One of Britain’s last great independent companies has agreed to sell itself to China.
The 137-year-old London Metal Exchange (lme) has agreed to a $2.19 billion takeover from the Chinese state-controlled Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEx).
If the deal goes through, the London Metal Exchange’s largest shareholders—JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Barclays—will reap big profits. But once sold, Britain will never again recoup the world’s most strategic metals exchange.
Although the lme was officially founded in 1877, its actual origins can be traced all the way back to 1571 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth i. Back then, traders bought and sold physical metal for the domestic market. But as Britain grew in global importance and rich metal deposits of tin and copper were found, it soon became both a major importer and exporter of industrial metals.
By the 1800s, with Britain’s empire fueling large portions of the global trade in metals, the lme became the global market place, not only matching buyers with sellers, but setting the price for virtually all major non-ferrous metals. Whether you were a Frenchman in need of tin, a Russian trying to sell zinc, or a Malaysian looking for a copper market, you probably went to London to do business.
Even today, lme handles approximately 80 percent of all non-ferrous metals contracts. All told, it manages $11.6 trillion worth of trade annually.
The lme was considered the crown jewel of the metals market because it sets global benchmark prices for the six major base metals. Its vast distribution network with storage facilities around the world plays a pivotal role in global trade.
lme board member Michael Overlander was in the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing House when the deal was announced. “I’m here in the reception and it’s buzzing in there, people are congratulating each other and slapping each other on the back,” he told Reuters by phone. “They really think they have got themselves a jewel in the crown.”
Overlander is right. China has captured a one-of-a-kind crown jewel. The lme was one of those companies that helped Britain punch above its geopolitical weight class.
Some analysts claim that the Anglo owners were justified in their sale. The new Chinese owners vastly overpaid. The lme made only $12 million in profit last year. That implies an astronomical price-to-earnings ratio of 183. The new Chinese owners will need 183 years’ worth of profits to make their money back.
But there is a reason the Chinese government was willing to pay so much. It wasn’t out of the goodness of its heart that it decided to lavish billions on lme’s previous owners.
China consumes approximately 42 percent of the world’s non-ferrous base metal production. Lead, zinc, copper, tin, aluminum, nickel—more than 4 out of every 10 tons goes to China. You can be sure the Chinese government will know exactly how to exploit lme’s gold mine of data.
The Chinese government will soon know exactly who is purchasing what from whom. It will know how much is being paid. It will be able to determine who has pricing power—who will need to come to the market and when to make purchases. There are literally thousands of ways the Chinese government will be able to rig the market in favor of its many state-owned metal importers, merchant banks and investment funds.
And China has shown that it is willing to manipulate markets. It is well documented that it regularly manipulates its virtual monopoly of rare earth minerals for political and economic gain.
China knows the geopolitical value of strategic enterprises. Britain will never be able to buy the exchange back even if it wanted to. Foreigners are not allowed to buy more than a 5 percent interest in Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing without the government’s consent. Fat chance of that happening. Three years ago, the lme tried to open a branch office in China—but Beijing banned it. Yet Britain is willing to stand idly by and let one of its last great companies be sold to China.
“We are handing over strategically crucial assets that are part of global trade’s infrastructure, and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever—there’s no way Hong Kong or Beijing will allow them to be surrendered again,” writes the Telegraph’s Damian Reece. Britain’s “short-term gain on a financial level is also a long-term loss at a more profound level,” he says.
Like a lamb being led to slaughter, London has surrendered the Metal Exchange. Reece continues:
The lme’s success took London 135 years to create. But its control has now gone to a place from where it can never be recovered because a different set of state-sponsored rules apply that would never be tolerated here.
If we’re willing to let lme go under such lop-sided conditions, what’s next?
Sadly, there are not too many strategic assets left that Britain still owns that are worth much. And that may be why China is being allowed to purchase this incredibly strategic asset. Except for its financial sector (which was severely weakened in the 2008 Wall Street meltdown) and the London Bullion exchange, its last vestiges of global empire, Britain’s cupboards are empty.
You don’t allow another nation to buy this kind of asset, especially a nation like China, unless there is something else going on behind the scenes.
Britain’s extremely weak economic condition has made it very vulnerable. It relies on China and other foreign nations to finance much of its government spending. More dangerously, it relies on these same foreigners to continuously roll over its debt. China is probably exploiting this leverage to pick up the remaining pieces of England’s once vast economic empire.
There is no reason for British regulators to let this deal go through, except for some form of geopolitical/economic blackmail. And that in itself shows how weak Britain is.
The forfeiture of lme is the latest sign in the decline of a nation that was once the head of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
But unlike the other great imperial nations of history, the British never lost their empire to any conquering power. They gave it away! This has never happened in all of human history.
And now, not content with having given away its vast land possessions, a whole slice of global geography upon which “the sun never set,” it seems the British nation is on a headlong rush to give up every last vestige of capital investment in British-owned businesses.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the rest of the world once rode on the coattails of the Industrial Revolution spawned on British soil, with British inventiveness underwritten by British capital. The reality is that Britain—which once ruled the waves, controlling every key sea and land gate in the world, the envy of the world for the sheer massiveness and opulence of its globe-girdling empire—this Britain, which under the leadership of Winston Churchill stood alone just 65 years ago against a tyranny that could have swept the world into its cruel grasp—is now in the process of selling off what remains of its once vast national business assets.
And, in large part, these gems of British ingenuity are being sold to nations that traditionally regarded Britain as, if not an enemy, then certainly a competitor during the former colonial era.
The fact is that, since World War ii, Britain has embraced a foreign policy that has steadily changed it from the greatest imperial nation in man’s history to one that is opening itself up to becoming a vassal of the greatest current colonizing power of this age, the European Union!
To deliberately choose to place strategic national assets in the hands of enemy nations surely represents the most extreme perversity of government policy operating directly against Britain’s own national interest. Britain will yet rue the day that it literally sold off the jewels of its own, homegrown national industries! ▪