New centres of capital

Submitted by Matthew on 3 July, 2015 - 3:30 Author: Rhodri Evans

As of 2014, “developing Asia” — China, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other countries — became a bigger exporter of foreign direct investment than North America (the US and Canada) or the whole of Europe.

The United Nations agency which monitors such things, UNCTAD, reports that “developing economies” produced 36% of all foreign direct investment in 2014, up from less than 10% as recently as 2003 (UNCTAD World Investment Report 2015).

The shift is not a blip, or a sudden and temporary development due to economic difficulties in the USA and Europe. It is the latest step in a trend which, with ups and downs, has been proceeding for a long time.

As long ago as 1982, the USA became a net importer of capital. The inflows which outpaced its outflows were and are mainly financial investments, such things as oil-exporting countries and China buying US government bonds (IOUs).

The USA still has a bigger outflow of foreign direct investment (US capitalists setting up, or buying shares in, or expanding their stake in, businesses operating abroad) than inflow (non-US capitalists setting up, buying up, etc. businesses operating in the USA). And it still has a much bigger stock of foreign direct investment than any other country.

But the balance is shifting. Some old-established centres for export of capital now have a bigger flow of foreign-based capital buying up or setting up businesses in their countries than of their own capital buying up or setting up businesses abroad. The UK is an example. Adding up the years 2012-4, so is the European Union as a whole, to a smaller degree.

In 2014, however, China (including Hong Kong) start to send out more foreign direct investment than it received.

Other countries once reckoned “peripheral” in the world economy which have now become big centres of net outflows of foreign direct investment are South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Kuwait, and Russia.

Lenin’s famous account of imperialism, written in 1916, is often said (not quite accurately) to have described export of capital as the main mechanism of imperialism. It was a broad-brush fact of the world in 1916 that capital was exported, in increasing quantities, mostly from the richer countries of Europe and the USA, and a sizeable chunk (though not most) of it to colonies and semi-colonies.

The broad-brush facts are now very different. We do not, as some say, now have a “flat world”. There are huge inequalities.

But many countries are now autonomous centres of capital, and not just outposts of capital originating from and controlled from the older industrial countries.