Reposted from savingusmanufacturing.com
Last week The Economist conducted an on-line debate on the question: Do multinational corporations have a duty to maintain a strong presence in their home countries? After a very intense written debate between Harry Moser, former president of GF AgieCharmilles and founder of the Reshoring Initiative, and Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics and Law, Columbia University, the vote was 54% “yes,” and 46% “no.”
The moderator of the debate was Tamzin Booth, European business correspondent for The Economist, who introduced the topic by stating, “after the Great Recession, with high levels of unemployment persisting in rich countries, politicians are putting enormous pressure on firms to either keep operations at home or bring them back. The offshoring and outsourcing of work overseas have never been more unpopular. So strong is the backlash against firms which shift jobs abroad that many companies are choosing not to do it for fear of igniting a public outcry. And a “reshoring” trend, bringing factories home to America from China and elsewhere, is gathering pace and support from several American multinationals, including General Electric and Ford Motor Company.”
While Mr. Moser acknowledges that multinational corporations (MNCs) “have a responsibility to enhance shareholder return and obey relevant laws and regulations,” he believes that “MNCs also have a duty to maintain a strong presence in their country of origin,” which he defines “as investing, employing, manufacturing and sourcing at least in proportion to their sales in the origin country.”
He states, “This duty has two sources. The first is a quid pro quo for the special benefits that their charter provides. The second is based on understanding that a strong presence is almost always in the interest of their shareholders.’
In his pro argument for the first duty, Mr. Moser quotes Clyde Prestowitz: “Corporations are not created by the shareholders or the management. Rather they are created by the state. They are granted important privileges by the state (limited liability, eternal life, etc). They are granted these privileges because the state expects them to do something beneficial for the society that makes the grant. They may well provide benefits to other societies, but their main purpose is to provide benefits to the societies (not to the shareholders, not to management, but to the societies) that create them.”
This view is corroborated by a recent essay, “The American Corporation,” by Ralph Gomory and Richard Sylla, in which they provide a brief history of corporation formation in America. From 1790 to 1860, over 22,000 corporations were chartered under special legislative acts by states, and several thousand more were chartered under general incorporation laws introduced in the 1840s and 1850s. These state granted charters were not perpetual and had to be renewed periodically, “with its “powers, responsibilities − including to the community − and basic governance provisions carefully specified.”
The essayists comment that general incorporation laws were the answer to the problem of corruption in legislative chartering, but created their own problems in the late 19th Century with the rise of “Robber Barons, both the business leaders who amassed great power and wealth in the rise of mass-production and mass-distribution industries, and the great financiers of Wall Street who collaborated with them.” The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of so few led to the passage of antitrust laws and corporate regulations at both the federal and state levels regulations in the 20th Century to prevent or rein in monopolies.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression resulted in a multitude of “New Deal” reforms and regulations on the corporate and financial sectors to protect and inform stockholders and the general public.
Gomory and Sylla write that for decades after WWII, “the problem of corporate goals seemed under control,” and “the interests of managers, stockholders workers, consumers and society seemed well aligned” while the U. S. and the Soviet Union were fighting a Cold War.
As late as 1981, the U. S. Business Roundtable issued a statement recognizing the stewardship obligations of corporations to society: “Corporations have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.” In addition, “The long-term viability of the corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part. And the well being of society depends upon profitable and responsible business enterprises.”
Establishing plants in another country in order to do business in that country and be closer to your customers is a reasonable business decision for many companies whose products are sold globally, such as Coca Cola and other food and beverage manufacturers. I concur with Mr. Moser’s statement. “We do not question multinational companies’ right to invest offshore.”However, it is another thing to transfer all or most of the manufacturing of your products to be sold mainly in the U. S. market to another country, at the cost of hundreds, if not thousands, of American jobs.
This brings us to Mr. Moser’s second pro argument to the question; namely, “a strong presence is almost always in the interest of their shareholders.” He states that his experience with the Reshoring Initiative’s free Total Cost of Ownership EstimatorTM has shown that “in their excessive focus on offshoring of manufacturing, many MNCs make suboptimal decisions, actually reducing the long-term return to their shareholders. Thus many MNCs will more fully maximise returns for shareholders if they maintain a stronger presence.”
This is because most MNCs do not accurately measure the “Total Cost of Ownership” or “landed costs” in making decisions regarding where to manufacture their products. They ignore the “hidden costs” of doing business offshore about which I have written extensively in my book , such as: quality problems, legal liabilities, currency fluctuations, travel expenses, difficulty in making design changes, time and effort to manage offshore contract, and cost of inventory.
In addition, Mr. Moser states that the behaviors of MNCs include:
- “Ignoring a whole range of medium-term risks: IP loss; impact on innovation; and loss of competence and control due to increasing reliance on offshore outsourcing firms. The further a firm is removed from the manufacturing of its products, the harder it is to evolve and make future related products.
- Ignoring longer-term catastrophic risks associated with shifting their presence offshore, including the decline in American economic, technological and military strength: risk of losing sales and assets in developing countries, especially when competing with local state-owned enterprises (SOEs); loss of the government-funded R&D that gives them a head start in many technologies; loss of strong origin-country defence and legal systems that protect the corporate charter; loss of “Pax Americana” that protects their trade around the world; and populist calls for anti-MNC political actions resulting from income inequality driven by a shriveling middle class.”
One important risk that Mr. Moser did not mention is the risk of theft of Intellectual Property by offshore manufacturers, especially in China. For many years, China has been doing this by reverse engineering, counterfeiting, and cyber espionage, but it has been made easier in the past two years by the mandatory technology transfer required by the Chinese government for corporations who set up plants in China.
In his con argument, Professor Bhagwati asserts that global sourcing and locating plants around the world has happened already, and “there is little point in tilting at reality.” He states, “Multinationals’ products, after all, can now hardly even be defined as American, French or any other nationality when their parts come from every corner of the world. All that matters, he argues, is that worldwide operations bring profits to the multinational, thereby benefiting the country in which it is headquartered. , “MNC investment abroad is good, not bad, for America unless it is a result of distorting tax policies that lead to overinvestment abroad. Asking MNCs to have a presence at home, and subsidising or forcing them under threat of penalties to do so, makes little sense unless you claim that this presence produces some externalities…the benefits to the MNC, and hence to America most likely, will accrue regardless of where the MNC does R&D, in Bangalore or Boston.”
In is rebuttal, Professor Bhagwati states, “Compelling an American MNC to retain a strong presence in America would be the wrong prescription no matter which of the two rationales you accept…Forcing them to produce at home when that makes them uncompetitive in world markets is surely the wrong prescription: it makes them uncompetitive in markets which today are fiercely competitive.
While I realize and have written about the fact that American manufacturers are under a disadvantage in dealing with countries like China that practice “ predatory mercantilism,” it is my opinion that American multinational and national manufacturing corporations have more than a “duty to maintain a strong presence in their home countries.” As American citizens, we “pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Thus, we owe “allegiance” to our country, which is defined as ”the loyalty of a citizen to his or her government.” Other synonyms are: fidelity, faithfulness, adherence, and devotion.
Obviously, if you are a loyal, faithful, devoted citizen of the United States this means that you take actions in your personal and business life to support your country and do not purposely take actions that may cause harm to your country. Moving a majority of manufacturing to other countries, especially China is doing harm to your country since China has a written plan to replace the United States as the world’s super power. Therefore, American multinational corporations and other American manufacturers owe allegiance to the United States of America by maintaining a strong presence in our country.