Not too long ago, at the end of the 1980s (although I acknowledge that for some of the followers of this blog this equals a lifetime), Japanese investment in the United States peaked at about US$ 20 billion. By then, management scholars had long begun to study the Japanese miracle. Based on a general fear that Japanese companies would completely control the US economy, US authors such as Bill Ouchi (in his 1981 book ‘Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge) introduced new ideas, and US companies implemented new processes such as the Toyota system of manufacturing. Everybody was up in arms about the Japanese threat. As always, history seems to repeat itself.
In the context of Chinese president Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the US, there have been nervous reports about Chinese companies taking over US businesses. And indeed, there have been some well-publicized cases – Chinese consumer electronics producer Haier’s early Greenfield investment in 2002, or the more recent Beijing Automotive Industry Company’s (BAIC) acquisition of General Motors’ Saab division, Beijing West Industries’ purchase of Michigan-based automotive supplier Delphi Corporation, or numerous smaller investments in US companies by China Investment Corporation (CIC). Obviously there’s enough activity to make The Economist cry out that China’s buying the world and to ask the question what it is like to be ‘eaten by the dragon’ (The Economist, November 13th, 2010). Relax, knowledge of foreign languages is always a good thing, but it isn’t time yet that we all learn Mandarin. Why? Let’s take a closer look at the data: Out of the total book value of foreign direct investors’ equity in US companies in 2009 (it’ll take a while until we have 2010 data) of US$ 2,319.6 billion, China’s share is still insignificant. The largest investing countries are still based in the Western Hemisphere – the United Kingdom (19.6%), the Netherlands (10.3%), Canada (9.7%), Germany (9.4%), Switzerland (8.2%), and France (8.2%). The only exception, of course, is Japan which holds about 11.4 % of the total foreign direct investment in the United States. In a July 2010 report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), China isn’t even mentioned – and that’s for a good reason: China’s total assets in the US are about a 300 times smaller than those of Japan. Even small countries’ foreign direct investments in the United States such as Austria or Panama are larger than China’s. Of course, there’s no question that Chinese investment in the US is growing fast and may soon outgrow the “Other” category on the BEA pie charts, but it’s still to early to panic. And even if China held a lot more assets in the United States, it probably would not mean the end of the world just like Japanese investment in the United States hasn’t. The world is flat, and an increased involvement of China in US companies may be a source of (desperately needed) capital, (desparately needed) new energy and motivation, learning, and global stability.