The Era of the Multinational


The world is about to see the greater presence of multinationals, particularly from emerging-economies like China. While resistance to immigrants and foreign companies today is rising in many countries, the overall volume of cross-border flows of products, services, money, and digital information is increasing, and we’re entering a phase where foreign multinationals are going to have more influence on the economic health of every country. Much of the multinational growth will be from Asian companies. National governments will struggle to develop policies for the more dynamic global economy that will encourage the multinationals’ investments in their countries, get them to bring new technologies, products, and services, and yet hold them accountable for their actions, behavior, and negative outcomes. And the governments will make many policy mistakes in accommodating the increased activities. Given the size of the multinationals and the sectors of the economy they shape, mistakes by the multinationals and government policies could be very expensive for everyone.


The role of multinationals in national economies appears to be increasing, and countries are leery of it. Digital globalization and the growth of cross-border supply chain networks are increasing the competitiveness of international companies around the world. Countries are reacting with a range of new policies to the perceived multinational threats and opportunities. Key signals that a new era of the multinational may be coming include:

  • Cross-border production, investment, and innovation by multinational corporations have been key drivers in the world’s economic growth since 1990. According to the World Investment Report 2015 by UNCTAD, multinational affiliate sales as a share of world GDP more than doubled from 1990, increasing from 25 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2014. This extraordinary activity of multinationals has transformed the economies of developed and developing countries, changed dramatically where and how commerce is done, and affected the dynamics of local and global markets. When multinationals set up operations in a foreign country, they are taking steps to compete in a local complex, dynamic environment that requires local information gathering, direct access to best-available local resources, and operational decision making to be as flexible as what the local competitors can do. In addition, setting up locally helps avoid trade and regulatory barriers to foreign companies.
  • The McKinsey Global Institute report on digital globalization, published in February 2016, highlighted the dramatic changes in global flows because of cross-border digital data flows.
    • Traditional global flows of goods, services, and finance are generally increasing, but have declined relative to GDP, from 53 percent of GDP in 2007 to 39 percent in 2014.
    • Emerging economies are now counterparts on more than half of global trade flows.
    • But cross-border bandwidth usage increased from 4.7 Terabits per second (Tbps) in 2005 to 211.3 Tbps in 2014, a 45x increase and McKinsey estimates data flows now impact world GDP more than global trade in goods does. This is because digital platforms with their near-zero marginal costs of communications and transactions across borders enable faraway buyers and sellers to find each other and conduct business cheaply and efficiently.
    • A new breed of multinational, the micro-multinational, can now expand overseas quickly and cheaply, enabled by global internet platforms like Amazon, eBay, Facebook, PayPal, and Kickstarter. At the end of 2015, the user bases of Facebook (1,590 million), YouTube (1,000m), WhatsApp (1,000m), WeChat (650m), Alibaba (407m), Instagram (400m), Twitter (320m), Skye (300m), and Amazon (300m) were of the same scale as the world’s most-populated countries China (1,370 million), India (1,314m), United States (321m), Indonesia (256m), and Brazil (206m).
  • Despite the stimulus from increasing cross-border flows, many governments still limit the participation of foreign owned corporations to preserve local markets for local companies.
    • At the recent G-20 summit in China at the beginning of September, China faced much criticism for limiting inward investment while large state-controlled and non-state controlled Chinese companies, the beneficiaries of protected markets, are able to invest freely overseas.
    • In September 2016, J. P. Morgan Chase became one of the few international investment firms approved to operate a wholly owned investment company in China. How long has it taken? This license was issued shortly before the beginning of the G-20 summit on economic matters.
    • Market access/cybersecurity problems produce foreign corporate allies. Microsoft and Chinese company Huawei Technologies just announced their joint support of the EastWest Institute, a nonprofit focused on encouraging open discussions of cyber security issues and new information technology products. Microsoft is facing the antitrust heat from Chinese regulators while Huawei can’t compete for US telecommunications-equipment opportunities because of US government concerns over cyberspying.
    • In August 2016, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, a Treasury-led panel, gave the go-ahead to state-owned ChemChina’s purchase of Swiss-firm Syngenta, which supplies about one-fifth of the world’s pesticides and about 10 percent of the soybean seeds to US farmers. When completed, this $43 billion deal would be the biggest overseas deal by a Chinese company.
  • In the last ten years, the incomes of most households in advanced economies have been flat or fallen. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, 65-70 percent of the advanced-economy populations were in groups with flat or declining real income in the period 2005 to 2014. The percentages ranged from 97 percent in Italy, to 81 percent in the United States, to 63 percent in France, and to 20 percent in Sweden. It’s not surprising that social and labor issues are rising in the advanced economies. More immigration and successes of foreign-owned corporations create hot buttons for politicians and government officials to address.
  • The investment opportunities in Europe are so bleak European companies have recently been able to borrow money at negative interest rates. French company Sanofi SA and German company Henkel AG raised more money from bond sales recently than they will have to pay back when the debt matures in a few years. The bonds were priced with a yield of minus -0.05 percent.
  • As the influence of multinationals increases in countries, government resistance to that influence appears to increase as well.
    • European government agencies are trying to protect European markets from being dominated by foreign-owned multinationals. The European Commission recently ordered the Republic of Ireland to collect $14.7 billion in unpaid taxes from Apple. The order appears to be an effort by the European Commission both to force Ireland to increase its low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent and to grab back some of the cash generated by Apple from sales in the European Union. In another move, the European Commission is planning to propose EU-wide rules to give European publishers new rights to seek payment from online news aggregators like Google.
    • A recent US Treasury white paper claims the European Union’s competition commission is “targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.”
    • Anti-foreign company sentiments work both ways: Volkswagen’s $19.4 billion settlement for its diesel-emissions contraventions is significantly higher than GM’s $900 million fine for concealing an ignition-switch defect tied to at least 174 deaths.
    • Didi Chuxing’s acquisition of Uber’s China business will essentially preserve China’s ride-hailing market for Chinese companies. Uber probably discovered this is the outcome the Chinese government wanted to happen.
  • Governments are advancing proposals to make big business, including multinationals, better citizens where they operate.
    • The US Security Exchange Commission is re-evaluating its disclosure rules for public companies, including whether to require mandatory disclosure of risks related to climate change. A task force of the Financial Stability Board of the G20 countries will soon issue a report with recommendations on how companies in different industries should disclose financial risks posed by climate change.
    • Shortly before she took over as UK’s Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May proposed to reform the governance of big business by including employee representation on boards, “I want to see changes in the way that big business is governed. The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders.” She also called for a protective industrial strategy that would defend important sectors from foreign takeovers.
  • A new phenomenon is the rapid growth of emerging-market multinationals, particularly from China, around the world. Their methods and skills in operating as a multinational vary widely.
    • Wall Street Journal article on September 9, 2016 about a stockpile of one million metric tons of aluminum, worth about $2 billion and representing about 6 percent of the world’s total inventory, stored in a remote desert location in Mexico, that appeared to be owned by China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., owned by the billionaire Liu Zhongtian. It appeared Zhongwang Holdings was trying to evade US tariffs imposed by the US Department of Commerce for selling aluminum overseas while receiving subsidies in China by routing the aluminum through Mexico to disguise its origins.


