Governance, multinationals and growth

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How to thrive in an international economy
A. Edward Safarian

Professor Emeritus

Business Economics, Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto

105 St. George Street

Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6


Edited by

Lorraine Eden, Texas A&M University, USA


Wendy Dobson, University of Toronto, Canada
Edward Elgar

Cheltenham, UK Northampton, MA, USA

My research and teaching interest throughout my career has been the question of optimum national policy development in a small open economy. How best can a relatively small country thrive and pursue its objectives while being part of an international economy and while living next to a very large and dynamic neighbour? That question led to four related studies over the years.

I was drawn to economics because of my curiosity and concern about the buffeting Canadians took in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The world economy prior to World War II had been highly internationalized in ways we have only managed to achieve again in recent decades. That internationalization was shattered by a decade of depression and a decade or more of war and reconstruction.
My doctoral thesis and related published work was on the sharp collapse and relatively slow recovery of Canada’s economy in the 1930s (Safarian, 1958). While influenced by Keynes, the work was more clearly Schumpeterian. It was decidedly in the field of real business cycles. I am not impressed by the kind of monetarist thinking so dominant about this period. Such thinking explains little about the decade of agricultural drought reflecting policy decisions made many years earlier on settlement and transport, or the huge overinvestment in a number of major growth sectors such as power, railways, newsprint and automobiles.
Within a few years of the collapse, for example, the entire capacity in the newsprint industry was bankrupt. It was not until the mid 1950s that automobile production approached the capacity of the late 1920s. In the case of the railways, the government’s decision in 1923 to merge a number of bankrupt lines and assume all the debt had two major effects. The competition between the public and the private firms greatly expanded capacity in rail and related investment in the 1920s. With the decline, the public railway debt payments rose to 10 per cent of national income, largely paid abroad in Canadian or US dollars at the option of the lender. Canada did not have a central bank until 1935, and the foreign debt complication just noted made devaluation of the exchange rate problematic. These path-dependant problems were in addition to the egregious public policy thinking and errors late into the 1930s. Of course, the international collapse meant depression was unavoidable. Nevertheless, public policy decisions over several decades were critical to the relative severity of the collapse and slowness of recovery.
During this research, a number of gaps in information on the foreign-owned sector of Canadian industry became evident. My first journal publication on the subject was on the extent of foreign financing of Canadian industry (Safarian and Carty, 1954). A study for the Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects allowed exploration, in a preliminary way, both of the determinants of such financing and the meaning and effects of foreign control of industry (Brecher and Reisman, 1957, part II). I realized I needed to start from scratch, that is, to use interviews, then questionnaires, to develop and analyze data on the operations of foreign-owned firms and of their Canadian-owned counterparts.
This substantial effort was almost derailed at the start, when the newly formed Canada Council declined initially to help finance it. The reviewers expressed their puzzlement at my wanting to study a topic on which there was no journal literature. This research subsequently gained considerable publicity, even notoriety in some quarters, leading the Director of the Canada Council to ask me why I had turned to US sources for financial support.
The resulting study (Safarian, 1966) dealt with a number of issues such as the relationship between parent and subsidiary managers, subsidiary trade, creation and transfer of knowledge, finance, efficiency of subsidiaries, and how nationality of ownership affected performance. It was the last issue that caught the attention of researchers and the broader public, notably the frequent similarity of the performance of the foreign-owned and Canadian-owned firms. There were some obvious differences, for example, a higher propensity to import by the former. Nevertheless, the similarities stood out in such matters as exports and R&D (research and development), as well as the highly fragmented and inefficient structure of subsidiary production relative to the parent. The common Canadian view, namely that subsidiary performance measured by such tests was inferior to that of independent Canadian firms, did not hold up well. This was particularly interesting because the findings in other countries pointed to superior performance in several respects by US-owned firms (Safarian, 1969). How Canada came to emasculate the potential benefits of FDI (foreign direct investment) is a story that was better told by researchers such as Harry Eastman and Stefan Stykolt (1969), and Rick Harris (1983). I thought that extensive and extended protection was one reason for the inefficient outcomes, and that buying out the foreign firm was inferior to focusing on freeing up trade and on improving Canadian capabilities to undertake investment, broadly conceived. Nor was I surprised that some of my findings differed from tests made later, since both the international context and the organization of MNEs had changed in the meantime.
Policy failure, at least in economic terms, had raised a number of questions about the institutions within which both public and private decisions were made. The most fundamental of these is the constitution of a country. Fortuitously, at this time the Privy Council Office asked me to consider what would be the optimum division of economic powers between the federal and provincial governments, assuming the objective was to improve economic welfare. My focus was on the regulatory powers. International economic theory was useful in this research, even when objectives other than wealth maximization were taken into account, given the barriers to the internal movement of goods, labour and even capital imposed by both levels of government and given the possibly incomplete nature of the federal treaty power. One example, which is still relevant, is the provincial licensing of the professions and skilled trades, which at times appears to go well beyond the preservation of standards to act as restrictions on labour mobility. Since formal constitutional reform is difficult, attempts to correct such situations would have to depend on intergovernmental agreement or on further court tests of the inter-provincial, international and general trade powers.
I thought that “Federalism and Economic Integration”, published in 1974, was one of my more innovative efforts but was not very successful in convincing others. The issues involved keep resurfacing – currently in terms of the desirability of a national securities commission, for example – but have receded somewhat since an Internal Market Agreement was negotiated. Among other things, this agreement offers a dispute settlement process, but one whose decisions can be vetoed by governments.
The study attracted some interest from political science and law, but little from economics. Some of those who took it seriously noted that barriers between countries were larger than internal barriers, which is a separate issue, and that the measured welfare losses are small. I believe the measurement question is still open – the models used incorporate only some of the barriers, and do not deal well with the presence of imperfect competition and dynamic gains from trade and investment (Whalley, 1996).
There is useful work to be done here, because many domestic and international issues in Canada can only be understood by considering the federal-provincial aspects. In particular, my work on regulation could be extended to incorporate the possibly much larger losses incurred on the fiscal side by excessive competition between provincial and federal governments. It might be useful to model this as oligopoly with a fringe of smaller competitors, for example Canada, as against monopolistic competition among US states. The former has the characteristic that outcomes are less certain, and that rents, as well as the competition for them, are more likely. Some of the theories developed in the US context need to be modified if applied here. One such theory puts the gains from responsiveness of governments to the demand for variety, on the one hand, against any trade gains, on the other. It is possible in many of the more highly populated parts of the United States to live in one state and work or shop (or both) in another. Try that anywhere in Canada, except Ottawa-Hull! Canada’s major population centres are almost all a long way from the provincial borders or each other. In any case, decentralization to allow for diversity would presumably go well below the provincial level in principle. For example, in a province with the size and variety of Ontario, many uniform policies serve the interests of dense populations in the south, but not communities in the north or northwest.

