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China Moves From U.S. Treasuries to Foreign Direct Investments

The recent news that China dumped $34.2 billion in U.S. Treasuries in December hardly made a splash, but L.A. Times writer Don Lee wondered what China did with all that extra cash. He found that it was investing the money in private companies throughout the world. China poured $43.3 billion into foreign direct investments in 2009 and, according to U.S. Treasury figures, it actually shed $45.1 billion in U.S. Treasuries in the last half of 2009.

Not that China’s private investments were primarily American: Experts estimate that, while China bought stock in everything from a theater in Branson, Mo., to Coca-Cola, its total direct investments in the U.S. in 2009 ranged between $3.9 and 6.4 billion. That amounts to a total of about 3 percent of all the foreign direct investment in the United States in 2009.

China’s foreign direct investments have cost it in the past: The political fallout from an attempt by the state oil company to buy Unocal in 2005 met with stiff resistance (and ultimately failure) in Washington; an effort to buy into American financial services companies thereafter led to massive losses in 2008. Now the Chinese are buying up newly cheap real estate. But rather than court the negative attention received by Japanese real estate investors in the 1980s, Chinese investors are focusing on stock purchases and less prominent properties while partnering with American companies, according to Lee. Whether an increasingly protectionist American populace feels better about a Chinese-owned factory than a Japanese-owned real estate landmark, however, remains to be seen.

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