It is easy enough to find data on flows of foreign direct investment (FDI). There are also plenty of anecdotes out there that purportedly encapsulate what businesses worldwide are thinking. It is far more difficult, however, to establish rigorous connections between global investment trends and individual investment decisions by international companies. In the World Bank Group’s newly published Global Investment Competitiveness Report 2017–2018, our team does just this, combining new survey data, rigorous econometric analysis, and extensive literature reviews to reveal what is going on behind the headline numbers.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
“Should we focus our efforts on foreign investment or domestic investment?” Policymakers in developing economies often ask this question when the World Bank Group advises them on how to improve their countries’ investment climate or investment promotion efforts. Our answer is: They do not need to choose one over the other. In order to grow and diversify, an economy needs both domestic investment and foreign direct investment (FDI). The two forms of private investments can be strong complements.
Recognizing the Potential Benefits of FDI
The economic benefits of FDI were identified a long time ago. A Harvard Business School paper published 30 years ago summarized the benefits of FDI based on an extensive review of economic literature (Wint, 1986). In short: Benefits traditionally attributed to FDI include job creation, transfer of technology and know-how (including modern managerial and business practices), access to international markets, and access to international financing.
Granted, some of these benefits also occur thanks to domestic investment. For instance, domestic investments create jobs in a host economy – usually many more than FDI. However: What FDI does well is enhance or maximize some of the benefits already generated by domestic investments in a developing economy.
To stay with the example of job creation: Foreign firms might not create as many jobs as the domestic private sector, but they often create better-paid jobs that require higher skills. That helps elevate the skills level in host economies. The same can be said for other FDI benefits. For instance, more advanced technologies and managerial or marketing practices can be introduced in a developing economy through foreign investment, and at a much faster rate than would be the case if only domestic investment were allowed. Moreover, through partnerships with foreign investors who have existing distribution channels and commercial arrangements around the world, developing countries’ firms can benefit from increased market access.
In China, millions of rural residents each year migrate to cities to seek work. As they find jobs in modernizing industries, they gain the skills they need to earn higher incomes. In this photo, an employe in Chongqing is learning higher-level computer skills. Photo: Li Wenyong / The World Bank
While extreme poverty has diminished, however, the gap between the richest and poorest countries has increased dramatically. In 1776, when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the richest country in the world was approximately four times wealthier than the poorest. Today, the world’s richest country is more than 400 times richer than the poorest.
What separates them?
One answer is knowledge, diversification and the composition of exports, all areas in which foreign direct investment (FDI) has an important role to play.
FDI matters, but not all FDI is created equal
While FDI is important for economic growth, not all FDI is the same. One way to differentiate is by an investor’s motivations using a framework established by British economist John Dunning:
- Natural resource-seeking investment: Motivated by investor interest in accessing and exploiting natural resources.
- Market-seeking investment: Motivated by investor interest in serving domestic or regional markets.
- Strategic asset-seeking investment: Motivated by investor interest in acquiring strategic assets (brands, human capital, distribution networks, etc.) that will enable a firm to compete in a given market. Takes place through mergers and acquisitions.
- Efficiency-seeking investment: FDI that comes into a country seeking to benefit from factors that enable it to compete in international markets.
This last category – efficiency-seeking FDI – is particularly important for countries looking to integrate into the global economy and move up the value chain.
For many decades, academia and policy making has debated about the role of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in development. Such question has been very difficult to elucidate, not only because the discussion has being colored by many ideological dogmas, but also because the very fundamental characteristics of cross border investment have evolved over time. Indeed, over the last five decades, the paradigm of FDI has changed significantly. Traditionally FDI has been visualized as a flow of capital, flowing from “North” to “South” by big multinational enterprises (MNEs) from industrial countries investing in developing countries, traditionally aiming to exploit natural resources in the latter or to substitute trade as a means to serve domestic consumption markets. Such paradigm has changed significantly.
