The Proposed Expansion of Mandatory Foreign Investment Filings During the Pandemic - Global Trade Magazine
  June 1st, 2020 | Written by

The Proposed Expansion of Mandatory Foreign Investment Filings During the Pandemic

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In the midst of the pandemic, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (“CFIUS”) has proposed several revisions to its regulations (“Regulations”) that change when short-form filings (called “declarations”) are required with respect to covered foreign investments of U.S. businesses which work with critical technology [2]. What is most significant for foreign investors is that the proposed rules expand the mandatory declaration and required CFIUS review to include critical technology transactions that range well beyond the 27 industries originally designated by CFIUS – to cover all sectors of the economy [3].

The raison d’etre for this proposed CFIUS rule change is not entirely clear. While the modification largely reads as being technical in nature, CFIUS does, however, observe that other, unspecified “national security considerations” are involved. Thus, a reasonable inference from current circumstances is that CFIUS seeks the ability during the Covid-19 crisis to review acquisitions by China in a broader range of business sectors in order to assess in advance the national security risk, if any, in situations where financially struggling U.S. firms with innovative dual-use technology might be more willing than before to consider such investments as a lifeline.

Interested parties in the business community should note public comments are due by June 22, 2020.

The Proposed Expansion of Mandatory Filings for Critical Technology Transactions

By way of background, under the existing Regulations, a mandatory declaration is required for transactions involving certain U.S. businesses that: 1) produce, design, test, manufacture, fabricate, or develop one or more “critical technologies”; and 2) use the critical technology in specified ways in one or more of 27 specified industries. Significantly, under the revisions, CFIUS eliminated the second prong of the requirement – i.e., the nexus to 27 industries, and refocused the requirement instead on companies that have critical technology that would require certain export licenses or other authorizations to export, re-export, transfer (in-country) or retransfer the critical technology to certain transaction parties and foreign persons in the ownership chain.

CFIUS indicates that the new focus of the mandatory filing requirement on export control requirements for critical technologies “leverages the national security foundations of the established export control regimes, which require licensing or authorization in certain cases based on an analysis of the particular item and end-user, and the particular foreign country for export, re-export transfer (in-country) or retransfer.” 85 Fed. Reg. 30894.

While that is true enough, in fact, the existing standard already is based on the export control standards. The term “critical technology” was and still is, defined as technologies that are subject to export controls (i.e., articles or services on the U.S. Munitions List, items on the Commerce Department’s Control List, and other specialized lists)[4]. Now, in addition to being subject to export controls (e.g., on one of the enumerated lists of controlled items), the technology must specifically be subject to a licensing requirement.

In effect, CFIUS has doubled down on export controls as the criteria for mandatory filing – the item must be on a controlled list and a license must be required for the particular foreign acquirer that is a party to the transaction.

The Significance of the Proposed Change in Mandatory Filing Requirement

Is this licensing requirement a meaningful distinction for foreign investors? While many of the items on these export control lists do require licenses or other authorizations for export, this is not necessarily the case for the export of all items to all countries for all uses. On some lists (e.g., the Munitions Lists), every article and service requires a license for export to all locations. On others (notably the Commerce List, the main list of “dual-use” technologies), items controlled are only licensable for certain countries and certain purposes to certain end-users, as designated on the list.

Overall, however, the universe of items on controlled lists versus those on the lists where licenses are required probably aren’t all that different – i.e., the range of mandatory filings is not very meaningfully limited by this change. Notably, for certain near-peer competitor countries like China and Russia, the distinction is particularly limited. Indeed, for these countries, many items on the Commerce List will require licenses in any event. Moreover, since China is under a U.S. arms embargo in place for many years, any export of an article or service on the Munitions List would certainly require a license (which would not be granted).

In any event, even if the new nexus to export license requirements narrows somewhat the class of critical technology transactions subject to mandatory declarations, this change is undoubtedly more than offset by the elimination of the required nexus to the 27 specified industries. Under the proposal, foreign acquisition of any U.S. business – regardless of what industry it works in – would require a mandatory declaration where the business utilizes critical technology provided that certain export licenses or other authorizations would be required to export such items to the foreign acquiring party.

