Monday, August 3, 2020

Guest Post – Investment in Africa: China vs “traditional partners” – Part 2

This guest post, the second of two, is by Dr. Thierry Pairault, research director at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). [1]

In the first part of this post, I used Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Commission) statistical data issued in March 2020 to assess the investment efforts of traditional partners in comparison with China. My conclusion was twofold. It was, of course, the confirmation of the importance of China's role with the caveat about the effects of offshore financial centres. I will discuss this further in the first section of this post. Secondly, it appeared that the traditional partners had by no means forsaken Africa as a narrative repeated ad nauseam would have it. The question is therefore whether or not European countries show a preference for Africa. That will be the second point I will address.

Offshore Financial Centres

There is no single, clear and objective criterion for identifying a country as a tax haven or an offshore financial centre. What will often distinguish such a haven will be that it enables companies (but also individuals) to carry out tax and financial operations otherwise considered fraudulent in their own country or in a third country.

In the case of the Netherlands, a report commissioned in 2016 by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that at least one third of companies operating in developing countries’ extractive sector were directly or indirectly financed or owned by Dutch shell companies on behalf of multinationals. These multinationals, from a wide range of countries, used these shell companies for the sole purpose of avoiding corporate income taxes payable to developing country governments. According to Eurostat, in this highly opaque background, during the six years 2013-2018, almost a third of Dutch investment flows were intended for war-torn Libya. Regardless of the statistical weight of flows labelled as Dutch, it is impossible to ascribe them to any specific country or even to consider them as genuine investments. 

Hong Kong is not only a tax haven but also a judicial haven (a territory, which is not subject to the laws commonly accepted in most other countries). It is also a bridge through which China has more easily connected with the outside world. Official Chinese statistics reveal that, at the end of 2018, 81% of China's outward FDI stock (present value of accumulated annual FDI flows) is reportedly held in tax havens, of which Hong Kong accounts for more than two thirds (69%). This phenomenon is not expected to stop in the coming years even if the share of annual flows decreases slightly. Hong Kong statistics tell us how these funds are then redirected from the former colony.

Hong Kong's outward direct investment statistics are published online by the Census and Statistics Department, Table 1 gives the figures for the last four years (2015,  2016, 2017 and 2018). These figures show a very significant distribution of destinations (see Table 2). The first thing to note is that, despite the change in tax rules benefiting foreign companies on the Chinese mainland, the old practice of round-tripping seems to be perpetuated to such an extent that 62% of Hong Kong's FDI flows in 2018 were rerouted to mainland China. It is also noteworthy that 44% of Hong Kong's FDI stock has been accumulated in tax, banking, and even judicial havens (offshore havens), including the Netherlands. This means that only 11% of Hong Kong's FDI stock has been accrued in countries other than China and the six mentioned tax havens, i.e. accrued in 190 countries, 54 of which are African. Furthermore, only 2.5% of Hong Kong's total FDI stock is invested in the manufacturing sector. As such, the potential impact on the industrialisation of the African continent would be very limited, even if a small boost might be significant in some countries. 



China vs Africa

In a previous post in the CARI Blog (China in Africa: Much Ado about Investment) and elsewhere, I made it clear that China's investment in Africa is a very small percentage of Chinese outward investment. The same is true for all other countries investing in Africa: according to UNCTAD, in 2019, only 2.9% of global FDI flows went to this continent of 54 countries. This is not a one-time drop since Africa's inward FDI stock was only 2.6% of the world stock in 2019. No wonder. Most FDI originates from developed countries (76%) which invest primarily in other developed countries (67%). The question then is whether traditional partners treat Africa differently from the way it treats China (see Table 3).


In Table 3, I have included only European countries with a colonial past in Africa, except for the Netherlands because of its investments' uncertain origin (see supra). For comparison, I have added the USA and Japan for which Eurostat gives figures. In 2018, the stock of European direct investment (28 countries) in Africa was one and a half times higher than that of the same 28 countries in China. The stocks of France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain in Africa would have been about two and a half times higher than their investment stock in China. As for Portugal, while it invests in Africa, it recorded no investments in China. 

Conversely the German FDI stock in China is about six times higher than in Africa. Belgium, for its part, expresses an infinitesimal preference for China, but neither Africa nor China are important targets for its FDIs. As a rule, northern and eastern European countries (with the exception of Germany) hardly invest in Africa or China. Except for Belgium, European countries that invest preferentially in Africa are maritime countries with an African colonial past. 

I would posit that history and geography are therefore very significant factors in explaining such a situation. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the United States and Japan are targeting China instead of Africa for investment: both were much more active players in China before 1949 than European countries (except the United Kingdom). 

The question that might now arise is whether comparisons between countries or groups of countries still make sense from an economic point of view when multinationals, including Chinese ones, enjoy de facto autonomy that international institutions can hardly control.

[1] Dr. Thierry Pairault is research director at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and at the Center of Studies on Modern and Contemporary China at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS - School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences). Please see http://pairault.fr/sinaf/ for more information about his work.

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