Much is uncertain about the future for multinationals; many factors will affect their investment and location decisions. A big factor will be the general health of the global economy and the location of new market opportunities. Important factors include how nationalism trends will play out in the advanced economies and what new government policies to open or close domestic markets to multinationals will be enacted. Other factors include how aggressive will state-controlled and private Chinese multinationals be in foreign markets and how will the energy supply and demand situation evolve around the world. Given these factors, the following are plausible but uncertain developments.

  • Markets will increasingly be connected. Despite national governments’ concerns about domestic unemployment and failures to implement new free-trade agreements, global cross-border flows could increase significantly, driven by the ever-expanding global access to the internet and the competitive efforts of multinationals to increase market share. McKinsey’s report on digital globalization estimated cross-border bandwidth usage per year will increase about 9 times in the next five years.
  • Foreign multinationals are going to have more influence on the economic health of countries. In most countries around the world, multinationals will be increasingly important. Their number and penetration of local markets will expand.
  • The dominance of Silicon Valley companies in high tech markets could wane. High-tech emerging-economy companies, particularly from China, will begin to assume market leader positions in several industries.
  • The dominance of natural resource suppliers from advanced economies will be replaced by the dominance of natural resource suppliers from developing countries. See the recent post entitled, “Who Will Do Well After the Global Commodities Glut?”
  • Multinationals will become the world’s experts in resilient or adaptive strategy for complex environments. To compete effectively against multinationals and local companies in tens to hundreds of local markets, multinationals will become increasingly sophisticated in the strategies, governance, and processes for information gathering, decision-making, and execution in dynamic, complex environments. See the recent blog I posted on the US Army’s new doctrine for fighting insurgents in urban environments that is a framework for an adaptive strategy.
  • The era of the multinational may not happen if multinationals can’t handle cyber risks. With the greater dependence on digital networks and systems, multinationals will be continually vulnerable to cyber attacks. Most likely multinationals and governments will both invest significant resources to protect digital data and thwart cyber attacks, and global integration won’t be slowed. But cybercrime will be a major industry, and some multinationals will experience catastrophic losses.
  • The fate of many multinationals will be tied to cyber relationships with their home countries. The cyber relationships between many multinationals and their home country governments will be strong, although often obscure. It will also be hard for many companies to effect digital independence from the home country government.
  • An interesting decision is whether a multinational can or should align themselves with their home-country identity. Some will do so for a variety of reasons, but over time as they grow many will distance themselves from close association with their original home government.
  • Cross-border mergers and acquisitions will be key feature of the global economy as multinationals adjust their portfolios in response to the changing market and government-policy conditions.
  • Due to social unrest and political tensions in North America and Europe, new free-trade agreements will be difficult to pass and implement in the next ten years. The existing global mechanisms for encouraging free trade and discouraging domestic subsidies will be considered effective enough.
  • The number of large financial penalties on foreign multinationals will increase for fraud, human life and property damages, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time will increase, perhaps substantially in response to political pressures to punish large foreign multinationals taking advantage of the country’s good will.
  • Bilateral relations will be severely tested when one government severely cripples a multinational from another country. Some governments will intervene to protect their multinational and the jobs, tax payments, and other benefits accruing to the country from the multinational’s success. (Can I contract with Russia’s military to hit that country?)
  • Seeing the growing influence of multinationals in their economies, governments could push new policies to make multinationals more accountable for the social costs of their products, services, and operations wherever they operate.
  • Governments could push for global standards or systems for business taxes, environmental regulations, climate change risks, and shareholder, board, and management governance.
  • As European companies struggle to compete with American internet platform companies and new Asian juggernauts for local revenues, European authorities will implement policies to protect local companies, exact large financial penalties on the multinationals, and reduce the influence and dominance of US multinationals.

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