A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.
“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.” Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.
But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:
Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.
This morning, Cato published a new study of mine titled, “Reversing Worrisome Trends: How to Attract and Retain Investment in a Competitive Global Economy.” The thrust of the paper is that, despite still being the world’s premiere destination for foreign direct investment, the U.S. share of the global stock of direct investment fell from 39% in 1999 to 17% today.
This downward trend is attributable to two broad factors. First, developing economies – many of which have achieved greater political stability, sustained economic growth, improved infrastructure and higher-quality worker skill sets – are now viable options for pulling in the kinds of FDI that was once untenable in those locales. Second, a deteriorating business and investment climate in the United States – owing to burgeoning, burdensome, and uncertain regulations; an antiquated, punitive corporate tax system; incoherent immigration, energy, and trade policies; a wayward tort system; cronyism and perceptions thereof; and other perverse incentives and disincentives of policy have pushed investment away.
The first trend should be welcomed and embraced; the second must be reversed. From the study:
Unlike ever before, the world’s producers have a wealth of options when it comes to where and how they organize product development, production, assembly, distribution, and other functions on the continuum from product conception to consumption. As businesses look to the most productive combinations of labor and capital, to the most efficient production processes, and to the best ways of getting products and services to market, perceptions about the business environment can be determinative. In a global economy, “offshoring” is an inevitable consequence of competition. And policy improvement should be the broad, beneficial result.
The capacity of the United States to continue to be a magnet for both foreign and domestic investment is largely a function of its advantages, many of which are shaped by public policy. Considerations of taxes, regulations, trade openness, access to skilled workers, infrastructure, energy policy, and dozens of other policy matters factor into decisions about whether, where, and how much to invest. It should be of major concern that inward FDI has been erratic and relatively downward trending in recent years, but why that is the case should not be a mystery. U.S. scores on a variety of renowned business surveys and investment indices measuring policy and perceptions of policy suggest that the U.S. business environment is becoming increasingly less hospitable.
Although some policymakers recognize the need for reform, others seem to be impervious to the investment-repelling effects of some of the laws and regulations they create. Some see the shale gas and oil booms as more than sufficient for overcoming policy shortcomings and attracting the necessary investment. The most naive consider “American” companies to be tethered to the U.S. economy and obligated to invest and hire in the United States, regardless of the quality of the business and policy environments. They fail to appreciate that increasingly transnational U.S.-based businesses are not obligated to invest, produce, or hire in the United States.
It is the responsibility of policymakers, however, to create an environment that is more attractive to prospective investors. Current laws, regulations, and other conditions affecting the U.S. business environment are conspiring to deter inward investment and to encourage companies to offshore operations that could otherwise be performed competitively in the United States.
A proper accounting of these policies, followed by implementation of reforms to remedy shortcomings, will be necessary if the United States is going to compete effectively for the investment required to fuel economic growth and higher living standards.
Details, charts, and analysis, and citations are all included here.
Since the beginning of the Great Uncertainty – the period that began with the “stimulus,” the auto bailout, the push for another major entitlement program, Dodd-Frank, the regulatory dam burst, the subsidies for favored industries, and the proliferation of distinctly anti-business rhetoric from the White House – President Obama has appeared puzzled by the dearth of business investment and hiring. Go figure.
Nonresidential fixed investment fell off a cliff in 2009, and has yet to recover even in nominal terms. As a share of GDP and relative to the trend in investment growth prior to the 2008 recession, the picture is more troubling still. If tomorrow’s wealth and living standards are functions of today’s investment – and they are – reversing the decline in investment should be the economic priority of U.S. policymakers.
Instead, the administration has been cavalier about the problem and aloof to real solutions, choosing to view investment as a casualty of partisan politics, as though business is intentionally holding back to sully the economy on this president’s watch. Such narcissism has obscured the White House’s capacity to grasp the power of incentives.
It’s not just domestic investment that is lagging. Foreign direct investment in real U.S. assets is also on the decline. The United States is part of a global economy, which means that U.S. and foreign based businesses can invest, hire, develop, produce, assemble and service almost anywhere they choose. And that means the United States is competing with the rest of the world to attract and retain investment. Of course, the implication of this – whether policymakers know it or not and whether they like it or not – is that globalization is serving to discipline bad public policy. Policies that are hostile to wealth creators chase them away, while smart policies attract them and harvest their fruits.
Business investment is ultimately a judgment about a jurisdiction’s institutions, policies, human capital, and prospects. As the world’s largest economy featuring a highly productive work force, world-class research universities, a relatively stable political climate, strong legal institutions, accessible capital markets, and countless other advantages, the United States has been able to attract the investment needed to produce the innovative ideas, revolutionary technologies, and new products and industries that have continued to undergird its position atop the global economic value chain.
The good news is that the $3.5 trillion of foreign direct investment parked in the United States accounted for 17 percent of the world’s direct investment stock in 2011 – more than triple the share of the next largest single-country destination. The troubling news is that in 1999 the United States accounted for 39 percent of the world’s investment stock.
