By the normal standards of U.S. national security, the government’s ruling on Tuesday to delay and potentially derail the acquisition of high-tech company Qualcomm by the Singaporean company Broadcom was startlingly smart and gobsmackingly wonderful.
It was smart because it extended its definition of U.S. security interests to maintaining our advantage in the development of the most advanced forms of technology, in this case, the 5G communications systems that will be critical to both driverless cars and network security in coming decades. The government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS for short) wrote that it feared that if Qualcomm, the nation’s leading developer of 5G technology, were purchased by Broadcom, its research would suffer and a Chinese high-tech company, Huawei, would likely surge past it to become the global leader in security technology.
In the past, CFIUS has blocked several Huawei attempts to purchase U.S. tech companies because they would have involved the transfer of security-related technology to a company that CFIUS has demonstrated has ties to the Chinese military. CFIUS—an interagency committee headed by the Treasury Department, but also consisting of more than a dozen departments and agencies, ranging from Defense to Commerce—is in the business of ruling on potential foreign purchases of U.S. companies that have national security implications. Tuesday’s ruling was groundbreaking in that the issue wasn’t whether Singapore’s Broadcom itself posed a security risk by favoring the Chinese—nothing in the CFIUS letter even hinted at that—but rather, that the purchase might simply reduce Qualcomm’s capacity to conduct high-end research, thereby enabling Huawei and the Chinese to develop advanced technology before we do, which could give them a military advantage.
But why would Qualcomm’s purchase by Broadcom diminish Qualcomm’s commitment to research? This is the gobsmacking part of the CFIUS letter.
Because, in the words of the letter, “Broadcom’s statements indicate that it is looking to take a ‘private-equity’-style direction if it acquires Qualcomm, which means reducing long-term investment, such as R&D, and focusing on short-term profitability.”
Let that sink in for a moment. The staffers of CFIUS—probably the most business- and security-savvy civil servants in the government, headed by those at Treasury—are saying that the private-equity control of companies, which is a dominant feature of current American capitalism, reduces investment and results in profit extraction. CFIUS does not go on to say that the purchase of U.S. companies not only by foreign companies but by U.S. private equity firms, too, also leads to reduced investments and the kind of profit extraction that has enriched the 1 percent at the expense of other Americans; that’s not CFIUS’s mission. But having baldly stated that private equity leads to profit extraction, that’s the inescapable conclusion that any reader of CFIUS’s letter must reach.
The CFIUS letter goes on to specify the way in which Broadcom follows the private equity model of purchasing companies by taking on debt, and paying off that debt by reducing expenditures and funneling revenue into profits. “Broadcom has lined up $106 billion of debt financing to support the Qualcomm acquisition,” CFIUS writes, “which would be the largest corporate acquisition loan on record. This debt load could increase pressure for short-term profitability, potentially to the detriment of longer-term investments. The volume of recent acquisitions by Broadcom has increased the company’s profits and market capitalization, but these acquisitions have been followed by reductions in R&D investment.”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s unimaginable that Donald Trump’s Treasury Department, headed by Wall Street’s own Steve Mnuchin, would say that private equity diverts the resources of American companies away from investment and wages and into profits instead. One of Trump’s strongest backers from finance, after all, is Stephen Schwarzman, who heads the giant Blackstone private equity group. But the dedicated sleuths and analysts (headed by Treasury) at CFIUS, charged with protecting national security, have felt compelled to note that the private equity model of capitalism—a model whose profit-extraction priorities now characterize a major share of American enterprises, be they private-equity or not—inherently leads to underinvestment and funneling revenues to profits instead (that is, to further enriching the rich).
An honest and accurate assessment of the 21st-century American economy! Bless you, CFIUS. Keep at it!