Economic truths: A nation of investors overseas - Despite the BMW-Rover debacle, Britain is benefiting enormously from its remarkable levels of foreign investment - in both directions

Economic truths: A nation of investors overseas - Despite the BMW-Rover debacle, Britain is benefiting enormously from its remarkable levels of foreign investment - in both directions - Of all the thousands of words that have been written on BMW and Rover

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Of all the thousands of words that have been written on BMW and Rover, I don't think I've seen any comment on one particular aspect. So used have we become to foreign companies coming to Britain and showing us how to run things that the sight of one of them making an even bigger mess of it than we have is shocking indeed.

We must assume that it is the exception that proves the rule. Companies that invest overseas generally do well out of it and, given the scale of international direct investment, the number of genuine BMW-Rover type disasters is small. Foreign investment is driven by the search for higher returns and, in general, that search is successful.

Earlier this year, UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development) produced some startling figures. Not only is foreign direct investment booming - up by 25% last year to dollars 827 billion (pounds 517 billion) - but Britain is the world leader. For the first time since 1988, when Lord Hanson and others were busy buying up America, UK businesses topped the global league for foreign direct investment, investing pounds 132 billion overseas, more than a quarter of the global total and over 35% more than the US. True, the figures would have looked a lot smaller without Vodafone, which spent more than pounds 40 billion acquiring AirTouch of the US. But Vodafone's success in its bid for Germany's Mannesmann - for an outlay of well over pounds 100 billion - should keep Britain at the top of the league this year.

As well as being a huge overseas investor, Britain is also open to inward investment. The UK continues to be the leading target for companies outside the European Union, especially American firms.

Of the two flows, direct investment overseas by UK firms is greater than investment here by foreigners, a position that has become more entrenched over the past decade or so. According to Bank of England figures, Britain's overseas assets stood at around pounds 2,420 billion last year, while liabilities amounted to pounds 2,470 billion. However, direct assets abroad owned by UK firms and residents were about pounds 400 billion, whereas assets of overseas firms and individuals here were around pounds 220 billion.

There is evidence that both sets of figures are understated, because they are at book value rather than market value. Revalued on the latter basis, the stock of direct investment by UK firms abroad is some pounds 900 billion, against pounds 600 billion for overseas direct investment here. Most other assets and liabilities are in the form of portfolio investment.

British firms are, then, determined overseas investors. They are, to paraphrase Hanson's advertising slogan of the 1980s, companies from over here doing rather well over there. Interestingly, given the debate over the effect of a strong pound and continued non-membership of the euro area on inward investment in Britain, investment flows seem only loosely linked, if at all, to what is happening in the currency markets.

What drives all this activity? Why are British firms often more successful when they invest in other countries?

If foreign firms, BMW excepted, can see so many profitable opportunities in Britain, should not UK firms investing overseas look closer to home?

The answer comes in several parts. First is the law of comparative advantage.

British-based firms investing abroad play to their strengths, whether in telecoms, pharmaceuticals or other sectors. By the same token, Japanese and American firms appear to be better at motor manufacturing than we are, hence the long history of inward investment in this sector.

The second driver is the search for better returns. Averaged through the 20th century, the rate of return on capital has been about a percentage point higher in America than in Britain. This tells us little, however, about how returns vary in individual sectors. In general, firms diversifying overseas will seek returns at least on a par with those available at home.

The third answer is strategic. No serious players in any industry are confined to a single market or production base. Globalisation means an acceleration in the pace of international acquisition. The current wave of mergers in Europe reflects that.

Finally, determined international expansion through acquisition or direct investment is often a direct result of competition policy. The globalisation argument has yet to affect significantly the way competition issues are handled, certainly in Britain. This is another factor that makes the overseas route attractive to firms wishing to expand and increase their global market presence.

Is the fact that UK plc is an aggressive overseas investor a good thing? Does it destroy jobs by depriving British workers of capital? No. Most of the arguments against overseas investment are just a variant of the old mercantilist case against international trade. Such investment brings a return of pounds 18 billion a year to Britain's balance of payments. Long may it continue.

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