For U.S. Multinationals, More Jobs Abroad Mean More Jobs at Home

We haven’t heard politicians complain much lately about “tax breaks for U.S. companies that ship jobs overseas,” perhaps because the next federal election is still more than a year away.

An article in the Financial Times today shows why that charge rings pretty hollow anytime in the election cycle. In an interview with CEO Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar Inc., the FT notes that the Peoria, Ill.-based maker of earth-moving equipment has been thriving even though the domestic U.S. economy has been stuck in low gear.

Like many U.S. multinational companies, Caterpillar has been expanding its sales and profits by selling its products in rapidly growing emerging markets while spreading its production facilities around the world. Here’s the key passage for those politicians who complain about U.S. companies investing and hiring abroad:

In recent months, [Caterpillar] has announced plans for new factories in Singapore, Thailand, China and Brazil.

In the US, it is building a new distribution centre in Washington state while expanding its factories in North Dakota and Kansas.

Caterpillar has hired about 29,000 people worldwide in the past 20 months, some 13,000 of them in the US, with most of the rest in China, Brazil, Mexico and the UK.

The Caterpillar experience shows that job creation is not a zero-sum game, where jobs created abroad by U.S. companies must come at the expense of production and employment in the United States. In fact, as I show in my 2009 book Mad about Trade (pp. 100-104), the Caterpillar experience is not unusual. U.S. employment by parent companies will typically rise and fall in synch with employment at their affiliates abroad. For U.S. multinationals:

Foreign and domestic operations tend to complement each other and expand together. A successful company operating in a favorable business climate will tend to expand employment at both its domestic and overseas operations. More activity and sales abroad usually require more managers, accountants, lawyers, engineers, and production workers at the parent company.

As for those “tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas,” I explained why they are not a problem in an op-ed in the New York Post during the last election cycle. Keep it handy for when the demagoguery starts flying again next fall.