When a foreign company acquires a domestic firm, it often leads to outcries of indignation, nostalgia (“another of our once great companies in foreign hands”), and calls for legislation to prevent any more foreign poaching. Politicians and union leaders proclaim that the foreign owners may not be dedicated to keep up investment in the subsidiary, and that the take-over threatens national jobs and other economic interests. “Most governments are reluctant to see their corporate treasures fall into foreign hands”, the BBC wrote in an article devoted to the topic.
But is all this (slightly xenophobic) fear justified? Well, maybe not; at least not on all dimensions. Because we have increasing evidence that foreign ownership of a firm may actually also benefit firms, specifically in terms of their innovativeness. And this increased innovativeness may clearly benefit the host country.
Professor Annique Un, from Northeastern University in Boston, for example, did a pointy study. She collected data on 761 manufacturing firms operating in Spain, examined which ones were foreign hands and what their innovation output was in terms of new products introduced in the market. And the answer was pretty clear: foreign owned firms were more innovative than purely domestic firms.
Interestingly, Annique also corrected her models for the amount of R&D investments spent in the companies, and it turned out that this was not what was driving it; foreign owned companies were not just more innovative because they were investing more. Instead, they were more innovative irrespective of R&D. As a matter of fact, they were able to generate more product innovations for the same level of investment; meaning that they were simply better at it.
The study’s results suggested that they were better at it for two reasons. First, foreign parents seemed to use their domestic subsidiary to channel innovation into the country. Put differently, it seemed a foreign-owned company could tap into its parent’s superior repository of innovative stuff, and most of them gratefully made ample use of that option. Secondly, the foreign-owned companies were simply also better at coming up with new stuff on their own, in comparison to their domestic counterparts. Apparently, something about them being foreign-owned stimulated them to be more agile and creative, which resulted in more product introductions.
Whatever the reason behind this foreign-driven surge in innovation, the host country was better off for it; the evidence clearly showed that the foreign mercenaries stimulated diversity in the markets, giving customers more choice, while raising the bar for everyone. And this is not a benefit we hear many politicians, newspapers, and union leaders proclaim and acknowledge, when yet another foreign corporation is eyeing up their country’s corporate treasures.