country’s wealth and power are enhanced. If an acquisition were to seriously erode the national interest in a particular industry sector, expect the government to be very skeptical.

Fourth, no major takeover can expect to be approved without significant attention to the provinces. Support from Alberta helped CNOOC in Ottawa while opposition from Quebec short-circuited any formal application from Lowe’s when it was contemplating a hostile offer for Rona, the Quebec-based Canadian retail hardware chain.

Fifth, any acquisition of a significant brand or operation that is likely to gain public attention could well trigger a policy backlash. This risk exists whether the acquirer is private or government-owned, but it certainly increases with the amount of government ownership in an SOE in concert with the size of the investment target and the diversity of its shareholder base.

Finally, there is no substitute for being prepared. Political risk transactions need to be assessed well in advance of any announcement date, with government relations and communications planning and preparation for decision makers and stakeholders. An Investment Canada outline of a package needs to be designed and in all probability the framework announced when public communications commence in order to mitigate political fallout.

Canada will continue to be an open economy and to encourage foreign investment. As Harper himself said after the decision regarding BHP, “No one should doubt this government’s policy … that, generally speaking, foreign investment is in the interests of the Canadian economy.” That said, the days of the slogan “open for business” are over where control of significant Canadian companies is at stake. In these uncertain economic times, the current government’s assessment of its own interests and the Canadian national interest will be the norm going forward. Foreign investors would be wise to study the evolution in Canada’s investment policy and to do a formal political risk assessment before entering into talks with a Canadian target company.
The government has come a long way from the Wilson task force. Each new acquisition will likely write a new chapter in this unpredictable evolution of Canada’s investment policy.