THE United States now finds the shoe on the other foot. For decades after World War II, American direct investment flooded abroad. US multinationals bought or built plants and equipment in Western Europe, Canada, and some third-world nations. The money, the jobs, the technology were usually welcome. The foreign control often was not. Many nations imposed various restrictions on foreign investment - to American annoyance.
Today foreign investment in the US is booming and some Americans are feeling uncomfortable.
Foreigners bought $40.6 billion of American real estate and companies last year, according to Stephen S. Roach, a Morgan Stanley & Co. economist. That's a record, 60 percent above the previous high set in 1986 - ``a truly historic break from the past.''
So far this year, the pace of foreign investment has doubled again, Mr. Roach says.
Some members of Congress see a need to preserve national economic sovereignty. Many a corporate executive is unhappy when a foreign ``raider'' buys out his company.
The US still owns more direct investment abroad than foreigners own in the US, Roach notes.
Measured in book value (acquisition cost), total American direct investment abroad reached $295.9 billion in 1987, a net surplus of $46 billion over the total held by foreigners in the US.
Measured in present value (replacement cost), American direct investment abroad, which has, on average, been in place longer, might be worth three times that of foreign investment in the US, Roach estimates.
Further, despite the weakness of the US dollar, American companies were still making direct investments abroad last year at nearly the same rate as foreigners were in the US.
Another point Roach makes is that $19.1 billion of the $40.6 billion in foreign direct investment last year came from the United Kingdom, far more than the $7.4 billion from Japan.
``The cry `the British are coming!' applies just as well to 1987 as it did 200 years ago,'' he says.
Foreigners used to put most of their investment in the US in bonds, Treasury bills, stocks, and other such paper investment. In recent years they began showing more interest in real estate, finance, and trade establishments. The latest numbers indicate they are buying up chunks of ``smokestack America.'' Their investment in manufacturing last year virtually doubled from 1986, to $16.7 billion.
This shift, partly explained by the weakening dollar, the stock market collapse, and smaller spreads between interest rates here and abroad on fixed-interest investments, could multiply the nationalistic cries of alarm over the foreign invaders.
Whereas foreign ownership of fixed nonresidential capital (plants, equipment, office buildings) has jumped in the 1980s to about 6.1 percent, Roach estimates, it hovered in the 1 to 2 percent range for the previous three decades.
Roach terms the foreign investment boom one of the ``unpleasant realities'' resulting from the US inability to finance its federal budget deficit out of domestic savings. This low savings rate requires an inflow of foreign money, and that money goes where it expects the best return. If that foreign money weren't available, US interest rates would rise or domestic investment would slow.
So, he concludes, don't discourage foreign investment.