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.
At one of the large medical device companies I worked at in the last decade, we found that China had a nasty habit of going domestic against us. We would build a factory/research center, go big on products for the Chinese market, then find that China would issue a domestic owned policy and clones would flood the market taking away our forecasted 35% plus growth.
Factories would appear in months, then would sit idle. China is just a bad place to do business.