On balance, this change is significant. It broadens the scope of the mandatory filing requirement to a wide variety of acquisitions involving critical technology applications from medical devices to commercial vehicles to a wide range of high tech sectors. Foreign investors thus would need to be considerably more diligent in considering the CFIUS risk with respect to structuring a broader range of these acquisitions.

Why the Expansion of the Mandatory Filing Requirement?

Why the expansion of mandatory declarations and does it relate to the pandemic?  CFIUS offers only vague explanations – noting its further consideration of public comments made in prior rulemakings, the Committee’s additional experience assessing mandatory declarations, and “other,” unnamed, national security considerations” [5].

One very possible set of such “national security considerations” is to afford CFIUS the ability to investigate a considerably broader range of transactions involving China where any critical technology requiring a license is involved. Since many dual-use items on the Commerce Control List and everything on the Munitions List do require licenses for China, the expansion of jurisdiction would be significant – as it applies without regard to the industry where the critical technology is used.

The logic of this expanded approach would be that, under Chinese laws and policies on civil-military fusion, any Chinese company, regardless of industry, could be required to divert the critical technology it is acquiring to the state sector for military use. Thus, it arguably makes sense for CFIUS to seek to examine these technology deals across the board.

This action also would be consistent with a range of other recent Administration actions during the Covid-19 crisis – from restrictions on participation in the U.S. bulk-power infrastructure to additional export control restrictions on Huawei – all of which appear to be focused on limiting U.S. high tech engagement with China.

Why now? The pandemic has raised the specter of foreign firms from potential adversaries buying sensitive assets at steep discounts. Numerous European governments are very focused on protecting sensitive assets against distress buying.  In this context, recent comments by Ms. Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, suggest concern that during the pandemic smaller U.S. companies that support the aerospace and defense sector could experience “significant financial fragility” and therefore be more vulnerable to acquisition by potential adversaries [6]. She also noted the prospect of “nefarious” acquisitions involving the use of shell companies during the pandemic and indicated a desire for CFIUS to have more authority to address these situations. Thus, it just may be that the proposed revision to the Regulations is an effort to address this felt DoD need.

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A partner in Eversheds-Sutherland, a global law firm, Mr. Bialos [1] previously served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Industrial Affairs and co-chairs the firm’s Aerospace and Defense practice.

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References

[1] A partner in Eversheds-Sutherland, a global law firm, Mr. Bialos previously served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Industrial Affairs and co-chairs the firm’s Aerospace and Defense practice.

[2] 85 Fed. Reg. 30893 (setting forth amendments to 31 C.F.R. §800). The mandatory filing requirements were established pursuant to the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (“FIRRMA”).  The proposed amendments also make clarifying changes with respect to mandatory declarations in transactions involving foreign States. Specifically,  section 800.244 of the Regulations (see 85 Fed. Reg 30898) would, among other things, change the definition of “substantial interest” with respect to transactions where a general partner, managing member or the equivalent is involved, to clarify that the foreign state’s interest is only relevant it applies only where a general partner, managing member, or equivalent “primarily directs, controls or coordinates the activities” of the entity that is the acquiring party.  In effect, this change narrows to a limited extent the range of transactions with foreign government involvement where a mandatory declaration is required.

[3] CFIUS accomplishes this expansion through a series of technical amendments to the Regulations: Section 800.254 (defining U.S. “regulatory authorization” to refer to the types of export licenses that require mandatory declarations); section 800.256 (introducing the concept of “voting interest” to include foreign persons in the ownership chain that would need to be analyzed from an export control standpoint to determine if a license would be required to transfer the technology in question to that party); and 800.401 (which re-scopes the mandatory declaration requirement for critical technology transactions).  See 85 C.F.R. 30895-8.

[4] 31 c.f.r. § 800.215.

[5] 85 Fed. Reg. 3894.

[6] See Transcript, Press Briefing of Ellen Lord, Undersecretary of Defense (A&S) Ellen Lord on COVID-19 Response Efforts (April 30, 2020).   Available at: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2172171/undersecretary-of-defense-as-ellen-lord-holds-a-press-briefing-on-covid-19-resp/