FDI’s Flat Field Contours

UNCTAD’s annual report on FDI trends was pessimistic with an unchanged $670 billion total in developing economies, against an overall 25% global drop last year to $1.4 trillion. Asia and Latin America had marginal increases, while Africa inflows slumped 20% to $40 billion. Cross-border mergers and greenfield investment fell 20% and 15% respectively, and the 2018 forecast is for marginal improvement, below the past decade average, despite higher GDP growth and commodity prices. Trade tension and policy doubt abound to constrain value chains, and recent US tax reform could shift commercial patterns. Rates of return are now under 7%, and competition is stiffer from portfolio flows with a rising relative share of emerging market external finance. As production moves from physical to intangible factors asset and employee expansion has slowed, and value chain participation peaked five years ago. Liberalization continues with 65 countries adopting measures, but a “more critical stance” is apparent with new ownership and takeover restrictions, particularly on land and technology firms on security grounds. Treaty terminations exceeded fresh agreements in 2017, and state investor disputes are up to 850 cases. Industrial policies are a common tool, with incentives and special zones the preferred models. Most target manufacturing but advanced services are now in the mix which often entail more sophisticated infrastructure. The report advises promoters to avoid overregulation and adopt social and environmental considerations, and to coordinate national approaches with international business partners. The developing world takes almost half of FDI, but transition economies in Europe and Central Asia experienced a 25% drop in 2017’s “negative cycle.” Advanced economy declines were especially pronounced in the US and UK, spurring a rise in Asia’s global share to one-third the total. Africa was battered by the commodity “bust” and South Africa’s allocation shrank 40% on simultaneous political turmoil. China, Hong Kong and Singapore are in the top 5 recipients, and Brazil and India join the leading ten worldwide. In Latin America activity has moved from natural resources to infrastructure, business processing and information technology. As a group the BRICS inflow was steady at $275 billion, while outward investment plummeted 20% from European multinationals across the board to $400 billion. Emerging market companies, particularly Chinese ones, committed 5% less abroad.

Extractive industry deals and greenfield projects slid 70%, and high-skill manufacturing ones are also in long-term decline, according to UNCTAD. Lower-skill South-South versions have been active from Asia into Africa, but are concentrated in a few locations like Ethiopia. FDI has historically been less volatile than bonds and loans, and equity infusion is small given the level of capital market development. Official assistance is stagnant, and remittances are another steady flow but go mostly for household consumption, Higher interest rates, and geopolitical and protectionist risks shadow the medium-term outlook despite relative optimism in corporate surveys. Africa could jump with implementation of the continental free trade pact and Europe should recover outside Russia under continued international sanctions. Financial companies plan to focus on the developed world as investment promotion agencies seek to diversify into food processing, pharmaceuticals and information services. The CFIUS screening process in Washington will be a harbinger of a cooler welcome likely to last beyond the current tempest, the publication cautions.