Have you heard all the banter about a U.S. manufacturing renaissance? Numerous media reports in recent months have breathlessly described a return of manufacturing investment from foreign shores, mostly attributing the trend to rising wages in China and the natural gas boom in the United States, both of which have rendered manufacturing state-side more competitive. Today’s Washington Post includes a whole feature section titled “U.S. Manufacturing: A Special Report,” devoted entirely to the proposition that the manufacturing sector is back!
The myth of manufacturing decline begets the myth of manufacturing renaissance. This new mantra raises a question: How can there be a manufacturing renaissance if there was never a manufacturing “Dark Ages”?
Contrary to countless tales of its demise, U.S. manufacturing has always been strong relative to its own past and relative to other countries’ manufacturing sectors. With the exception of a handful of post-WWII recession years, U.S. manufacturing has achieved new records, year after year, with respect to output, value-added, revenues, return on investment, exports, imports, profits (usually), and numerous other metrics appropriate for evaluating the performance of the sector. The notion of U.S. manufacturing decline is simply one of the most pervasive economic myths of our time, sold to you by those who might benefit from manufacturing-friendly industrial policies with the abiding assistance of a media that sometimes struggles to distill fact from K Street speak.
Like almost everything about the 2012 presidential campaigns, the bickering between the major party candidates over who is most responsible for shipping jobs overseas has been banal and utterly uninformative. While politicians have scared many Americans with hyperbolized sales pitches about the costs of foreign outsourcing, most people remain in the dark about the causes and benefits of outsourcing. What is foreign outsourcing anyway? Why do some businesses invest in sales operations, research and development, production and assembly operations, or the provision of services abroad? Are low wages and lax environmental and safety standards in poor countries really the magnets attracting U.S. investment? If so, why is 75% of U.S. direct investment abroad in rich countries? What explains the fact that the United States (high-standard, rich country that it is) is the number one destination in the world for foreign direct investment? Doesn’t the fact that businesses have options in our globalized economy serve to discipline some of the worst government policies?
As I suggested in this recent post:
In a globalized economy, outsourcing is a natural consequence of competition. And policy competition is the natural consequence of outsourcing. Let’s encourage this process.
Answers to the questions raised in this post and some other thoughts about outsourcing are expressed in this cool 4+ minute video produced by Cato’s Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg:
In an era of misinformation overload, it is disheartening to see the Washington Post perpetuating the ignorance surrounding the issue of outsourcing. To be sure, in addressing the topic in Tuesday’s paper, writers Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig, and Zachary A. Goldfarb were merely presenting the case of Obama’s critics “primarily on the political left,” who claim the president has failed to make good on his promises to curtail the “shipping of jobs overseas.” That conclusion may be accurate. But the article’s regurgitation of myths about outsourcing and trade, peddled by those who benefit from restricting it, gives readers a parochial perspective that leaves them confused and uninformed about the manifestations, causes, consequences, benefits, and costs of outsourcing.
Outsourcing is a politically-charged term for U.S. direct investment abroad. Although the large majority of that investment goes to rich countries, the Post article claims that “American jobs have been shifting to low-wage countries for years, and the trend has continued during Obama’s presidency.” While that may be factually true, the numbers are likely fairly small. Many more jobs have been lost to the adoption of more productive manufacturing techniques and new technologies that require less labor. And we, overall, are much wealthier for it.
The article attributes 450,000 U.S. job losses to imports from China between 2008 and 2010 – a figure plucked from an “economic model” at the Economic Policy Institute that has been criticized by everyone in Washington but Chuck Schumer and Sherrod Brown. That estimate is the product of simplistic, inaccurate assumptions equating the value of exports and imports to set numbers of jobs created and destroyed, respectively, as if there were a linear relationship between the variables and as if imports didn’t create any U.S. jobs in, say, port operations, logistics, warehousing, retailing, designing, engineering, manufacturing, lawyering, accounting, etc. But imports do support jobs up and down the supply chain. Yet, so blindly committed are EPI’s stalwarts to the proposition that imports kill U.S. jobs that they even suggest that the number of job losses would have been greater than 450,000 had the U.S. economic slowdown not reduced demand for imports. In that tortured logic, the economic slowdown saved or created U.S. jobs. But I digress.
Contrary to the misconceptions so often reinforced in the media, outsourcing is not the product of U.S. businesses chasing low wages or weak environmental and labor standards abroad. Businesses are concerned about the entire cost of production, from product conception to consumption. Foreign wages and standards are but a few of the numerous considerations that factor into the ultimate investment and production decision. Those critical considerations include: the quality and skills of the work force; access to ports, rail, and other infrastructure; proximity of production location to the next phase in the supply chain or to the final market; time-to-market; the size of nearby markets; the overall economic environment in the host country or region; the political climate; the risk of asset expropriation; the regulatory environment; taxes; and the dependability of the rule of law, to name some.
The imperative of business is not to maximize national employment, but to maximize profits. Business is thus concerned with minimizing total costs, not wages, and that is why those several factors are all among the crucial determinants of investment and production decisions. Locales with low wages and lax standards tend to be expensive places to produce all but the most rudimentary goods because, typically, those environments are associated with low labor productivity and other economic, political, and structural impediments to operating smooth, cost-effective supply chains. Most of those crucial considerations favor investment in rich countries over poor.
