Global firms are surprisingly vulnerable to attack
AMONG the many things that Donald Trump dislikes are big global firms. Faceless and rootless, they stand accused of unleashing “carnage” on ordinary Americans by shipping jobs and factories abroad. His answer is to domesticate these marauding multinationals. Lower taxes will draw their cash home, border charges will hobble their cross-border supply chains and the trade deals that help them do business will be rewritten. To avoid punitive treatment, “all you have to do is stay,” he told American bosses this week.
Mr Trump is unusual in his aggressively protectionist tone. But in many ways he is behind the times. Multinational companies, the agents behind global integration, were already in retreat well before the populist revolts of 2016. Their financial performance has slipped so that they are no longer outstripping local firms. Many seem to have exhausted their ability to cut costs and taxes and to out-think their local competitors. Mr Trump’s broadsides are aimed at companies that are surprisingly vulnerable and, in many cases, are already heading home. The impact on global commerce will be profound.
The end of the arbitrage
Multinational firms (those that do a large chunk of their business outside their home region) employ only one in 50 of the world’s workers. But they matter. A few thousand firms influence what billions of people watch, wear and eat. The likes of IBM, McDonald’s, Ford, H&M, Infosys, Lenovo and Honda have been the benchmark for managers. They co-ordinate the supply chains that account for over 50% of all trade. They account for a third of the value of the world’s stockmarkets and they own the lion’s share of its intellectual property—from lingerie designs to virtual-reality software and diabetes drugs.
They boomed in the early 1990s, as China and the former Soviet bloc opened and Europe integrated. Investors liked global firms’ economies of scale and efficiency. Rather than running themselves as national fiefs, firms unbundled their functions. A Chinese factory might use tools from Germany, have owners in the United States, pay taxes in Luxembourg and sell to Japan. Governments in the rich world dreamed of their national champions becoming world-beaters. Governments in the emerging world welcomed the jobs, exports and technology that global firms brought. It was a golden age.