Is There a Future for FDI?—Update

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which recently reported on foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2019, has released a new study on the impact of the pandemic on future FDI. The OECD points out notes that FDI flows before the pandemic have been on a downward trend since 2015, and FDI flows in 2018 and 2019 were lower than any years since 2010, suggesting that the decline in FDI will not be reversed when the pandemic eases. This comes as policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere show concern over Chinese acquisition of domestic firms, and the Chinese government clamps down on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The OECD report’s authors have optimistic, middle and pessimistic scenarios on the effectiveness of public health and economic policy measures, and their impact on FDI flows in the medium term. Under the optimistic scenario, public health measures are effective in controlling the spread of the virus and economic policies successful in restoring economic growth in the latter half of this year. FDI flows would fall between 30% to 40% in 2020 before rising by a similar amount in 2021 to their previous level. Under the middle scenario, public health and economic policy measures are partially but not completely effective, and FDI flows fall between 35% to 45% this year before recovering somewhat in 2021, but would remain about one-third below pre-crisis levels.  The pessimistic scenario is based on the need for continued measures to contain the virus and repair extensive economic damage, which would lead to drop in FDI flows of over 40% this year and no recovery in 2021.

The impact of an extended decline in FDI will be particularly severe for emerging market and developing economies, which have already seen the reversal of portfolio capital flows. The OECD report points out that the primary and manufacturing sectors, which account for a large proportion of FDI in these economies, have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Moreover, the corporate earnings that are a major source of the funding of new FDI expenditures by multinational firms fell in 2019 and will decline further this year.

The decline in FDI will be significant for these economies. FDI flows are usually more stable than other forms of capital flows, but even FDI collapses when it by global turbulence. The parent companies often have the financial resources to assist affiliates in troubled economies, but no advanced economy is escaping the downturn. The decline in spending not only affects the employees in the host country, but also harms domestic suppliers and others who benefit from the activities of the multinational.

The pandemic is also motivating governments to monitor and restrict the acquisition of domestic firms. Several U.S. Senators have urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to limit the purchase of U.S. firms with depressed stock prices by Chinese firms. The U.S. has already limited Chinese acquisition of domestic firms in critical sectors, and that will now most likely be expanded to include medical goods and services. Portfolio investment is also under scrutiny. The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that requires foreign companies to allow their records to be audited by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board in order to sell stock or bonds in the U.S., and the House of Representatives is considering a similar bill. While the bill will affect all foreign firms, it clearly is aimed at Chinese firms.

The U.S. is not alone in acting to restrict foreign investment. Several European countries have mechanisms to review foreign investment in order to protect critical technologies, as do India and Australia. These will now be extended to include medical goods and services. The European Union’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, has urged the governments of the EU’s members to purchase shares of ownership stakes in companies in order to prevent foreign takeovers.

FDI to China is also likely to suffer from the Chinese government’s enactment of a new security law for Hong Kong. U.S. Secretary of State George Pompeo’s response that the U.S. will no longer consider Hong Kong to have significant autonomy will not only imperil Hong Kong’s status as an international banking center, but also its role as the major source of FDI for China. The Chinese government’s willingness to forsake that source of funding suggests that it no longer believes that FDI has a critical role to play in the country’s economic development.

FDI, then, faces a range of barriers. The pandemic puts multinational plans for expansion, already scaled back, on hold. The division into a world of competing U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence further reduces the scope of foreign investment. Potential host nations can only hope to be viewed as a feasible site for production by multinationals once the world economy revives.

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