Explaining the sources and destinations of capital flows is a key focus of research in international finance. But capital flows between countries can flow through financial centers before they arrive at their ultimate destination, and these intermediary flows distort the record of the actual ownership of investments. Two recent papers seek to provide a more accurate picture of the true sources of foreign finance.
Jannick Damgaard of Danmarks Nationalbank, Thomas Elkjaer of the International Monetary Fund and Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen differentiate between “phantom” and “real” foreign direct investment in their 2019 IMF working paper, “What Is Real and What Is Not in the Global FDI Network?” Phantom FDI flows to shell companies that do not engage in any business activities, and are used to minimize corporate taxation before the funds are channeled to their final destination. Among the host countries that receive a significant amount of phantom investment are the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore and Ireland. The phantom FDI overstates the actual amount of investment that takes place and obfuscates the ultimate ownership of foreign capital.
Damgaard, Elkjar and Johannsen use several sources of data in order to uncover the actual owners of FDI. These include the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, which reports foreign investments in 110 countries by the country of the immediate owner; the OECD’s Foreign Direct Investment Statistics, which differentiates between FDI in Special Purpose Entities (SPEs), a form of shell company, and non-SPE investment, and also includes information on the ultimate owners of investment; and Orbis, a global database of corporate data, including ownership information. Since the OECD data are incomplete, they estimate the share of real FDI in total FDI by using the negative relationship of real FDI/total FDI and total FDI/GDP.