Intra-Industry Foreign Direct Investment

by Laura Alfaro & Andrew Charlton

Overview — One of the enduring puzzles for researchers on FDI has been the role and importance of "horizontal" and "vertical" FDI. Horizontal FDI tends to mean locating production closer to customers and avoiding trade costs. Vertical FDI, on the other hand, represents firms' attempts to take advantage of cross-border factor cost differences. A central challenge for study has been the absence of firm-level data to distinguish properly among the types of and motivations for FDI. Alfaro and Charlton analyzed a new dataset, and in this paper present the first detailed characterization of the location, ownership, and activity of global multinational subsidiaries. Key concepts include:

  • Most FDI occurs between rich countries.
  • In contrast to previous research, it appears that the share of vertical FDI is larger than commonly thought, even within developed countries.
  • Multinational firms have tended to embrace vertical FDI for highly skilled and later stages of production, and for arm's-length transactions for lower-skill inputs and processes.

Author Abstract

We use a new firm level data set that establishes the location, ownership, and activity of 650,000 multinational subsidiaries—close to a comprehensive picture of global multinational activity. A number of patterns emerge from the data. Most foreign direct investment (FDI) occurs between rich countries. The share of vertical FDI (subsidiaries which provide inputs to their parent firms) is larger than commonly thought, even within developed countries. More than half of all vertical subsidiaries are only observable at the four-digit level because the inputs they are supplying are so proximate to their parent firms' final good that they appear identical at the two-digit level. We call these proximate subsidiaries 'intra-industry' vertical FDI and find that their location and activity are significantly different to the inter-industry vertical FDI visible at the two-digit level. These subsidiaries are not readily explained by the comparative advantage considerations in traditional models, where firms locate their low skill production stages abroad in low skill countries to take advantage of factor cost differences. We find that overwhelmingly, multinationals tend to own the stages of production proximate to their final production giving rise to a class of high-skill intra-industry vertical FDI.

Paper Information