Electrolux closing Memphis plant; Economic development malpractice leaves Tennesse holding the bag

Electrolux closing Memphis plant; Economic development malpractice leaves Tennesse holding the bag

On January 31, Electrolux announced (h/t Alan Freeman, ipolitics.ca) that it would be closing its new (2012) factory in Memphis, Tennessee, by the end of 2020. This facility, you may recall, was a subsidized relocation from L’Assomption, Quebec (a Montreal suburb) that had an aid intensity of at least 99%! Yes, Tennessee state and local governments gave Electrolux a free factory ($188.3 million at present value in subsidies) while allowing it to get rid of its union, cut 60 jobs, and save over $4 per hour in wages on the jobs they kept.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, the state of Tennessee agreed not to put clawback provisions into the contract with Electrolux, although the state was already requiring such clauses in contracts with major companies like Volkswagen in Chattanooga. That piece of economic development malpractice has now come back to bite the governments involved where it hurts. Not only does the contract specifically prevent the state from getting its money back, state and local governments guaranteed loans connected with the project, the payments for which will last until 2036. According to the Commercial Appeal’s article, state government is on the hook for $48.5 million in loans, while Memphis and Shelby County governments must pay off a further $28.0 million.

While Electrolux committed to employing 1,240 people in order to receive the subsidies, its peak employment appears to have been the 1,100 who were employed in 2017. Now, just two years later, the company employs only 530 in Memphis, a figure that has been stable for about a year, supplemented only by overtime and temporary workers, both of which have now disappeared.

The fate of the Memphis facility is to be consolidated into another Electrolux plant in Springfield, Tennessee, in a transformation that will add no jobs in Springfield because of increased automation. According to a story in the Canadian Press (paywalled behind the Nexis database), Electrolux plans to invest $250 million to centralize all its U.S. cooking production at the Springfield facility.

A final twist in the Memphis story is that in 2016 Electrolux workers formed a local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Union business manager Paul Shaffer says he was “assured” by the company that the closure was not related to the decision to unionize. Color me skeptical, but thanks to our old friend information asymmetry, we’ll probably never know. But the timeline is: 2016, unionization; 2017, 1,100 workers; 2018, 530 workers; 2019, closure announcement. Yes, I’m still skeptical.

I’ve been telling people for years that we need to explicitly include corporate rent-seeking into models of site-location decisions. Both Investment Incentives: Growing Use, Uncertain Benefits, Uneven Controls (2007: download here from the first link) and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital (Palgrave, 2011) make this case strongly. How else can we interpret Electrolux’s behavior, squeezing every last dollar out of desperate governments near the height of the Great Recession, and demanding no clawbacks, except as a manifestation of rent-seeking? It’s time to revise site-location theory to reflect this.

And in my standard EU comparison, let me point out that an aid intensity (=subsidy/investment) of 99% is not allowable anywhere in the European Union, where the maximum aid intensity allowable is only 50%, and that only in the poorest regions of the Union, such as Bulgaria (and that only on the first €50 million of investment; with a maximum of only 25% on the next €50 million of investment, and a maximum of 17% on any investment increment over €100 million). People were saying it was a bad deal when it was announced in 2011, as pointed out in these pages and in the great series the Commercial Appeal produced at that time. We were right, far more than we wished.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Economist.

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