Sunday, August 28, 2016
Short answer: because we prefer our material standard of living to go up, not down.
This week an Essential poll revealed the full extent of the public's reservations about foreign investment. Foreign investment in mining was regarded as "bad for the economy" by 28 per cent of respondents.
For investment in ports it was 37 per cent and for investment in agriculture it was 44 per cent. For investment in infrastructure such as electricity it was 45 per cent and for investment in real estate it was 54 per cent.
The most opposed to foreign investment were voters for minor parties such as One Nation and the Xenophones, but Greens voters weren't far behind. Then came Labor voters and, finally, voters for the Coalition.
But even among Coalition supporters there were almost always more saying it was bad than saying it was good.
When you remember that our level of material prosperity has been dependent on foreign investment since the arrival of the First Fleet, it's a wonder so few punters can join the dots.
Viewed through economic eyes, the First Fleet was just the arrival in this country of its first foreign investor, in boats laden with labour, materials and supplies, intent on getting a new subsidiary going.
There were a lot of imports with, on the other side of the transaction, an inflow of foreign capital owned by the British government.
The term's gone out of fashion, but since white settlement Australia has always been a "capital-importing country".
To develop a country economically you need lots of money - known here as financial capital - to pay for all the construction and equipment, known as physical capital. Where does this money come from? Someone has to save it by not consuming all their income.
Ideally, all the savings necessary to finance the economic development of our country would come from Australians. Then we'd own everything ourselves and all the profits would belong to us.
But we've always had a small population relative to the huge opportunities to farm our land, exploit our untold mineral wealth and develop our economy in many other respects, such as making ourselves an attractive destination for tourists and university students.
So, from the beginning, we've always invited foreigners to bring their savings to Australia and help us develop our economy much faster than we could if we relied solely on our own savings. That's what makes us a capital-importing country.
The attraction to the foreigners is that they own the businesses they build and keep the profits they make.
The attraction to us is we get a bigger economy than we otherwise would. The foreign firms provide a lot of employment for Aussies, buy a lot of their supplies from local businesses and, of course, pay tax to our government on their profits.
That's always been the deal. Had we kept the foreigners out, our economy and population would now be much smaller than they are and, in consequence, our standard of living would be much lower than it is.
At first the foreigners most willing to invest in Oz were the Brits. Then it was the Americans, then for a few decades the Japanese, and now the Chinese.
I'm old enough to remember when it was American investment that people objected to when we first started worrying about "selling off the farm".
But when the Japanese economy was riding high in the 1970s and '80s, and Japan began looking for profitable investments here, I remember how much the farmers carried on. They thought Japanese feed lots were the beginning of the end of Oz.
The Japanese came and stayed and eventually the farmers realised they were no threat. But now it's the Chinese, and farmers are back to manning the barricades. They're going to dig up our farms and take them back to China.
You know they will because their skin's a different colour. Or maybe they'll sabotage the communications and power networks they now own, just before they invade us.
The globalisation of financial markets has made it much easier for money to move between countries and thus complicated the picture I've just described.
These days, we can borrow foreigners' savings, not just let them set up new businesses here. And it's easier to sell them existing businesses.
It's easier for foreigners to buy some shares in listed Australian companies (known as "portfolio investment") rather than acquiring a controlling interest in a new or existing business ("foreign direct investment").
Before globalisation, countries tended to be either owners of many foreign businesses ("equity capital") or to have a lot of their businesses owned by foreigners. They either owed a lot of money ("debt capital") to foreigners or foreigners owed them a lot of money.
These days, every country does a lot of both. At March this year, we owed $2126 billion to foreigners, while foreigners owed us $1098 billion, leaving us with net foreign debt of $1028 billion.
Foreigners had equity investments in Oz worth $996 billion, while we had equity investments in other countries worth $1012 billion, leaving us with net foreign equity assets of $16 billion. You read that right.
But if this makes you think we'd be better off borrowing all the savings we need rather than selling off the farm, remember this final complication: foreign direct investors in Australian businesses don't just bring their savings, they also bring their managerial skills and often their more advanced technology, which Australian workers learn to use and then take on to local businesses.
And in this ever more integrated world, foreign investment and international trade tend to go together. Going for trade without investment is another way to be poorer than necessary.