THE THEORY OF FDI
The implications of the theories of FDI for business practice are straightforward. First, the location-specific advantages argument associated with John Dunning does help explain the direction of FDI. However, the location-specific advantages argument does not explain why firms prefer FDI to licensing or to exporting. In this regard, from both an explanatory and a business perspective, perhaps the most useful theories are those that focus on the limitations of exporting and licensing—that is, internalization theories. These theories are useful because they identify with some precision how the relative profitability of foreign direct investment, exporting, and licensing vary with circumstances. The theories suggest that exporting is preferable to licensing and FDI so long as transportation costs are minor and trade barriers are trivial.
As transportation costs or trade barriers increase, exporting becomes unprofitable, and the choice is between FDI and licensing. Because FDI is more costly and more risky than licensing, other things being equal, the theories argue that licensing is preferable to FDI. Other things are seldom equal, however. Although licensing may work, it is not an attractive option when one or more of the following conditions exist: (1) the firm has valuable know-how that cannot be adequately protected by a licensing contract, (2) the firm needs tight control over a foreign entity to maximize its market share and earnings in that country, and (3) a firm’s skills and capabilities are not amenable to licensing. Figure 8.4 presents these considerations as a decision tree.
FIGURE 8.4 A Decision Framework
Firms for which licensing is not a good option tend to be clustered in three types of industries:
1. High-technology industries in which protecting firm-specific expertise is of paramount importance and licensing is hazardous.
2. Global oligopolies, in which competitive interdependence requires that multinational firms maintain tight control over foreign operations so that they have the ability to launch coordinated attacks against their global competitors.
3. Industries in which intense cost pressures require that multinational firms maintain tight control over foreign operations (so that they can disperse manufacturing to locations around the globe where factor costs are most favorable in order to minimize costs).
Although empirical evidence is limited, the majority seems to support these conjectures.48 In addition, licensing is not a good option if the competitive advantage of a firm is based upon managerial or marketing knowledge that is embedded in the routines of the firm or the skills of its managers, and that is difficult to codify in a “book of blueprints.” This would seem to be the case for firms based in a fairly wide range of industries.
Firms for which licensing is a good option tend to be in industries whose conditions are opposite to those just specified. That is, licensing tends to be more common, and more profitable, in fragmented, low-technology industries in which globally dispersed manufacturing is not an option. A good example is the fast-food industry. McDonald’s has expanded globally by using a franchising strategy. Franchising is essentially the service-industry version of licensing, although it normally involves much longer-term commitments than licensing. With franchising, the firm licenses its brand name to a foreign firm in return for a percentage of the franchisee’s profits. The franchising contract specifies the conditions that the franchisee must fulfill if it is to use the franchisor’s brand name. Thus, McDonald’s allows foreign firms to use its brand name so long as they agree to run their restaurants on exactly the same lines as McDonald’s restaurants elsewhere in the world. This strategy makes sense for McDonald’s because (1) like many services, fast food cannot be exported; (2) franchising economizes the costs and risks associated with opening up foreign markets; (3) unlike technological know-how, brand names are relatively easy to protect using a contract; (4) there is no compelling reason for McDonald’s to have tight control over franchisees; and (5) McDonald’s know-how, in terms of how to run a fast-food restaurant, is amenable to being specified in a written contract (e.g., the contract specifies the details of how to run a McDonald’s restaurant).
Finally, it should be noted that the product life-cycle theory and Knickerbocker’s theory of FDI tend to be less useful from a business perspective. The problem with these two theories is that they are descriptive rather than analytical. They do a good job of describing the historical evolution of FDI, but they do a relatively poor job of identifying the factors that influence the relative profitability of FDI, licensing, and exporting. Indeed, the issue of licensing as an alternative to FDI is ignored by both of these theories.
A host government’s attitude toward FDI should be an important variable in decisions about where to locate foreign production facilities and where to make a foreign direct investment. Other things being equal, investing in countries that have permissive policies toward FDI is clearly preferable to investing in countries that restrict FDI.
However, often the issue is not this straightforward. Despite the move toward a free market stance in recent years, many countries still have a rather pragmatic stance toward FDI. In such cases, a firm considering FDI must often negotiate the specific terms of the investment with the country’s government. Such negotiations center on two broad issues. If the host government is trying to attract FDI, the central issue is likely to be the kind of incentives the host government is prepared to offer to the MNE and what the firm will commit in exchange. If the host government is uncertain about the benefits of FDI and might choose to restrict access, the central issue is likely to be the concessions that the firm must make to be allowed to go forward with a proposed investment.
To a large degree, the outcome of any negotiated agreement depends on the relative bargaining power of both parties. Each side’s bargaining power depends on three factors:
• The value each side places on what the other has to offer.
• The number of comparable alternatives available to each side.
• Each party’s time horizon.
From the perspective of a firm negotiating the terms of an investment with a host government, the firm’s bargaining power is high when the host government places a high value on what the firm has to offer, the number of comparable alternatives open to the firm is greater, and the firm has a long time in which to complete the negotiations. The converse also holds. The firm’s bargaining power is low when the host government places a low value on what the firm has to offer, the number of comparable alternatives open to the firm is fewer, and the firm has a short time in which to complete the negotiations.49