Australian Securities Regulators In Policy Quandary

First posted on Commercial Law international on July 1, 2009.

The question that faces Australian securities regulators is what to do about two or more Chinese state owned enterprises together owing substantial shareholdings in an Australian company?

At first blush it would appear that this is a case of China take over fear, however there is much more to the story than this. Indeed, there is a legal/regulatory story here as well. Now I am not trying to say there is or isn’t a China phobia here, it is a given that all nations have their own xenophobic tendency, however I cannot speak on this as I know very little about Australia and what I do know comes from watching Rugby, Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin (may he rest in peace). Moreover, while I am not versed in Australian law, I believe that my legal training and experience thus far permits me an insightful comment or two.

This question has come to the fore because of the increased interest of Chinese companies in Australia´s mineral wealth – this is in fact a global trend and not one peculiar to Australia – just take a look at the recent attempt by Chinalco to increase its stake in Rio Tinto to see my point.

In Australia it isn’t that two or more state entities is per say barred from investing in the same company, as the law currently is, not at all. Then what is the problem, you might ask? The issues here are the concepts of associated entities and substantial shareholdings.

1064543_the_road_aheadYou see in Australia, under their securities regime, two or more entities that are associated – related in some way, namely through ownership and control – that combined own more than 5% of a listed company must declare a substantial shareholding. However, due to a lack of clarity in the law and the absence of a clear policy position the question remains open if two or more Chinese state owned companies would be considered associated and required to declare a substantial shareholding?

The securities regulators face several related sub-problems and they must approach this issue with some degree of sensitively to the political nature of dealing with entities belong to another state. With that in mind regulators have to be cognizant of the fact that they are not dealing with subsidiaries here but foreign state owed companies; state ownership is not equal in all these enterprises; state control is not equal in all these enterprises; and these enterprises while having the same state owner might indeed be fierce competitors with opposing interests.

I do not envy the regulators their task but it will be interesting to watch what if any policy position is developed or if the law is changed to address this issue.