From Vale to Vail, why Canadian hot properties end up in foreign hands: Don Pittis

As the U.S. resort company Vail scoops up Canada's most prestigious ski destination, Whistler Blackcomb, Don Pittis looks at why it seems so many Canadian business stars attract foreign buyers. Does anyone care anymore?

Vale bought Inco and Vail bought Whistler Blackcomb. Does it really matter?

A U.S. supporter waves the American flag at Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The ski resort is being taken over by a Colorado company. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

On my only visit to Canada's premier ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb, currently the target of a $1.4-billion takeover by a U.S. company, you needed a change of clothing from the chilly top to the balmy bottom.

As we saw during the 2010 Olympics, frosty weather and natural snow are no longer guaranteed at the side-by-side B.C. mountains. In fact, climate change may make the purchase of Whistler by Colorado-based Vail Resorts a shrinking asset despite a $345-million dollar plan to weatherproof the resort.

Nonetheless, foreign direct investors can't seem to resist buying a piece of Canada, in this case perhaps because the resort is within easy striking distance of booming Vancouver and is a wilderness attraction for overseas visitors.

Stashing cash

In the Vancouver area, when people think foreign ownership, they think houses, as offshore buyers with deep pockets look for somewhere safe to stash their cash.
The late CEO of Vale (pronounced Vah-lay), Roger Agnelli, left, exchanged national sports team jerseys with Inco CEO Scott Hand in 2006 as the Brazilian company announced its takeover of the Canadian nickel giant. (Reuters)

But the same thing applies in the corporate world, only more so, according to economist Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Because traditional economic growth is weak, she says, companies are growing by buying.

"What comes to top of mind is this process of corporate consolidation in the wake of the 2008 crisis where there is no demand growth, so the way you grow your profits is by eating other smaller, profitable companies," Yalnizyan says. 

Of course, she says, its a two-way market, with Canadian banks and pension funds scooping up foreign assets as well. 

Fire sale

"With the Canadian dollar at 76 cents against the U.S. dollar, give or take, we're on a fire sale, so why wouldn't foreign companies buy up hot properties that are very profitable?" Yalnizyan notes.

Over Canada's longer history, a shortage of domestic investment capital has meant that the country has traditionally seen a net inflow of money from more established economies such as Britain and the United States. That continues to show up in Statistics Canada data where foreigners own more of Canada than Canada owns abroad. 

But that disguises a more recent trend where in many years, Canada has invested more abroad than has flowed into the country. Of course, the trend is periodically shattered, as when Brazilian mining giant Vale (pronounced Vah-lay) bought the Canadian mining company Inco in 2006. A similar surge came in 2007 when Rio Tinto won a bidding war for Alcan and again in 2013 when China's CNOOC gobbled up oil and gas producer Nexen.
In 2009, workers in Sudbury, Ont., at Vale Inco's Copper Cliff smelter participated in what became the longest strike in the company's history. Similarly, Canadian companies operating abroad can't boast of a great reputation on labour issues. (Reuters)

All of those resource deals, condemned at the time, turned out to be fabulous for many Canadian shareholders who sold high, unloading their stake shortly before the commodity crash, says CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld. Selling mature companies is not the problem, he says, rather it's selling undeveloped companies too soon.

"The issue for governments is really to make sure that Canadian companies don't face impediments to building themselves and going international," Shenfeld says.

Small is dangerous

Shenfeld's comments echo those of his boss, CIBC CEO Victor Dodig. According to Dodig, the takeovers most dangerous to the Canadian economy hardly show up in the statistics because they are so small.

"Far too many Canadian high tech startups get bought out before they have a chance to grow," Dodig said in a November speech

"When small and mid-sized startups are sold early, our country is weaker for it," the CIBC boss said. "We are much better off with entrepreneurs who see the merit of investing for scale and for reinvesting their wealth."

Mel Hurtig, who died last week, founded the Council of Canadians to help protect Canadian sovereignty from U.S. corporate takeovers, but the group's views have changed. (CBC)

Last word on foreign takeovers goes to the Council of Canadians, the organization founded by recently deceased Mel Hurtig that was famously vocal for decrying the loss of Canadian sovereignty due to U.S. corporate takeovers.

The council's current chair, Maude Barlow, says that in a globalized world where international capital flows every which way, the group has moved past that view. It doesn't really matter who owns your ski resort.

Canadian predators

Canadian companies with huge investments abroad, especially in resource extraction, are not very good corporate citizens and can have bad records on the environment and human rights, Barlow says.

"Some of our companies are predators out there," she says.

Also, she says, the changing nature of business ethics means there is little to choose from between Canadian companies and foreign investors. 

The exception is that under trade rules, Canadian companies have to follow Canadian laws. But under many foreign investment agreements, offshore companies can sue the government if new or newly changed laws cut into their profits.

"I'm not suggesting that foreign control isn't important. It is," Barlow says. "But I think that the world has changed."

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.