Global foreign direct investment (FDI) fell by 18 per cent to $1.35 trillion in 2012. This sharp decline was in stark contrast to other key economic indicators such as GDP, international trade and employment, which all registered positive growth at the global level. Economic fragility and policy uncertainty in a number of major economies gave rise to caution among investors. Furthermore, many transnational corporations (TNCs) reprofiled their investments overseas, including through restructuring of assets, divestment and relocation. The road to FDI recovery is thus proving bumpy and may take longer than expected.
UNCTAD forecasts FDI in 2013 to remain close to the 2012 level, with an upper range of $1.45 trillion – a level comparable to the pre-crisis average of 2005–2007 (figure 1). As macroeconomic conditions improve and investors regain confidence in the medium term, TNCs may convert their record levels of cash holdings into new investments. FDI flows may then reach the level of $1.6 trillion in 2014 and $1.8 trillion in 2015. However, significant risks to this growth scenario remain. Factors such as structural weaknesses in the global financial system, the possible deterioration of the macroeconomic environment, and significant policy uncertainty in areas crucial for investor confidence might lead to a further decline in FDI flows.
FDI flows to developing economies proved to be much more resilient than flows to developed countries, recording their second highest level – even though they declined slightly (by 4 per cent) to $703 billion in 2012 (table 1). They accounted for a record 52 per cent of global FDI inflows, exceeding flows to developed economies for the first time ever, by $142 billion. The global rankings of the largest recipients of FDI also reflect changing patterns of investment flows: 9 of the 20 largest recipients were developing countries (figure 2). Among regions, flows to developing Asia and Latin America remained at historically high levels, but their growth momentum weakened. Africa saw a year-on-year increase in FDI inflows in 2012 (table 1).
Developing economies’ outflows reached $426 billion, a record 31 per cent of the world total. Despite the global downturn, TNCs from developing countries continued their expansion abroad. Asian countries remained the largest source of FDI, accounting for three quarters of the developing-country total. FDI outflows from Africa tripled while flows from developing Asia and from Latin America and the Caribbean remained at the 2011 level.
The BRICS countries (Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa) continued to be the leading sources of FDI among emerging investor countries. Flows from these five economies rose from $7 billion in 2000 to $145 billion in 2012, accounting for 10 per cent of the world total. Their TNCs are becoming increasingly active, including in Africa. In the ranks of top investors, China moved up from the sixth to the third largest investor in 2012, after the United States and Japan (figure 3).
FDI inflows to developed economies declined by 32 per cent to $561 billion – a level last seen almost 10 years ago. Both Europe and North America, as groups, saw their inflows fall, as did Australia and New Zealand. The European Union alone accounted for almost two thirds of the global FDI decline. However, inflows to Japan turned positive after two successive years of net divestments.
Outflows from developed economies, which had led the recovery of FDI over 2010–2011, fell by 23 per cent to $909 billion – close to the trough of 2009. Both Europe and North America saw large declines in their outflows, although Japan bucked the trend, keeping its position as the second largest investor country in the world.
The number of State-owned TNCs increased from 650 in 2010 to 845 in 2012. Their FDI flows amounted to $145 billion, reaching almost 11 per cent of global FDI. The majority of the State-owned enterprises (SOEs) that acquired foreign assets in 2012 were from developing countries; many of those acquisitions were motivated by the pursuit of strategic assets (e.g. technology, intellectual property, brand names) and natural resources.
FDI by sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) in 2012 was only $20 billion, though it doubled from the year before. Cumulative FDI by SWFs is estimated at $127 billion, most of it in finance, real estate, construction and utilities. In terms of geographical distribution, more than 70 per cent of SWFs’ FDI in 2012 was targeted at developed economies. The combined assets of the 73 recognized SWFs around the world were valued at an estimated $5.3 trillion in 2012 – a huge reservoir to tap for development financing.
Offshore finance mechanisms in FDI include mainly (i) offshore financial centres (OFCs) or tax havens and (ii) special purpose entities (SPEs). SPEs are foreign affiliates that are established for a specific purpose or that have a specific legal structure; they tend to be established in countries that provide specific tax benefits for SPEs. Both OFCs and SPEs are used to channel funds to and from third countries.
Investment in OFCs remains at historically high levels. Flows to OFCs amounted to almost $80 billion in 2012, down $10 billion from 2011, but well above the $15 billion average of the pre-2007 period. OFCs account for an increasing share of global FDI flows, at about 6 per cent.
SPEs play an even larger role relative to FDI flows and stocks in a number of important investor countries, acting as a channel for more than $600 billion of investment flows. Over the past decade, in most economies that host SPEs, these entities have gained importance in investment flows. In addition, the number of countries offering favourable tax treatment to SPEs is on the increase.
Tax avoidance and transparency in international financial transactions are issues of global concern that require a multilateral approach. To date, international efforts on these issues have focused mostly on OFCs, but SPEs are a far larger phenomenon. Moreover, FDI flows to OFCs remain at high levels. Addressing the growing concerns about tax evasion requires refocusing international efforts. A first step could be establishing a closed list of “benign” uses of SPEs and OFCs. This would help focus any future measures on combating the malign aspects of tax avoidance and lack of transparency
In 2012, the international production of TNCs continued to expand at a steady rate because FDI flows, even at lower levels, add to the existing FDI stock. FDI stocks rose by 9 per cent in 2012, to $23 trillion. Foreign affiliates of TNCs generated sales worth $26 trillion (of which $7.5 trillion were for exports), increasing by 7.4 per cent from 2011 (table 2). They contributed value added worth $6.6 trillion, up 5.5 per cent, which compares well with global GDP growth of 2.3 per cent. Their employment numbered 72 million, up 5.7 per cent from 2011.
The growth of international production by the top 100 TNCs, which are mostly from developed economies, stagnated in 2012. However, the 100 largest TNCs domiciled in developing and transition economies increased their foreign assets by 22 per cent, continuing the expansion of their international production networks.
Global FDI income increased sharply in 2011, for the second consecutive year, to $1.5 trillion, on a stock of $21 trillion, after declining in both 2008 and 2009 during the depths of the global financial crisis. FDI income increased for each of the three major groups of economies – developed, developing and transition – with the largest increases taking place in developing and transition economies. The rates of return on FDI are 7 per cent globally, and higher in both developing (8 per cent) and transition economies (13 per cent) than in developed countries (5 per cent). Of total FDI income, about $500 billion was retained in host countries, while $1 trillion was repatriated to home or other countries (representing on average 3.4 per cent of the current account payments). The share of FDI income retained is highest in developing countries; at about 40 per cent it represents an important source of FDI financing. However, not all of this is turned into capital expenditure; the challenge for host governments is how to channel retained earnings into productive investment.