Not Quite the Holy Grail

The changing global picture of foreign direct investment.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

Not so long ago, foreign direct investment (i.e., foreign ownership of businesses as opposed to investment in securities) was widely viewed in developing countries as a form of neo-colonialism. Big American, European, and Japanese companies would come bearing promises of jobs and riches. Once there, they would bribe the local autocrats to keep their distance, then strip the country of its mineral wealth, old-growth forests, etc. — or maybe just entrench plantation agriculture that displaced small farmers, wrecked environmentally sensitive watersheds, and made the economy more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global commodity markets.

Today FDI is, more often than not, touted as the Holy Grail of growth, a vital source of capital, technology, training, and managerial know-how. Moreover, unlike investments in the form of bank loans or stock/bond purchases, the foreign owners can’t cut and run in times of crisis.

If forced to pick sides, I’ll go with the sunnier interpretation of FDI. The global economy is now utterly dependent on cross-border production, much of which would not be practical without massive cross-ownership of firms and factories. But, in truth, neither caricature is (or was) quite true. Allow me to muddy the waters with a few facts and some educated speculation.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that global FDI totaled $1.24 trillion in 2010, and probably increased by about $200-300 billion in 2011 — which is still well short of the $1.9 trillion peak in 2007. Of the total, a bit more than half ended up in developing and emerging-market economies. But that’s a new phenomenon: 2010 was the first year in which less than half went to rich countries. All told, $12.5 trillion of the total $19.1 trillion foreign-owned stock of capital in 2010 still consisted of assets in developed economies.

The EU and the U.S. were still the biggest recipients, attracting $305 billion and $228 billion, respectively. But, as you’d expect, the real action has been in emerging-market countries, with China ($175 billion, up from $72 billion in 2005), Brazil ($48 billion, up from $15 billion), Russia ($41 billion, up from $13 billion), and India ($24 billion, up from $8 billion) leading the pack.

The most inauspicious — if not unexpected — FDI numbers are for truly poor countries. All of sub-Saharan Africa received just $38 billion. And the 48 "least developed" (in UNCTAD-speak) pulled in a mere $26 billion. That’s down substantially from what had been an upward trend, which is especially troubling since just a handful of mineral-rich countries (Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Zambia) got half the total.

The bulk (about 70 percent) originates in developed countries. No surprise there: The EU, U.S. and Japan are home to the headquarters of most of the great multinational corporations, which do most of the FDI. The other 30 percent isn’t so easy to explain, though.

The emerging-market countries all generate big outflows of FDI, in large part because they are deeply enmeshed in the multinational production chains that add value to products in three or four countries before selling them in a fifth. But there are more specific incentives. Russians, for example, invested an astonishing $51 billion abroad in 2010 — much of it, one would guess, to protect earnings generated by extractive industries and organized crime against political risk. Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, for their part, are headquarters to companies with strong ambitions to become multinational powerhouses, as well as home to very rich families with strong incentives to diversify their holdings in countries and currencies. Then there are a handful of "entrepot" economies and regional financial centers — think Hong Kong, Singapore, the Cayman and British Virgin Islands — that register inflows and outflows of hundreds of billions in FDI for hard-to-explain reasons (which, in some cases, may be just the point).

China, though, is the most interesting case of a big recipient and a big source of direct investment. In 2010, for example, China invested some $68 billion abroad. In part, this may be explained by the usual suspects: the desire of businesses and individuals to diversify their holdings, the need for multinationals to create subsidiaries for expanding operations in other countries. But a couple of reasons are almost unique to the middle kingdom. For one thing, China’s own financial markets are not up to the task of efficiently allocating capital in a large, sophisticated, industrial economy, creating incentives for both private and public entities to put their wealth to work in foreign business. For another, it is government policy to assure access to key raw materials by locking up resources in other countries.

In 2005 China tried to buy Unocal — a U.S. oil company with substantial assets in Southeast Asia — for $18 billion. Meanwhile, state-owned Chinese enterprises are investing heavily in projects ranging from oil fields in Sudan, to copper mines in Vietnam, to liquefied natural gas facilities in Iran, to a pipeline to import gas from Russia. And they are apparently even prepared to finance the infrastructure to divert Canadian tar sands crude from the U.S. market if the XL Keystone pipeline is stillborn.

Even the simple cases of abusive FDI aren’t so simple. Corruption is generally high in the classic tin-pot dictatorships where foreigners dominate extractive industries. But is corruption the result of the autocracy or the FDI? The econometric evidence suggests that FDI has little impact on the level of corruption in democracies (think Chile, Botswana, India), and quite a bit in autocracies like Pakistan and Vietnam. Not surprisingly, opportunities for extractive industries are the single biggest pull for FDI, especially in Africa. But all other things equal, democracies are better at attracting FDI.

Does FDI typically create the vaunted positive spillovers coveted by developing countries? The evidence is (again) mixed. A group of researchers on Latin America at Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute concluded that while FDI facilities were generally more productive, paid higher wages, and contributed to exports more than their domestic counterparts, they were not much good at diffusing advanced technology, creating networks of suppliers, or maintaining higher environmental standards. Moreover, they often "crowded out" local competitors rather than "crowding in" (that is, stimulating) new business investment. The Tufts Group’s bottom line: To date, FDI simply hasn’t had enough impact to make a material difference to the rate of economic growth in Latin America.

But researchers at the Inter-American Development Bank did find evidence of a variety of positive spillovers. In a classic case dating back to the 1970s, American investors created a firm (FlorAmerica) that grew flowers in Colombia to market by air freight in the U.S. This triggered the creation of a whole ecology of local suppliers, as well as competitors who imitated FlorAmerica’s business model and technology. Indeed, the new industry even created a trade association to lobby against trade protectionism in the U.S. and for improved freight service from Columbia’s state-owned airline.

There’s no single answer, then, to the question of whether FDI is doing more good than harm — or just plays a passive role in the arc of development. Nor, when you think about it, would you expect there to be. With $7-8 trillion in FDI already on the ground in developing/emerging market countries, and several thousand projects begun every year, the range of impact is bound to be large.

What does seem clear is that the integration of capital ownership is virtually unstoppable, as national economies converge and supply chains grow ever more complex. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine any contemporary economy thriving without access to FDI. Indeed, the only countries that remain largely untouched by FDI are the poorest of the poor.

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