Tag Archives: multinationals

The Benefits of War

Image from MTN website

[I]n Kurdish-run Iraq, three Western oil firms, Genel Energy, DNO and Gulf Keystone, continue to pump out crude that is piped or sent by road to Turkey. Their combined market value plunged after IS seized the city of Mosul in June, but has recovered to $8.3 billion, down 29% from the start of the year—a hefty fall, but not so bad for firms on the front line of fanaticism.“We’ve gone from a place that was a bit tricky in terms of security to a full-on war,” says the chief of one firm. But he is confident that the Kurdish region’s well-armed militia will protect his business. So far investors have tweaked their financial models, not run for the door. Analysts now assume a cost of capital of 15%, up from 12.5% before IS struck, he says….

For a start, it is possible to grind out profits in troubled places. Lafarge, a French cement giant, has operations across the Middle East and north Africa. Sales there have risen slightly since 2009 and gross operating profits are now $1.5 billion a year. MTN, a South African mobile-telecoms firm with a thirst for danger, has a division in Syria (and in Sudan and Iran) where gross operating profits rose by 56% in the first six months of this year….

[But]  And strife in Libya and Egypt has damaged north Africa’s hopes of becoming a production hub for Europe. Like countries, multinational companies have no permanent allies—only permanent interests.

Companies and geopolitical risk: Profits in a time of war, Economist, Sept 20, 2014, at 59

Multinationals and their Stateless Income

Cross-border corporate taxation is fiendishly complex, the lobbying around it furious. Several recent academic studies show just how pervasive tax avoidance is.  The ability to shift profits to low-tax countries by locating intellectual property in them, which is then licensed to related businesses in high-tax countries, is often assumed to be the preserve of high-tech companies. Yet in “Through a Latte, Darkly”, a new study of how Starbucks has largely avoided paying tax in Britain, Edward Kleinbard of the University of Southern California shows that current tax rules make it easy for all sorts of firms to generate what he calls “stateless income”: profit subject to tax in a jurisdiction that is neither the location of the factors of production that generate the income nor where the parent firm is domiciled. In Starbucks’s case, the firm has in effect turned the process of making an expensive cup of coffee into intellectual property.

In another new paper Harry Grubert of America’s Treasury and Rosanne Altshuler of Rutgers University delve into tax returns by American multinationals in 2006. They examine all the foreign profits held abroad by these firms (because bringing the money home would incur tax). A remarkable 36.8% of these profits were recorded in countries taxing them at a rate of 0-5%, and a further 9.1% were in countries taxing at 5-10%. Given how much more aggressive their tax-avoidance strategies are believed to have become since, it seems likely that the proportion of foreign profits held by American firms in low-tax countries is now well over half. It will take more than fine words in a communiqué to change behaviour when so much is at stake,

Excerpt, The G8 summit: T time, Economist, June 22, 2013, at 72

Suing Multinational Corporations in US Courts: Kiobel v. Shell

oil pollution

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS)… grants American district courts jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or of a treaty of the United States”. At the age of 190 it sprang back to life on April 6th 1979, when it was used to allow two Paraguayans to sue a former Paraguayan policeman in an American court for acts of torture committed in Paraguay.Since then, roughly 150 lawsuits have been filed against American and foreign corporations for actions committed around the world. Four local plaintiffs used the ATS to sue Unocal in a federal court in Los Angeles for human-rights violations allegedly committed during the construction of an oil pipeline in Myanmar. A human-rights organisation used it to sue Yahoo on behalf of two Chinese democracy activists for actions committed in China by a subsidiary. ATS suits against DaimlerChrysler and Rio Tinto, among others, are pending. Though most ATS cases have been dismissed or settled, the costs of settlements can be high and the negative publicity damaging.

Multinational companies will therefore cheer the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), released on April 17th, 2013. It dramatically limits the ability of plaintiffs to file suit against corporations in American courts for actions committed abroad.  The ruling stems from a case brought in New York by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs living in America. They allege that Shell was complicit in human-rights violations—including murder, rape, theft and destruction of property—committed by Nigeria’s armed forces in the region of Ogoniland. A federal appeals court dismissed their suit, arguing that the ATS provides no grounds for corporate-liability lawsuits. But as the 150 ATS suits show, other courts have disagreed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to settle the question.

In an earlier ruling, in 2004, the court cautiously ruled that the ATS permitted lawsuits for “a modest number of international law violations”, such as piracy and crimes involving ambassadors, which would have been recognised when it was adopted. The court’s Kiobel ruling goes much further. It holds that the ATS does not apply to actions committed by foreign companies, and noted a strong presumption against applying American law outside the United States, “There is no indication,” wrote John Roberts, the chief justice, “that the ATS was passed to make the United States a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms”.  In a separate concurrence, four of the court’s liberals took a slightly softer tack, arguing that the ATS should allow suits that prevent America from becoming “a safe harbour…for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind”. But that reasoning still does not permit foreign nationals to use American courts to sue foreign companies for acts committed on foreign soil.

Extraterritoriality: The Shell game ends, Economist, Apr. 20, 2013, at 34

Made in the USA is coming back

Labour arbitrage—taking advantage of lower wages abroad, especially in poor countries—has never been the only force pushing multinationals to locate offshore, but it has certainly played a big part. Now, however, as emerging economies boom, wages there are rising. Pay for factory workers in China, for example, soared by 69% between 2005 and 2010. So the gains from labour arbitrage are starting to shrink, in some cases to the point of irrelevance, according to a new study by BCG.

“Sometime around 2015, manufacturers will be indifferent between locating in America or China for production for consumption in America,” says Mr Sirkin. That calculation assumes that wage growth will continue at around 17% a year in China but remain relatively slow in America, and that productivity growth will continue on current trends in both countries. It also assumes a modest appreciation of the yuan against the dollar.  BCG predicts a “manufacturing renaissance” in America.

[However, while t]he opportunity for labour arbitrage is disappearing fastest in basic manufacturing and in China. Other sectors and countries are less affected. As Pankaj Ghemawat, the author of “World 3.0”, points out, despite rapidly rising wages in India, its software and back-office offshoring industry is likely to retain its cost advantage for the foreseeable future, not least because of its rapid productivity growth.

Nonetheless, a growing number of multinationals, especially from rich countries, are starting to see the benefits of keeping more of their operations close to home. For many products, labour is a small and diminishing fraction of total costs. And long, complex supply chains turn out to be riskier than many firms realised. When oil prices soar, transport grows dearer. When an epidemic such as SARS hits Asia or when an earthquake hits Japan, supply chains are disrupted. “There has been a definite shortening of supply chains, especially of those that had 30 or 40 processing steps,” says Mr Ghemawat.

Firms are also trying to reduce their inventory costs. Importing from China to the United States may require a company to hold 100 days of inventory. That burden can be handily reduced if the goods are made nearer home (though that could be in Mexico rather than in America).  Companies are thinking in more sophisticated ways about their supply chains. Bosses no longer assume that they should always make things in the country with the lowest wages. Increasingly, it makes sense to make things in a variety of places, including America.

Excerpts from Multinational manufacturers: Moving back to America, Economist, May 14, 2011, at 79