Australia fires 'warning shot' on foreign takeovers amid coronavirus weakness

The Australian government said that it will prioritise urgent applications for investments that protect and support Australian businesses and jobs. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia on Monday (March 30) announced that foreign investments, regardless of size, must seek approval by the nation's investment review board.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the new rules were "temporary and are designed to protect Australia's national interest" as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

The tighter scrutiny on foreign takeovers is to protect domestic firms from getting picked up at times of weakness, according to Deutsche Bank.

"It's not a blanket ban but really just firing a warning shot out there," Alex Cartel, head of investment banking coverage for Australia at Deutsche Bank, said in a phone interview. "From their perspective, it's about ensuring we come out the other side of this phase in the same position as we went in as much as we can."

While Frydenberg stressed that it's not an investment freeze, the new measure is set to deter any foreign suitor looking to take advantage of what could be Australia's first recession in 30 years, with some companies already tapping credit lines and selling new shares to raise funds. It also underscores the government's efforts to reassure corporate confidence after local asset prices plunged due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Frydenberg said he will continue to review foreign investment proposals against the national interest on a case-by-case basis and will apply conditions to address identified risks when appropriate.

The change will effectively put all foreign investors under the same scrutiny applicable to overseas governments, said Malcolm Brennan, a Canberra-based partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons. The measures could potentially lead to a backlog of deals for reviews, while transactions that could save jobs or even boost employment will likely be fast-tracked, he said.

The government said on Monday that it will prioritize urgent applications for investments that protect and support Australian businesses and jobs, while the review board will extend timeframes for reviewing applications from 30 days to up to six months.

"Proposals like internal reorganizations where you're just reshuffling the deck chairs for a slightly better tax outcome, they will now take six months or FIRB might even tell you to come back later," Brennan said.

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