Wind of Change

Friday, January 11, 2008

Last month Hansen Transmissions International, a maker of gearboxes for wind turbines, was listed on the London Stock Exchange. Nothing noteworthy about that, you might say, despite the jump in the share price on the first day of trading and the handsome gain since: green technology is all the rage, is it not? But Hansen exemplifies another trend too, which should prove every bit as durable: the rise of multinational companies from emerging economies. Its parent is Suzlon, an Indian firm that began life as a textile manufacturer but is now among the world’s five leading makers of wind turbines. Along the way, Suzlon has acquired not only Hansen, originally Belgian, but also REpower, a German wind-energy firm, spending over $2 billion on the pair.

The world is now replete with Suzlons: global companies from emerging economies buying businesses in rich countries as well as in poorer places (see article). Another Indian company, Tata Motors, looks likely to add to the list soon, by buying two grand old names of British carmaking, Jaguar and Land Rover, from America’s enfeebled Ford. As a symbol of a shift in economic power, this is hard to match.

Economic theory says that this should not happen. Richer countries should export capital to poorer ones, not the other way round. Economists have had to get used to seeing this turned on its head in recent years, as rich countries have run large current-account deficits and borrowed from China and other emerging economies (notably oil exporters) with huge surpluses. Similarly, foreign direct investment (FDI)?the buying of companies and the building of factories and offices abroad?should also flow from rich to poor, and with it managerial and entrepreneurial prowess.

It is not yet time to tear up the textbook on FDI. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2006 the flow of FDI into developing economies exceeded the outflow by more than $200 billion. But the transfer of finance and expertise is by no means all in one direction. Developing economies accounted for one-seventh of FDI outflows in 2006, most of it in the form of takeovers. Indian companies have done most to catch the eye, but firms from Brazil, China and Mexico, in industries from cement to consumer electronics and aircraft manufacture, have also gone global. Up to a point, emerging-market multinationals have been buying Western know-how. But they have been bringing managerial and entrepreneurial skill, as well as just money, to the companies they buy: British managers bear grudging witness to the financial flair of Mexican cement bosses; Boeing and Airbus may have learnt a thing or two from the global supply chains of Brazil’s Embraer.

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Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)