Mega-firms unfazed by Asia crisis

The Asian financial crisis may have prompted foreign investors and banks to take billions of dollars out of that region. But multinational corporations keep the money rolling in.

They have mostly stayed put and, in many cases, upped the ante.

"They have looked at Southeast Asia and decided the fundamentals of these countries are OK," says Karl Sauvant, a United Nations foreign-investment expert. "They are making new investments and continuing their investments."

This year, according to Mr. Sauvant, multinational corporations will sink about $17.2 billion into Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand.

This isn't money funneled into stock markets or other "paper" investments. It is investments made in manufacturing plants, equipment, and offices.

Sometimes, such "direct investment" involves joint ventures with local companies or outright purchases of them.

The current level of direct investment modestly exceeds the amount in 1997 - $16.5 billion. It matches that of 1996.

For instance, BMW, the German auto company, last month took its foot off the brake in Thailand. The carmaker announced a $25 million investment for an assembly plant in Thailand. BMW expects economic recovery in Asia by the time the plant starts churning out 10,000 cars a year in early 2000.

The US is headquarters for six of the top 10 multinationals. (See chart above.) The biggest of all, General Electric, has 84,000 foreign employees.

Foreign direct investment is "long term" money, notes Sauvant, and multinationals are taking that view around the world.

In 1997, global foreign direct investment increased 19 percent to a record level of $400 billion, according to the annual World Investment Report of the UN Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva.

This year, foreign direct investment should grow to between $430 billion and $440 billion, reckons Sauvant.

The increase, though, will be mostly in developed countries. And to a major extent it is the result of cross-border mergers and acquisitions. In 1996 and 1997, such deals accounted for 80 percent of foreign direct investment in Western Europe and for 70 percent in the US.

With stock prices moving higher, a new flurry of mergers has occurred in Europe and the US in recent weeks.

Integration of economies brought by corporate investment is "much deeper" than that resulting from trade, says Sauvant.

By now, there are some 53,000 transnational companies with about 450,000 foreign affiliates.

These companies - the Hondas, Gillettes, Compaqs, and other less well-known companies - produced some $9.5 trillion in goods and services in 1997, the UNCTAD report notes. That's more than the $8.1 trillion gross domestic product of the US that year.

Foreign direct investment in developing countries came to $149 billion in 1997 and is expected to decline slightly this year, the first drop since 1985.

One reason is that direct investment in China is expected to fall to $40 billion in 1998 from $45 billion in 1997.

The Chinese economy is slowing a bit and faces sharp competition from Asian nations that have devalued their currencies, explains Sauvant.

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