Category Archives: FDI

FDI in a Risky World

The pandemic has shown that global supply chains are vulnerable to shocks. Output contracted as factories were closed in China and the impact was transmitted to firms further along the chains and the distributors of the final goods. Foreign direct investment had already slowed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and there were questions about its future (see here). How will multinational firms respond to the new shock?

The McKinsey Global Institute seeks to answer this question in a new report, Risk, Resilience and Rebalancing In Global Value Chains. The authors point out that the pandemic is only one of a range of shocks that can disrupt production. They distinguish between catastrophes that are foreseeable (such as financial crises) and those unanticipated (acts of terrorism), as well as disruptions that take place on a smaller scale. The latter can also be divided between those that are foreseeable (climate change) and those that are unanticipated (cyberattacks).

The report then measures the exposure of different business sectors to the various shocks. Those that are heavily traded are more vulnerable. These include communication equipment, computers and electronics, and semiconductors and components, all industries that are seen as promoting growth. Apparel is another sector that is vulnerable to risks, such as the pandemic and climate change.

These risks will motivate firms to reconfigure their supply chains. The political fissure between China and the U.S., as well as government policies to ensure self-sufficiency in some sectors, will also induce firms to reorganize production. The report’s authors estimated that 16% to 26% of current exports could be shifted. They find that “…the value chains with the largest potential to move production to new geographies are petroleum, apparel, and pharmaceuticals.” In some cases governments may need to provide financial support to induce firms to relocate to domestic economies where the governments seek domestic self-sufficiency.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its World Investment Report 2020 also considers the future of FDI (see here for a summary). It identifies three trends that will shape the future of international production. These include technology trends that contribute to a “New Industrial Revolution;” growing nationalism that leads to more protectionism; and the need to achieve sustainability.  As these forces evolve, they will push firms to increase supply chain resilience and increase national and regional productive ability.

The authors of the UNCTAD point out that economic sectors differ in terms of the length of their existing value chains, their geographical distribution and their governance. Consequently, multinational firms will respond in different ways to the trends the authors identify. But they identify three overall trajectories–reshoring, regionalization and replication–that all involve scaling down global value chains. A fourth trajectory–diversification–would transform existing operations but include a lower geographical distribution of value added and less investment in capital goods.

These changes represent challenges to government policymakers, particularly those in developing economies. A retreat of international production will hamper the prospects of lower-income countries where the global supply chains have been a driver of growth. But there is also the opportunity to attract new investment. Among the measures that the report’s authors recommend are investment promotion strategies in infrastructure and services, and participation in regional initiatives.

The reconfiguration if international production systems will shape FDI in the years to come. But the formation of new production chains will only take place as the global economy recovers from the current collapse. UNCTAD reports that global FDI flows are forecast to fall by up to 40% in 2020 from their 2019 value of $1.54 trillion, and could decline by another 5% to 10% in 2021. All these predictions come with large degrees of uncertainty about the future of the global economy. Multinational firms will hold back on new expenditures until they see a consistent recovery and learn how governments will seek to influence their foreign operation.

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.

Is There a Future for FDI?

Among the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will be a drop in foreign direct investment activity. The latest issue of the OECD’s FDI In Figures forecasts a decline of more than 30% in 2020 in FDI flows, even under an optimistic scenario of a recovery in the second half of this year. The falloff reflects not only the deterioration in global economic activity, but also the responses of firms to policies that governments may enact to protect their economies.

The OECD reported that global FDI flows of $1,426 billion, while higher in 2019 than in 2018, nonetheless were below the levels recorded between 2010 and 2017. The increase from the previous year reflected in part that year’s depressed investment expenditures following tax reform in the U.S. and a return to positive outflows from the U.S. FDI inflows to the G20 nations, on the other hand, decreased in 2019, largely due to a drop in inflows to China to the lowest level since 2010.

The decline in FDI flows to China reflects in part the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and China, which has intensified during the pandemic. President Trump blames China for the outbreak of the virus and has threatened to implement new tariffs. The Trump administration is preparing a plan to bring medical supply chains back to the U.S.  Even if Joe Biden is elected President next fall, U.S. and other multinational firms are reconsidering their reliance on Chinese manufacturers in global supply chains.

