The big, bad multinationals are really the good guys of global investment

the role of large corporations
It was the vogue in the 1960s and 1970s to portray multinationals investing in developing countries as the evil agents of western imperialism. But the following decade many developing countries decided that they rather fancied the funds, jobs and know-how that came with foreign investment. In a sign of this change of heart, political correctniks renamed multinationals "transnational corporations" - not exactly cuddly, but at least it shed some of that old ideological baggage.

Now the M-word is back, reflecting the concern generated by the Mexican crisis three years ago and this year's Asian upheaval that too much investment by foreign capitalists is definitely a bad thing. The new rhetoric is a near-perfect echo of the Sixties version.

For example, the multinational monitors at Corporate Watch say: "The borders and regulatory agents of most governments are caving in to the New World Order of globalisation, allowing corporations to assume an ever more stateless quality, leaving them less and less accountable to any government anywhere."*

One of this school of thought's favourite factlets is that out of the world's 100 biggest economic entities, 51 are corporations and only 49 countries. But, appealing as it is to have found a scapegoat for the problems resulting from changes in the world economic landscape, it is worth looking beyond the rhetoric.

Take that fact first. It is based on a comparison of the annual sales of companies in the Fortune Global 500 with annual GDP for different countries. Skate over the fact that sales and national output are entirely different concepts, and you indeed find that General Motors has turnover in excess of the GDP of Tonga and a whole host of other countries.

This is just the same as saying that America is a much bigger economy than most others, so its big companies are big by world standards. Among the other big, bad multinationals are the supermarket chain Wal-Mart and the United States Postal Service.

It is just not a serious argument to present the US mail - remember Cliff in Cheers? - as an international economic predator. Some of the companies that really do exercise undue influence over elected governments, like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, are relatively small and only just scrape into the top 500.

Besides, most companies influence their own government but not others, so it is the US government that feels the heat of GM's opposition to a higher energy tax, say.

This mis-perception matters because many campaigners are getting into a state about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) being negotiated by the member governments of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

For example, an Oxfam briefing says the MAI falls "far short of establishing a fair framework of rules governing international investment. The MAI is aimed at creating common legally binding rules to reduce government regulation and control of foreign investors..."

And the newly published annual State of the World 1998 from the Worldwatch Institute in Washington**, says: "If this agreement goes ahead as planned, it could constrain the ability of countries to put in place policies that would minimise the environmental damage and social disruption of foreign investment projects."

While it admits that the MAI will apply only to OECD members, it notes that it will be open to other countries to join, and claims it could become a model for a global agreement in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Curiously, business organisations have been rather fearful that the MAI will impose extra restrictions on their ability to invest overseas, using environmental standards as an excuse.

In fact, the point of the treaty is not to alter the standards and regulations of national governments to make them conform with an ultra-free market model, but rather to make sure governments apply the same rules to foreign as domestic companies. If it is signed in April, overseas investors will have to meet the same environmental and other standards, within national boundaries, as home investors.

According to an OECD expert: "This is not a carte blanche for multinationals to pollute the planet." Obviously, the agreement is designed to make foreign investment easier, and this means striking a balance between corporate and other interests. But the bottom line is that it will not happen in a form unacceptable to the member governments. It is intended more as something like an international shipping treaty or EU investment directive than a charter for rampant global capitalism.

Nor will it automatically apply to developing countries through the WTO, although it is true that investors will look more favourably on countries that have signed up.

The international trade watchdog does have a working party looking at the issue, but it has no authority to negotiate this kind of agreement. A world-wide MAI would require a new treaty that, again, satisfied all the signatories.

The campaigners' concern is overdone because they tend to read an ideological agenda, and one that runs counter to their own, into multinationals' actions. In fact, multinationals are the goodies on the international investment scene. Companies so big tend to be more socially and environmentally responsible than smaller companies, albeit with dishonourable exceptions.

When they invest directly in developing countries, they almost always offer better pay and conditions than local firms. (Of course, the wages are lower than they would have to pay at home, which is why unions protecting members' interests in the developed countries are prominent among the anti-MAI campaigners.)

Looking more broadly at the recent examples of turmoil in international finance, direct investors have hardly been involved. Direct investment accounted for 45 per cent of the near-$250bn total flow of finance across borders in 1996.

The instability has been driven by swift reversals in bank lending and portfolio investment in bonds and equities. If there is one aspect of overseas investment that requires extra regulation it is the short-term flows, not the longer-term direct investment.

This is anyway a big "if" because it assumes that capital flows are the cause of crises, whereas they are, at most, the catalyst. As events in Asia have demonstrated, the real causes lie in the structures of political and financial institutions rather than the existence of the financial markets.


** Published by Norton, 1998, $13.95.