FDI may be harmful to economic growth

The FDI mantra is considered an all-purpose panacea for the ills of the economy and society. Unfortunately, there has not been much debate about the far-reaching implications of FDI in our economy and, particularly, how it can stifle economic growth, says R. Vaidyanathan, presenting counters to the five arguments in favour of FDI and citing a research paper to buttress his stand.

DISCUSSIONS on foreign direct investment are heard as a sort of continuous background music at most seminars and conferences these days and business newspapers carry articles on it every other day.

The FDI mantra is considered an all-purpose panacea for the ills of the Indian economy and society. It has become routine for our finance ministers to “showcase” India in various international forums — Davos being somewhat of a premier venue — and exhort the global captains of industry and commerce to come to India.

Unfortunately there is not much debate, leave alone informed debate, between the academic and other policy-makers about the far-reaching implications of FDI in our economy and, particularly, how it can stifle economic growth. The debate only focusses on the so-called effect on employment and loss of ” socialism” — that vanished dogma of the nineteenth century.

Economic growth is based on domestic savings

Fortunately India’s economic growth over the last decade and a half has primarily been driven by savings in the economy, especially by households. Housewives from middle-class homes should be given due credit for this. The Table shows the savings and investment rate in our economy, the gap being met by foreign flows.

We find from the Table that all our investments have come from our own savings in the past decade. The argument pertaining to the need for FDI is based on the following premises.

If we want to grow at 10 per cent and if our capital-output ratio is 3.5, we need investment at 35 per cent and, if our savings rate is 28 per cent, then the gap has to be met by the West.

This is, to start with, spurious since the measurement of the capital-output ratio is not reliable and definitely not applicable to our service sector, which makes up nearly 60 per cent of the economy and is its growth engine. Anyone who has travelled in a taxi in the North will know that there can be passengers to the right side of the driver and the actual capacity of our buses is infinite.

Made in China is not Made by China

The second argument is that China is getting so much FDI. In 2006 it is expected to have a net direct investment of $51 billion of the estimated $155 billion flows to emerging markets (Capital Flows in Emerging markets by IIF, January 2006).

The important and crucial point, missed by the China enthusiasts, is that China does not have a developed entrepreneurial class like India and, hence, it is dependent on the foreign capitalists and foreign capital compared to India, which has a burgeoning entrepreneurial class. Made in China is not same as made by China. India has a phenomenally well-developed capitalist class which can set up world-class automobile, steel, petrochemical and cement plants.

While India’s stock market has soared in recent years, the opposite has happened in China. In 2001, the Shanghai Stock Market index reached more than 2,200 points; by April 2005, nearly half of it had gone, with the Shanghai index at 1,135 points. This sharp decline occurred when the GDP was growing at 9 per cent a year. It is difficult to find another country that displays this strange combination of excellent macroeconomic performance and dismal microeconomic performance. The reasons are to be found in the structure created by foreign FDI, much of which is not even listed.

China has to depend on foreign capital to set up its manufacturing facilities and is struggling hard to encourage party bureaucrats to become entrepreneurs.

Active capital market

The third argument is that FDI provides us with a continuous flow of funds and an active capital market. Actually, hundreds of MNCs have de-listed from the stock market in the last decade by converting to unlisted subsidiaries of foreign parents.

An analysis of this alone will give a clue to the nature of the capital market due to foreign investment in our economy. Many an MNC does not even bring funding from outside sources since it can access funds in the domestic market by showing “comfort letters” from its parent company.

There are many local financial institutions, both Government and private, which would lend them below prime rate since they are “global”. Financial institutions in India do not deny foreigners funds. That the MNC will continuously bring funds from abroad is a statement which should be taken with tonnes of salt.

Remember Enron, which was supposedly bringing Rs 10,000 crore from outside. In reality, now, government institutions are holding more than Rs 6000 crore of worthless paper. Ms Rebecca Mark of Enron claimed that millions were spent to ” educate” Indians as part of that project. We either refuse to get “educated”, in the true sense, or want to be more ” educated”, in the Enron sense.

The fourth argument is regarding technology transfer. In this age of information flows and market for technology any entrepreneur can purchase technology needed by him. In a country like India, which scores very high for “technology diffusion” or “absorption”, building on technology is not an issue.

If we travel in the rural areas of Punjab, we find washing machines being used for churning lassi on a mass scale. Who ever thought that washing machines have alternative uses? The Indian Diaspora can be relied upon to acquire most modern technology in complex areas, and there are already significant organic links between the NRIs and the domestic capitalists.

Is it a one-way street?

The fifth argument is regarding the growing global flow of funds and how nation-states cannot ignore it. Fascinatingly, when Mr Lakshmi Mittal attempted to take over Arcelor, or when China Petroleum tried to take over a Unocal of the US, the same globalisers came down like a ton of brick on the attempts.

The US senate members or the ministers of France and Luxemburg wasted no time in using arm-twisting to scuttle the moves. It is the white man’s burden to provide global capital and not any other way.

Actually, given the demographic structure and growth of pension funds in Europe and the US, we can see that funds are in search of markets, and not the other way. It means we are in a position to choose whom to invite.

But we would rather continue to ” sell” India. Selling India is an easy skill for most of our politicians. Which sectors are “sold” globally for FDI in India? It is the retail trade, restaurants, road transport and construction. Non-corporate, family-run businesses dominate all these activities.

In most of these sectors the share of partnership/proprietorship firms is more than 80 per cent. We want global corporates to come into India and turn these millions of entrepreneurs into workers. Can there be anything more perverse than this? What they need is adequate credit at reasonable rates and less bribes demanded by government minions. What additional technological wonders will be wrought by FDI in these areas?

NBER Research Paper

A significant and path-breaking study was undertaken recently by three authors regarding the impact of foreign direct investment on the rate of economic growth.

This paper was published by National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) as a working paper: “Sources for financing domestic capital: Is foreign saving a viable option for developing countries?” (Joshua Aizenman; Brian Pinto; Artur Radziwill, June 2004. Joshua Aizenman is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Brian Pinto is at the World Bank. Artur Radziwill is with the Centre for Social and Economic Research (CASE), Warsaw, Poland.)

They observe that on average, 90 per cent of the stock of capital in developing countries is self-financed, and this fraction was surprisingly stable throughout the 1990s. More importantly, they argue, “there is no evidence of any “growth bonus” associated with increasing the financing share of foreign savings. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite: throughout the 1990s, countries with higher self-financing ratios grew significantly faster than countries with low self-financing ratios. This result persists even after controlling growth for the quality of institutions.”

More interestingly, they also found that the higher volatility of the self-financing ratios are associated with lower growth rates, and that better institutions are associated with lower volatility of the self financing ratios.

It completely negates the FDI mantra chanted day in and day out by India’s metropolitan elite. But will we heed any empirical analysis or logic available on this score? We may not, since we are embedded with what could be called the “Colonial Gene”, which has its own effect. It paralyses our ability to think straight and makes us crave, like a drug addict, the opium of FDI.

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