As the OECD data show, however, this consolidation began before the pandemic. Global supply relationships based solely on cost considerations left firms exposed to external shocks of all kinds, ranging from the Brexit vote to the Japanese tsunami in 2011. In addition, the growth in service exports has allowed firms to locate their operations closer to consumers.

Maria Borga, Perla Ibarlucea Flores and Monika Sztajerowska of the OECD have written about the divestment decisions of multinational firms in a 2019 OECD Working Paper on International Investment, “Drivers of Divestment Decisions of Multinational Enterprises – A Cross-country Firm-level Perspective.” They obtained data on 62,000 foreign owned affiliates in 41 OECD and Group of 20 countries over the period 2007-2014. They found that 22% of the firms that were foreign-owned at the beginning of the period were divested at least once by their parent. The number of divestments was the highest at the beginning of the period during the global financial crisis and generally fell in the following years. Overall, foreign acquisitions outnumbered divestments, but there were years when the numbers were similar, and years when divestments outnumbered the acquisitions.

The paper’s authors undertook an empirical analysis of the decision to disinvest, examining characteristics of the host and home countries as well as of the individual firms. They report that an increase in labor costs in the host country was linked to disinvestment, while an increase in labor market efficiency had the opposite impact. An increase in the control of corruption decreases the probability of divestment, while higher tariffs increase it. Trade openness also increases the probability of divestment, which the authors interpret as a sign of substitutability between FDI and trade. In addition, the existence of a regional trade agreement reduces the probability of divestment.

In projecting the future of FDI, it is important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical FDI. The global supply chains, which evolved in the 1990s and 2000s as information and communication technology improved, represent the latter form. However, Ronald B. Davies of University College and James R. Markusen of the University of Colorado point out in a new NBER working paper, “The Structure of Multinational Firms’ International Activities,” that most of U.S. FDI comes from and goes to other advanced economies, which is suggestive of horizontal FDI.  Similarly, when they look at FDI among country groups, they find that most of the FDI of developed economies takes place amongst those countries. On the other hand, the FDI of U.S. firms that does take place in developing countries occurs in industries that use global supply chains.

If/when the global economy recovers, there may be a resumption of horizontal FDI to take the place of international trade. Firms that face trade barriers may seek to go around them by establishing plants in the countries where they seek to operate, just as Japanese automakers established plants in the U.S. in the 1980s when imports of their cars met resistance. Such a development would be consistent with the finding of Borga, Flores and Sztajerowska that disinvestment and trade are inversely linked. FDI may also pick up if multinational firms seek to establish redundancy by setting up plants outside east Asia.

FDI flows, therefore, will fall precipitously in the short-run. Their recovery will depend on the reconfiguration of the global economy, and how firms respond to government attempts to insulate their economies from foreign shocks. Multinationals will not easily give up historically profitable foreign operations, and will attempt to adapt their activities to surmount whatever new barriers they face. Moreover, the governments of emerging market economies with plummeting GDPs may seek to retain foreign capital to offset the deterioration of domestic economic activity. But it will be a long time before any sort of FDI rebound is recorded.

The Changing Nature of FDI

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.

The Rise and Fall of FDI

After the global financial crisis,  international capital flows contracted, especially bank lending in Europe. Foreign direct investment (FDI) by multinational firms, however, provided a steady source of external finance, particularly for emerging market economies. The McKinsey Global Institute has calculated that the global stock of FDI increased from 46% of world GDP in 2007 to 57% in 2016 ($25 trillion to $41 trillion). But FDI flows fell by 27% in 2018 according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and this drop followed a decline of 16% in the previous year. We have entered a new period of contraction by multinational firms, and in particular, U.S.-based multinationals.

A significant amount of the decline is due to firms based in the U.S. responding to changes in U.S. tax law. The U.S.-based firms repatriated earnings that had been kept abroad to avoid U.S. taxes. As a result, the U.S. recorded a negative FDI outflow of $50 trillion in 2018, down from a positive outflow of $379 billion in the previous year. By the latter half 2018, the acquisition of foreign assets had returned to positive levels, but the long-run changes of the tax code revision on the foreign operations of U.S. firms will only become clear over time.