Indeed, if low wages and lax standards were the real draw, then U.S. investment outflows wouldn’t be so heavily concentrated in rich countries. According to statistics published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 75 percent of the $4.1 trillion stock of U.S. direct investment abroad at the end of 2011 was in Europe, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong (i.e., rich countries). In contrast, only 1.3 percent of total U.S. foreign direct investment stock is in China.
Likewise, if wages and lax standards were magnets for investment, we wouldn’t see the vast sums of foreign direct investment in the United States that we do, and the United States wouldn’t be the world’s most prolific manufacturing nation. At the end of 2010, foreign direct investment in the United States totaled over $2.3 trillion, one third of which was invested in U.S. manufacturing facilities. As the president and his critics (including candidate Romney) drone on about the ravages of “shipping jobs overseas,” they should take a moment to note that 5.3 million Americans work for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies (jobs “outsourced” from other countries). And they should note that Europe’s Airbus announced last week that it is making a $600 million investment in a 1000-worker aircraft assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama, just down the road from the $5 billion, 1800-worker steel production facility belonging to Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp, which is located within a few hours’ drive of a dozen mostly foreign nameplate auto producers, who employ tens of thousands more U.S. workers and generate economic activity supporting thousands more. These investments, jobs, and related activity are the products of foreign companies outsourcing.
Why do these foreign companies come to American shores to produce instead of producing at home and exporting? Because each company has determined that it makes sense from an aggregate comparative cost perspective. They’re not here because of low wages or lax enforcement of labor and environmental standards, but because all of the factors affecting cost that each company uniquely considers, weigh – in the aggregate – in favor of investing here. One very important factor for a growing number of companies is proximity to market. Shipping products long distances can be costly, particularly for time-sensitive products and parts. And having a productive presence in your largest or fastest growing market is a factor that carries significant weight. Exporting is not always the best way to serve foreign demand.
But outsourcing has been stigmatized as a process whereby U.S. factories are disassembled rafter-by-rafter, machine-by-machine, bolt-by-bolt and then reassembled in some foreign location for the purpose of producing goods for sale back in the United States. There may be a few instances where that accurately depicts what took place, but it is simply inaccurate to generalize from those cases. According to the BEA research described in these two papers (Griswold and Slaughter), between 90 and 93 percent of U.S. outsourcing – investment abroad – is for the purpose of serving foreign demand. Only between 7 and 10 percent of that investment is for the purpose of making sales back to the United States.
In 2009, U.S. multinationals sold over $6 trillion worth of goods and services in the foreign countries in which they operate, which was nearly quadruple the value of all U.S. exports that year. Outsourcing helps make U.S. multinational corporations more competitive, and the profits they earn abroad (even if they’re not repatriated) underwrite investment and hiring by the parent companies in the United States. Typically, the U.S. companies that are investing abroad are the same companies that are investing in the United States for reasons that include the fact that U.S. MNC investment abroad tends to spur complementary investment and hiring in the U.S. parent operations.
The capacity to outsource also serves another crucial, underappreciated function: to safeguard against bad U.S. policy. Like tax competition, outsourcing provides alternatives for businesses, which help discipline sub-optimal or punitive government policy. Because of globalization and outsourcing, businesses can choose to produce and operate in other countries, where the economic and political environments may be more favorable. As more and more companies undertake these comparative aggregate cost-of-doing-business assessments, governments will have to think long and hard about their policies.
Governments are now competing with each other to attract the financial, physical, and human capital necessary to nourish high value-added, innovation-driven, 21st century economies. Restricting or taxing outsourcing as a means of trapping that investment wouldn’t be prudent. It would render U.S.businesses less competitive, and ultimately reduce employment, compensation, and economic activity. In this globalized economy, policymakers cannot compel investment, production, and hiring through threat or mandate without killing the golden goose. But they can incentive U.S.companies to return some operations stateside and foreign firms to invest more here by adopting and maintaining favorable policies.
According to the results of a survey of over 13,000 business executives worldwide published in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011/12, there are 57 countries with less burdensome regulations than the United States. That same survey found that business executives are increasingly concerned about crony capitalism in the United States, ranking the U.S. 50th out of 142 economies in terms of the government’s ability to keep an arms-length relationship with the private sector. Then consider the fact that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate among all OECD countries. Add to that the prevalence of frivolous lawsuits, political uncertainty, out-of-control government spending, the dearth of skilled workers, uncertainty about the tax burden come 2013, and it starts to become clear why U.S. companies might consider investing and producing abroad. But policymakers can improve policy – in theory, at least.
It boils down to this. About 95 percent of the world’s consumers and workers live outside the United States. We live in a world where U.S. companies have much more competition on the supply side, much greater opportunity on the demand side, and far greater potential for tapping into a global division of labor (i.e., collaborating across borders in production) than 50, 20, even 5 years ago. After a very long slumber, the rest of the world has come on-line. We should embrace, not curse, that development.
In a globalized economy, outsourcing is a natural consequence of competition. And policy competition is the natural consequence of outsourcing. Let’s encourage this process.
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