America leaves foreign firms out in the cold
Posted by hkarner - 14. Januar 2017
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter
Populism, economic concentration and regulation are some of the reasons foreign bosses are souring on the land of the free
WHICH is it? The home of free speech, the rule of law and the rich world’s most dynamic economy? Or a land of social decay, septic politics and the rich world’s worst roads and schools? America divides foreign observers. It divides foreign firms, too. Some bosses fall head over heels for its insatiable consumers and dazzling technology. Other executives are put off by its insufferable lawyers and hypocritical protectionism. Donald Trump promises to give foreign firms a rude awakening when he reaches the White House: this month he beat up Toyota for making cars in Mexico and selling them north of the border. But in truth many foreign firms fell out of love with America years ago.The conventional view is that foreign companies are irresistibly attracted to the place. If one affair ends in tears, there is always a new paramour in the wings. In the 1970s British buccaneers, led by Sir James Goldsmith, picked up neglected firms. In the 1980s Japanese firms lost their financial virginity by paying too much for Hollywood studios and Californian skyscrapers. A decade later continental European firms rushed across the pond, culminating in Daimler’s doomed tryst with Chrysler, a rival carmaker. By this account, Chinese firms are the latest to get the love bug, with China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, in the role of the besotted tycoon, having paid a blockbuster $4bn to assemble a chain of mature American cinemas since 2012.
But this narrative is hopelessly out of date. The most accurate metaphor for foreign firms in America today is of disappointed hopes. Their share of private output has been flat at about 6% since 2000. The share of sales that European firms make in America has declined from 20% in 2003 to 17% now, according to Morgan Stanley, a bank. Foreign firms’ profits in America fell from $134bn in 2006 to $123bn in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available. Their return on equity fell to 6%, compared with 11% in 2006. American multinationals make 12% on their home turf.
This souring romance reflects three deep shifts in America’s economy. First, technology has a greater importance than it used to. At the same time the gap between Silicon Valley’s giants and their peers abroad has grown wider. A generation ago Europe and Japan had real contenders in the technology industry, such as Nokia and Sony. Now they have no answer to the likes of Apple, Google and Uber.
Second, waves of mergers and acquisitions have made the economy more concentrated. That has raised the barriers to entry for outsiders. If you split the world’s companies into 68 industries, American firms are the largest in two-thirds of them. Foreign companies in America are often subscale and too small to buy the leading firms in their sector. So they try to grow organically or buy weaklings instead. In 2013 SoftBank, a Japanese technology group, paid $22bn to buy a struggling mobile-phone operator, Sprint, which is now losing a billion dollars a year. The most profitable investment in living memory by a foreign firm in America was not a gutsy triumph but a passive stake in a domestic oligopoly: Vodafone’s 45% share of Verizon Wireless, which it sold for $130bn in 2014.
The third reason for foreign firms’ discontent is the growth in lobbying, litigation and regulatory action in America. Foreign companies feel they are at a competitive disadvantage. In the most regulated sector of all—banks—their market share has fallen to 14% from 18% in the past 24 months, partly, they argue, owing to onerous new rules. Most fines involve lots of official discretion. In carmaking and energy, Volkswagen and BP have admitted their respective responsibilities for fake emissions tests and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But many European bosses believe that the cumulative $70bn of legal costs and penalties they have paid or currently face far exceed those that General Motors and ExxonMobil paid for similarly grave mistakes. In December Barclays vowed to fight a $5bn-odd fine for mortgage mis-selling, which it argues is harsher than those faced by American banks.
The Trump administration could well awaken a protectionist impulse at big domestic firms that lies not far beneath the surface, reckon the most pessimistic of all. Jamie Dimon’s latest letter to the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase warns that American banks’ dominance could be threatened by Chinese rivals. A report on semiconductors for the White House this month, written by a body that includes the bosses of Google, Qualcomm and Northrop Grumman, recommends protecting the chip industry from Chinese competition. America’s airlines constantly complain about unfair competition from Emirates and other rivals.
Takeovers or makeovers
A more populist America may require fresh tactics from foreigners. Some are working on their connections. Masayoshi Son, boss of SoftBank, pledged to invest $50bn in America after meeting Mr Trump in December. The head of Anbang Insurance, a Chinese firm that is no stranger to relationship-based capitalism at home, dined with Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in November. Anbang owns the Waldorf Astoria, among other American assets. Another approach is to buy a well-placed oligopoly. InBev’s purchase in 2008 of Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser Beer, has become a model for winning in America. Other deals in 2016 echoed it. Bayer agreed to buy Monsanto, which dominates the agricultural-seed business, and BAT is bidding for Reynolds American, which has a big share of the tobacco market.
A last option is for foreign firms to assume a more American identity. In sensitive sectors, they already try to take on a local character. BAE Systems, a defence concern, has a separate American board stacked with former brass hats. After the trade spats of the 1980s, Asian car firms localised their production and management. Rupert Murdoch shifted his media empire’s domicile from Australia to America in 2004. As any dating-website veteran will tell you, if you can’t find love, change your appearance.