Ireland and Switzerland were particularly hard-hit by the disinvestments, since these countries had often attracted FDI because of generous tax provisions. There were also reversals of investment in Special Purpose Entities (SPE), which allow the multinationals to channel funds through countries with favorable regulatory and tax practices to their ultimate destination. The OECD reported that FDI flows to SPEs in Luxembourg and the Netherlands fell to negative levels last year.

But the alteration in U.S. tax law is only part of a wider change in policy in the U.S.  President Trump seeks to undo expansion by multinationals by persuading U.S. firms to return their operations to the U.S. During the last several decades, these firms and other multinationals used technological advances in communication and transportation to establish global supply chains of production. They located the production of intermediate goods in those countries where they were cheapest to produce before assembling them and exporting them to their final markets.

This expansion was facilitated by the establishment of stable macroeconomic and political conditions in the host countries where the production facilities were located. In many cases, these were emerging market nations, and their governments welcomed the investments of the multinationals, as the firms hired local labor and transferred capital and technology. Singapore, for example, has used its position as a financial hub and its reputation for pro-business regulatory policies to become a major recipient of FDI flows.

The establishment of production facilities in different countries has benefits and costs for home and host countries. But President Trump views this expansion only through the criterion of its impact on U.S. jobs, and he sees losses. He wants the U.S. firms to base their production in the U.S. where they will hire American workers. The President has frequently claimed that his use of tariffs and other tactics will re-establish manufacturing in the U.S.

Some U.S. firms were already responding to higher costs in China by shifting their supply chains elsewhere. But they often switch their operations to Vietnam and other low-wage countries, not the U.S. A policy of nationalism that forced firms to only operate here would require massive expenditures and higher costs for consumers. It would affect the ability of U.S. firms to export, since our exports often contain foreign components.

The Trump administration’s hostility to trade and outward FDI also affects inward FDI by foreign multinationals. These firms are often courted by state governments that want the high-paying jobs that they provide. Theodore H. Moran and Lindsay Oldenski of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service have calculated that in 2013 the wages paid to the U.S. employees of foreign-owned multinationals exceeded those of U.S. workers of U.S. multinationals, which in turn exceeded those paid to workers in all firms by more than 10%. The U.S. and foreign multinationals accounted for 30 million workers, who in 2013 represented 22% of all jobs in the U.S.

But foreign firms have cut down on further expansion in the U.S.  Foreign capital inflows to the U.S. fell from $509 billion in 2015 to $267 billion in 2018. Some of this downturn may have been cyclical, but foreign firms also have to consider the effect of tariffs on U.S. production. Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has warned “…that this shift of corporate investment away from the U.S. will decrease long-term U.S. income growth, reduce the number of well-paid jobs available, and accelerate the shift of global commerce away from the U.S.”

The decline in FDI last year reflected other factors than U.S. policy measures. While 2018 initially was characterized as a period of widespread growth, this expansion slowed during the year in response to instability in Turkey and Argentina, credit tightening in China, and other developments. This global slowdown in growth is expected to persist and the IMF forecasts economic growth in 2019 of 3.3%, down from 3.6% in 2018.

There is evidence that the rapid pace of expansion of the pre-global crisis has come to an end. The return on equity of multinationals has fallen from its pre-crisis peak. The ability of firms such as Apple to continue to post continued growth in global sales is being questioned. Governments such as India’s seek to protect domestic firms from foreign competition. Moreover, as pointed out above, China no longer is a source of cheap labor, and firms need to adapt to changing cost structures.

The immediate impact of the change in the U.S. tax provisions on FDI has most likely ended. But the fall-off in corporate expansion over the last two years is also a response to the changes in international trade and finance. The Trump administration has made clear that it wants to reverse the globalization of recent years, and the imposition of tariffs on Chinese and other goods will lead to a reorientation of business models. Over time this may be seen as the last gasp of a reactionary regime that was reversed under a future president. But the President’s Democratic challengers seem equally reluctant to support trade and expansion by U.S. firms. Until the status of trade in the global economy is clarified, multinationals will be reluctant to commit to foreign expansion.