Chinese auto parts titan Wanxiang has won a bid for bankrupt A123 Systems Inc. and its clean energy battery tech – this is an interesting potential acquisition in the world of clean energy investment, yet to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), involving Chinese capital and de-valued U.S. assets, a pattern which we should get used to seeing.
Such high-profile instances of Chinese or other foreign investors acquiring U.S. companies are always politically charged in a domestic context, and for the American public. The real argument at stake is where the U.S. government should draw the line regarding foreign investment in government funded (taxpayer) enterprises. While the government business/contracts have already been carved out limiting security risks, on the other hand, the U.S. taxpayer has already been tapped for around $130M of A123’s awarded $249M U.S. grant. According to the New York Times, “the bankrupt American battery maker… was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s loan program for electric vehicles.”
One can argue that these are sunk costs, but do U.S. taxpayers want to cut their losses in clean energy investment, or see their interests through by allowing a U.S. enterprise (i.e. Johnson Controls) to acquire A123? These are difficult and heavily politicized questions that linger, even as Wanxiang prepares to strategically expand: This clean energy investment will allow it to further capture market share in lithium ion batteries for automotive applications.
While Chinese firms like Wanxiang surge ahead, unfortunately for the time being in the U.S., the promises of job creation, innovation and national economic growth through clean energy investment continue to be pipe dreams. As any venture capital investor will tell you, the hit rate for winners is low, but hopefully in the future the U.S. can back one and hit a grand slam.
As of Tuesday, the federal bankruptcy judge had approved the sale of A123’s assets, but CFIUS still needs to weigh in.