Politicians must tread carefully on M&A intervention

Andy Silvester
This File picture dated May 01, 2007 sho
The Kraft Heinz - Unilever deal is off (Source: Getty)

​It is common in business and politics today to talk about "signals". Brexit is either a signal of our desire to cut ourselves off from the world, or a sign that we’re set to become a kind of expansionist high-seas merchant.

From immigration to Donald Trump, foreign policy to international aid, perceptions are increasingly being seen as just as important as policy and politics.

However, de rigeur as it now may be, signals do matter. And that is why what City A.M.’s editor Christian May described as ‘the weekend excitement’ around the Kraft Heinz – Unilever mega-merger matters.

In a post-Brexit world, Britain has to do more to demonstrate that it is keen to play a part on the global stage. There is a reason Sadiq Khan had barely got out of bed on the morning of 24th June before concocting the now omnipresent "London Is Open" campaign. It doesn’t therefore help when the reaction of a government to a business transaction involving a British company is to jump on the phones to seek reassurances.

Reassurances about what? Whether it’s a good deal for shareholders? That’s a decision for – you guessed it – shareholders. For the UK? We already have a Takeover Panel and a public interest test for that. For consumers? The Competition and Markets Authority have that remit.

Downing Street’s language around the Kraft – Cadbury deal, of course, has not helped; it is a signal (that word again) of a more interventionist, hands-on government. Clearly, there are a number of factors that led to the 'amicable' end of the deal, but media reports have suggested Warren Buffett and Jorge Paulo Lemann were moved to pull out of the deal in part after being ‘spooked’ by the response of British politicians to the leak of the Unilever deal.

While it’s right that there are checks and balances on foreign direct investment and takeovers with regards to the national interest, the Prime Minister must be clear what the ultimate goal of any ‘additional’ investigation of any potential transaction should be: if a purchasing firm says it will move a HQ out of the UK or shift research spending, would the Prime Minister - the current incumbent or a future resident of No 10 - actually step in, Gallic-style, to stop the deal?

Let's be clear - nobody wants to see job losses, or downsizing of any company's operations in the UK. But while the short-term response may be the easiest one, the long-term damage to Britain's reputation as an open, free market economy cannot be ignored.

The Cameron/Osborne axis did much to emphasise that Britain was open to foreign investment and involvement; that we would attempt to surf the wave of globalisation, rather than try to hold back the waters. Yet even that was not powerful enough to prevent an over-excited media and politicians sensitive to the public mood to knife the Astra-Zeneca – Pfizer merger.

In a world increasingly enticed by populism and isolation, the Prime Minister must be careful not to heed the siren calls of protectionism. She has promised that Britain will be the loudest voice for free trade and free markets on the global stage. When the next deal ends up on the front pages, let's hope that voice remains strong.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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