Today, FDI is not only about capital, but also --and more important-- about technology and know-how, it no longer flows from “North” to “South”, but also from “South” to “South” and from “South” to “North”. Further, FDI is no longer a substitute of trade, but quite the opposite. Today FDI has become part of the process of international production, by which investors locate in one country to produce a good or a service that is part of a broader global value chain (GVC). Investors then, have become traders and vice-versa. Moreover, FDI is now not only carried out by only big MNEs, but also from relatively smaller firms from developing countries that are investing in countries beyond their home countries. Last but not least, cross-border investment is no longer only about portfolio investment and FDI. International patterns of production are leading to new forms of cross-border investment, in which foreign investors share their intangible assets such as know-how or brands in conjunction with local capital or tangible assets of domestic investors. This is the case of non-equity modes of investment (NEMs) –such as franchises, outsourcing, management contracts, contract farming or manufacturing.
In light of recent political and social unrest in the region, foreign investors are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude to projects in the Middle East and North Africa. For the region’s investment promoters, this demands better, more proactive performance than in the past. Fortunately, although much remains to be done, the investment agencies of the 19 MENA governments are, as a group, off to a good start, according to a World Bank Group report released today.
Global Investment Promotion Best Practices 2012: Seizing the Potential for Better Investment Facilitation in the MENA Region reports on the ability of investment-promoting institutions (IPIs) in 189 countries to handle investor inquiries and provide investors with quality business information through their Web sites. It shows that the MENA region was the only one in the world to achieve significant improvement since the last edition of GIPB in 2009, with the IPIs of Morocco and Yemen among the world's three most improved.
When investors think about entering new locations their biggest need—and biggest challenge—is often how to access the information they need to help them make decisions. Reliable information—especially in emerging markets—helps to reduce investor perceptions of risk in an unknown location and reduces the transaction costs of establishing in a new market.
Moreover, you would think government investment promotion intermediaries (IPIs) should be keener than ever to make as much effort as possible to attract new investors in light of the cut-throat competition for lower levels of FDI since the crisis. Wouldn’t you? Well, it would seem like they aren’t. The World Bank Group's Global Investment Promotion Best practices 2012 survey (GIPB 2012) found that, worldwide, the responsiveness of IPIs to investor inquiries is shockingly low-with 80% of IPIs not even responding to sector-specific investor inquiries.
On a recent trip to Ireland, stories about the impact of the continuing economic crisis were abundant. Newspapers ran stories about the substantial loss of wealth and purchasing power, such as the increase in 'negative equity' as the value of homes owned by the middle class fell significantly below their mortgages. Cab drivers explained how jobs had been shed throughout the economy, and bemoaned the resulting rise in the number of drivers and increased competition for fares. The reality of the recession and fiscal collapse following the banking crisis of late 2008 was clear.
However, anecdotal evidence about a different aspect of Irish finance – foreign direct investment – suggested a more positive story. I walked through one neighborhood in Dublin that houses the European headquarters of Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. The latter two were established after the onset of the economic crisis, and Google is in the process of expanding its presence in Dublin. Lawyers at large corporate law firms were excited to discuss FDI, citing it as a key driver of Ireland’s future growth. One firm even maintains a FDI index that highlights large inflows and the positive perception of Ireland as a destination for US investment.
Might FDI in Ireland be the best indicator to consider the strength of the economic fundamentals that enable long-term growth? Ireland has historically benefitted from large inflows of FDI relative to its size. And despite the recent economic crisis, these inflows have largely continued.
Over the past 10 years, inflows of FDI into Ireland tend to be substantially higher as a percentage of GDP than inflows into other OECD economies (see Figure 1). In 2009 and 2010, the two years immediately following the banking collapse, Ireland attracted three to four times more FDI proportionately than other OECD economies. These inflows were not just large in relative terms – they were equivalent to 11.7% of GDP in 2009 and 12.9% in 2010. The negative inflows in 2005 and 2008 do indicate that more money was disinvested out of Ireland than newly invested in the economy those years. However, such outflows are mostly loans or dividend payments from foreign-owned firms in Ireland to their affiliates abroad, at least some of which were likely caused by a 2004 change in the US tax rate on foreign profits.
Figure 1: Net inflows of FDI as percentage of GDP, Ireland vs OECD
Source: UNCTAD and author’s calculations