Voters in Massachusetts, Georgia, Illinois, and elsewhere are being treated to a little 2012 redux, as desperate candidates try to paint their opponents with last election’s popular pejorative: “Outsourcer!” You may recall the accusations exchanged between President Obama and Mitt Romney two years ago, as each sought to portray the other as more guilty of perpetuating the “scourge” of outsourcing. At the time, I faulted Romney for running away from what I thought was his responsibility (as the businessman in the race) to explain why companies outsource in the first place, and how doing so benefits the economy and leads to better public policies. Had he done so, his explanation might have sounded something like this.
For many people, the term outsourcing evokes factories shuttering in the industrial midwest only to be ressurrected in Mexico or China to produce the exact same output for export back to the United States. While a popular image of outsourcing, that particular rationale – to produce for export back to the United States – accounts for less than 10 percent of the value of U.S. direct investment abroad (as this paper describes in some detail). Over 90 percent of outward FDI is for the purpose of serving foreign goods and services markets and for performing value-added activities in conjunction with transnational production and supply chains. In most industries, it is difficult to succeed in foreign markets without some presence in those markets. And without success in foreign markets (where 95% of the world’s consumer’s reside), it is more difficult to succeed at home.
So, does “outsourcing” really deserve its bad reputation? Does it really hurt the U.S. economy? Well, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis collects and compiles the kinds of data that can help us begin to answer these questions, including data about inward and outward foreign direct investment, and the activities of U.S. multinational corporations – both U.S. parents companies and their foreign subsidiaries. The scatterplots presented below reflect the relationships between annual changes in various performance metrics (value added, capital expenditures, R&D expenditures, sales revenues, employment, and compensation per employee) experienced by U.S. parent companies and their foreign affiliates. Each point on each plot represents a combination of the annual percent change for the affiliate (horizontal axis) and the parent (vertical axis) in a given year.
If a foreign hire comes at the expense of a U.S. job, if ramping up production abroad means curtailing output at home, if a $100 million investment in a new production line or research center abroad means that plans for a new line or center in the United States get scrapped, if foreign outsourcing is as bad as its critics suggest, then we should expect to see an inverse relationship (at least not a direct or positive relationship) between the economic activities at U.S. parents and their foreign affiliates. We should expect to see most of the points in the upper-left or lower-right quadrants of the plots below.