Business + risk analysis = safer investments abroad

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

His slow, deliberate speech makes him sound more like a college professor than a spy. In fact, he is a bit of both. David Raddock, who holds a PhD in political science, is a former University of Texas professor who ''has come in from the cold.'' Five years ago he left the university's Dallas campus to join the small but slowly growing breed of professionals known as political risk analysts.

Their purpose: to help save American companies hundreds of thousands of dollars they might lose from investing in the wrong country, in the wrong way, at the wrong time.

What does this mean in practice?

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Says Dr. Raddock: ''Let's just pretend that a company already involved in an Asian country has an opportunity to expand its operations with the help of a guy high in the country's government. This company might want to know how securely in power this man really is. The analyst might ask: If this man is thrown out of office, will the company's new operation be attacked and perhaps terminated on grounds that it was a product of this man's corruption? He might also ask: Is there any way to guard against this possibility?''

About 100 Americans are now engaged as full-time political risk analysts, in addition to several hundred part-timers. Their ranks include political scientists and other academics, ex-economic analysts, ex-Foreign Service officials, and ex-CIA employees.

Dr. Raddock's craggy, full-face beard still looks more in keeping with a college campus than with the Washington, D.C.-based multinational holding company Enserch. Interviewed during a visit to New York, this Columbia University-trained China specialist expresses satisfaction with his varied assignments. He says these have drawn him into ''new vistas'' as a ''generalist, '' who now assesses ''political risk'' in Latin America and Africa, as well as in his original area of expertise, Asia.

''I changed professions because I found academics too pompous and ingrown. My present job combines the best qualities of being a professor with a quality of entrepreneurship. You can see the results of your work in terms of a company's profits,'' he explains. ''And your work is appreciated.''

The salary for political risk analysts is at least twice that of an academic. Some 62 percent of political risk analysts answering a recent survey said they earned at least $42,000 a year, 34 percent earned at least $55,000, and 10 percent topped $70,000.

The profession didn't get off the ground until the 1979 Iran revolution, which demonstrated the need to understand the impact of religious ferment on political stability and foreign economic interests.

The profession continues to grow, although the rate has slowed, according to a number of risk analysts. In the wake of growing indebtedness by Latin American and other nations, banks are shifting back from an emphasis on a country's political stability to the more traditional emphasis on a country's overall ability to repay loans, notes James Thornblade, vice-president of the First National Bank of Boston.

Still, corporations have increasingly felt it desirable to supplement reports from employees stationed overseas with the thinking of academics and former government officials stationed in the home office. A surplus of PhDs unable to get university teaching jobs has provided a reservoir of applicants happy to fill the need.

In addition to in-house analysts, there are outside consultants who tailor their studies to a client's needs, or, like the New York-based Frost & Sullivan, sell subscriptions to regular reports for as much as $2,500 a year.

A political risk analyst uses different methods depending on his background and the needs of a company. Some rely mainly on written materials such as newspapers and reference volumes. Many set up and interview a paid panel of experts, including academics, former diplomatic personnel, and others with specialized knowledge of a country. Some pay outside experts to write a report.

Early practitioners, influenced by ''think tank'' and military research, tried quantitative analysis - feeding numerical data into computers to gauge the soundness of a company's plans to enter or expand current operations in a foreign country. But analysts like Raddock maintain this approach is declining because it neglects more subtle influences such as tradition and culture.

The political risk analyst's efforts are geared to a variety of corporate concerns including political instablity, investment climate, taxation, expropriation risks, attitudes of political parties, labor disputes, administrative restrictions, and competition from public-sector enterprises.

These concerns are hardly new, and traditionally have been reported on by a variety of company officers. What is new, notes New York University Prof. Steven J. Kobrin in his volume ''Managing Political Risk Assessment,'' is the growing tendency to set up specific departments and analysts to tackle the political aspects of these questions. He notes this partly serves as an ''oar in the water'' to balance any overoptimism among expansion-minded company officials stationed overseas. For this, corporate officials overseas sometimes see political risk analysts as one more bureaucratic obstacle they must overcome at the home office.

Political risk analysts must thoroughly understand the business aspects of their companies so that they can ask the right questions and make their findings relevant to the needs of the managers making decisions. Some analysts say this is the weak point in hiring political scientists and others who have not ''come up'' through the business world.

Raddock says he sometimes writes as many as three or four memos of six to eight pages on different countries each week. For major ''country studies,'' he may follow research and expert interviewing in the US with a visit to the country for firsthand assessments from local journalists and politicians.

Other companies sometimes buy ''gossip'' intelligence from recently returned diplomats in order to illuminate the pecking order and personal and political relationships of foreign politicians.

Some companies will even hire a free-lance journalist to visit a country in order to learn more about a particular situation.

''If a company is doing business with a country, it does not want the government to know how stable you think they are,'' notes Helen Ojha of the consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

But Raddock notes many governments take it for granted that US companies will check out the risks: ''If they ask you about it, you tell them with a smile on your face that they would do the same if they wanted to invest in the US. . . . Still you do not go up to someone like Singapore's (prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew and ask him, 'How long do you think you can last?' ''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...