What a difference a few years makes. Recall the bygone days when there was a fuss about foreigners wanting to buy our miners and oil companies. Sure, Spain's Repsol played vulture when it scooped up Talisman last month, but it was welcomed rather than turned into a federal case.
The national harrumphing that went on back in 2006 and 2007 when Inco, Falconbridge and Alcan were sold to outsiders is amazing in retrospect. But who would want to be stuck with a fistful of those shares in their portfolios right now, given where commodities are? Back then, not only commentators, but also Bay Streeters and big shot executives were critical of the CEOs of those companies, railing about how they were selling out Canada's birthright to rapacious buyers from abroad. Or worse, that they were not willing to step up and pay up to be acquirers rather than sellers.
If only the country had such problems today. The truth is, Inco's CEO at the time, Scott Hand, and Dick Evans, the CEO of Alcan, got absolutely brilliant prices for their shareholders when they sold their respective companies. Wouldn't it be something to hear complaints today about selling resource companies at the top of the market?
A few years ago, remember all the whining that went on about CNOOC, one of China's national oil companies, making a $15-billion bid for Nexen? Even though many oil industry types were dissing Nexen as second rate, the prospect of moneybags arriving from China got a lot of them worried. Looking back, chump may be too harsh a word to describe CNOOC, but good for Nexen shareholders for scoring that one. When the deal was approved, however, the Prime Minister announced new protections applying to state-owned investments in the oil sands.
If you're holding a bunch of wobbly oil stocks today, maybe you wish the Chinese had been allowed to come in and buy everything in the patch. And not just energy stocks – it might have been nice for Barrick shareholders if three years ago a big sovereign wealth fund had come galumphing into Canada and bid for the gold miner when it was over $50 a share. Given that Barrick shares are in the low teens, it could have spared a lot of stockholders a lot of grief.
In a category all on its own, however, is Potash Corp. Remember the national drama over that? The fertilizer phenom of Saskatchewan hasn't come anywhere close to the highs of 2010 or 2011 when BHP Billiton was in passionate pursuit of it.
Marius Kloppers of BHP was ready to spend $40-billion plus for Potash but shareholders have Canada's supposed free-market-supporting federal government to thank for deep-sixing that one, ultimately costing them billions that could have been realized before the global potash market went south.
Sure, certain industries arguably require and do get protection such as those that involve national security or the financial system. But with commodities – particularly with commodities – if someone comes a knockin' and wants to buy at a market peak, isn't there a strong argument to take their money? The next time the issue arises perhaps we should refrain from having a national protective spasm and remember that these companies frequently decimate peoples' portfolios because they sell products whose prices can – and do – gyrate wildly.
The kicker is that if one of these companies – and many of them are great companies, run and staffed by great people – were bought out, maybe all you have to do is wait a few years for the cycle to reverse and then buy it back on the cheap. Some think that might be now, for instance.
Even some resource company executives will admit it in private. They love telling shareholders to think of their companies as long-term investments. They have to because of the capital required. The truth is, the smart ones know they're just a trade.
Howard Green is a broadcaster and author of Banking on America: How TD Bank Rose To the Top and Took On the U.S.A.