The OECD has published its data on flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) for the first half of 2019. They reveal how multinational firms are responding to the slowdown in global trade and the U.S.-Chinese tariffs. They may also reflect longer-term trends in FDI as multinationals reconfigure the scope of their activities.
Overall global FDI flows fell by 20% in the first half of the year as compared to the previous half-year. Much of the decrease was due to lower investments in the OECD economies, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, and disinvestments in Belgium and Ireland. FDI inflows to the non-OECD members for the Group of 20 countries, on the other hand, increased, with higher investments recorded in Russia, China and India.
Some of the decline can be linked to the slowdown in international trade. The World Trade Organization forecasts growth in trade this year of 1.2%, the weakest since 2009, and lower than the IMF’s expected global economic growth of 3%. But the disinvestment in Belgium and other countries may also be due to the decline in the use of Special Purpose Entities for routing FDI through low-tax jurisdictions before reaching their ultimate destination. The OECD has sought to limit the spread of Base Erosion and Profits Shifting (BEPS) activities.
The OECD also reported a large drop in Chinese FDI in the U.S., from a peak of $14 billion in the second half of 2016 to less than $1.2 billion. The decline shows the impact of the tariffs imposed by the U.S. and Chinese governments, as well as the overall uncertainty of relations between the two countries. Moreover, the Chinese government has cracked down on outward FDI while the U.S. government scrutinizes Chinese acquisitions more carefully.
The changes in the allocation of FDI may also reflect longer-run factors in the development of global supply (or value) chains. Multinational firms used information and communications technology in the 1990s and 2000s to organize production on a worldwide bases, linking together suppliers and assembly plants in many countries. The OECD has estimated that about 70% of global trade now involves such chains.
Koen De Backer and Dorothée Flaig of the OECD wrote about some of the developments that could affect these chains over time in an OECD Policy Paper, “The Future of Global Value Chains: Business As Usual or “A New Normal’?” They point to a number of factors that could contribute to the continuing expansion of global chains. These include cheaper telecommunications, the emergence of new host countries, and the growth in economics services, including the coordination of the activities of value chains. But there are other factors that may slow the growth of global supply chains, such as the increasing costs of production (particularly wages) in some emerging markets and growing public pressure on firms to lower their use of natural resources, such as energy-related expenditures for transportation.
Another factor that could limit the expansion of multinationals is the advance of information technologies. These include robotics, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing, which would offset the advantages of low-cost wages in developing economies and provide an incentive to return production to the advanced economies. In addition, all these methods may allow firms to produce customized products for local needs that do not need global distribution networks.
The authors use the OECD’s Metro model to estimate the impact of these different factors on global value chains (GVCs). They find that overall the “…negative impacts on GVCs are found to be larger than the positive impacts, thereby suggesting that “A new normal” is developing for GVCs.” In particular, they report that “…the digitalisation of production is most likely the biggest game-changer for the future of GVCs…The growing importance of information technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, etc. will significantly redraw the contours of the global economy and have a disruptive impact on GVCs.”
In addition to these long-term developments, host and home country governments are less encouraging of multinationals than they have been in the past. The Economist (“The Retreat of the Global Company”, 1/28/2017) reports that home countries are concerned about a loss of jobs and a fall in tax revenues due to BEPS. President Donald Trump has made clear his desire for U.S.-based firms to produce domestically. The host countries of emerging markets are more welcoming to multinational expansion, but they also seek jobs that may not be forthcoming if much of the growth of the multinationals is based on services rather than manufacturing. Moreover, these governments place limits on what digital firms are allowed to do in their jurisdictions and they seek to encourage domestic competitors.
The future of foreign direct investment, therefore, is in flux. Part of this reflects uncertainty due to current economic and political trends. But there are also longer-term developments that may reshape the nature of the cross-border expansion of the multinational firms that took place between the 1990s and 2008. Multinationals will continue to play an important role in the global economy, but their activities may be less encompassing as they have been, and this will affect FDI flows.