foreign direct investment
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:
An instructor at the Savar EPZ training center in Dhaka, Bangladesh, helps young women being trained to make shirts. Photo Credit: © Dominic Chavez/The World Bank
Increasing economic prosperity for developing countries is related not only to rising trade, but also – and more important – to transforming the traditional composition of what they produce and export. In the world today, many developing countries strive to diversify away from exporting commodities toward higher-value-added goods and services.
The evolution of trade and investment flows over the last three decades shows that foreign direct investment (FDI) can be a powerful driver of exports, a creator of well-paid new jobs and a crucial source of financing. More important, FDI may become a very rapid and effective engine to promote the transfer of technology, know-how and new business practices, helping to raise productivity and setting a country on the course of convergence. This is particularly the case of efficiency-seeking FDI – that is, FDI that locates productive processes in a country seeking to enhance its ability to better compete in international markets-.
The benefits of FDI are further leveraged when local firms can catalyze the presence of foreign investors to connect to global and regional value chains (GVCs). As a result of new international firms investing in a host country, great new opportunities arise for local enterprises to supply the inputs – be it goods or services – that their international counterparts need.
This has been the experience of Bangladesh, where local suppliers have grown in tandem with foreign investors in the garment sector. It is through linkages with international investors that local firms can gradually be lured into producing new goods and services that, until then, were not produced in the host country. This is how economic diversification and greater value added are generated.
Multinational enterprises (MNEs) and their key partners (Tier 1 suppliers) are generally keen to source locally if a competitive local supplier can be found. However, they are also reluctant to absorb high search-and-find costs, and they will typically not invest in assisting local suppliers with upgrading efforts. Likewise, local firms are generally keen to supply to foreign firms, but are often not ready to make the necessary investments in technology and in processes to meet strict quality standards without a clear line of sight on potential payoff for such investment.
“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.
The Investment Policy team of the World Bank Group’s Trade & Competitiveness (T&C) Global Practice has learned that China is about to adopt a new foreign investment law that would bring about several potentially significant improvements to the current investment regime. Although we have not yet seen an English-language version of the proposed law, and therefore have to rely for the moment on accounts by international law firms and chambers of commerce that have seen (and sometimes commented on) the draft law, I wanted to share the news with the Private Sector Development community because of the new law’s potential impact – not just in China but across East Asia.
China has very significant political and economic clout in the region and across the developing world. Its reforms are closely watched, and they could inspire many other developing and emerging economies to follow suit.
After soliciting comments on the three existing laws, China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) issued a draft of the Foreign Investment Law on January 19, also soliciting public comment – a process that, incidentally, should also inspire many countries.
If passed, the new law would abrogate and ‘unify’ the three current laws that regulate foreign investment: namely, the Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Law, the Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise Law and the Sino-Foreign Contractual Joint Venture Law. Although going from three laws to one can in itself be a positive thing – simplifying the regulatory environment usually is a good idea – what really matters to the investor community is the substantive or procedural changes that the new law would introduce.
A first change is that the new law would adopt a “negative list” approach, modeled on the system in place in the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ). As a reminder: Under a negative-list approach, certain sectors where foreign investment is restricted, capped or prohibited are specifically enumerated on a negative list. And foreign investment in restricted sectors can only proceed through some sort of ex ante screening and approval mechanism by a governmental authority or agency. On the other hand, under such a system, investments in sectors that are not on the negative list can usually proceed without any prior screening and approval, using, for example, the normal company registration process.
The negative-list approach is one that T&C’s Investment Policy Team often recommends to our client countries, because it fosters transparency and predictability and because it reduces government discretion over the admission of investors. Obviously, in this case, we would need to see the actual negative list before we can offer a more definitive assessment. But assuming that the number of sectors on the negative list is not excessive or, better, that sectors previously closed or restricted are now open to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the impact of this single change could be very significant.
The private sector has demonstrated its resilience in the face of conflict and fragility, operating at the informal level and delivering services that are traditionally the mandate of public institutions. However, in post-conflict situations, PSD can have predatory aspects, thriving on the institutional and regulatory vacuum that prevails. The private sector will need to create 90 percent of jobs worldwide to meet the international community’s antipoverty goals, so pro-poor and pro-growth strategies need to focus on strengthening the positive aspects of PSD, even while tackling its negative aspects.
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