By now, I had decided to tackle directly the processes involved in determining and executing public policies. The focus was the industrial countries’ policies towards MNEs in the period since 1945, with the emphasis on the determinants and the effects of the policies. Once again, it was necessary to resort to interviews with government and company officials as well as intermediaries such as lawyers and financiers, since the published literature said little on the policy processes involved for either governments or firms.

Three of the broader conclusions can be noted (Safarian 1983, 1993). First, questions of income distribution and rent capture, of electoral pressures, and of attempts to maintain a capacity to make effective policies in critical sectors – all of these loomed as large as or larger than the pursuit of general economic welfare. Second, in relation to the objectives involved, some countries were far more effective than others, for reasons explored at some length. Canada’s policy performance does not compare well in this respect relative to several other countries. In Australia, for example, the trade-off between equity and efficiency in the natural resource sector was more clearly defined, as was the federal government’s role vis-à-vis the states, and there was much more continuity of policy. Third, policy towards MNEs appeared to be cyclical, so that the liberalization of the 1980s was not likely to be permanent.
Four new books in four decades – thank heavens for tenure! More recent work has concentrated on a number of ways in which FDI relates to economic growth – for example, on spillovers from R&D through trade and FDI (Hejazi and Safarian, 1999), the location decisions of MNEs including the effects of the NAFTA (Safarian and Hejazi, 2001), and the complementarity of trade and FDI (Hejazi and Safarian, 2001).

My criticism of certain Canadian public policies should not be taken as a general critique. There have been particular policies and even particular periods where economic policy has been far more successful. I have always been drawn by equal measures of curiosity and concern on how a society makes its way in an increasingly integrating world. People feel strongly about the appropriate policy approaches, and complexity and controversy abound. Where does academic research fit in this more public arena?

There is a fascinating exchange on strategic trade policy in Dan Trefler’s interview of Elhanan Helpman (1999). Helpman agrees that it is important to engage in the public debate on what are valid or invalid economic arguments, but goes on to say that he did not want to get involved in such debate. I can sympathize with him from my own experience of extensive involvement in the debate on FDI in the 1960s and 1970s. Not all of us have the skills or desire for such involvement. Yet I think it is important that some are prepared to so engage and I am grateful for their activity. Canadian economists are fairly active in this respect, including important participation by some of those at this conference.
A final point – I had a lot of help along the way. My wife, Joan, was there for me always, in direct support of my research, in her acceptance of the places I chose to work and of my eccentric work habits.
John Dunning, Ray Vernon and Richard Caves have inspired much of my work on MNEs, from their early studies on. Along the way, I have relied on advice from a number of colleagues, particularly Alan Rugman, Sylvia Ostry, Richard Lipsey and Walid Hejazi. The Economic Growth and Institutions Program of The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a program established and led by Dick Lipsey, was a huge inspiration for the past dozen years. The University of Saskatchewan was very supportive of my 1966 volume and the University of Toronto’s Department of Economics and Joseph L. Rotman School of Management have nurtured me ever since. I am especially grateful to those who prepared papers for this volume and to the Rotman School, Industry Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs for their support for the Conference. It is a particular pleasure to recognize the contributions by long-time friends Lorraine Eden and Wendy Dobson, who have done outstanding research on public policy and who know how to communicate it widely.


Brecher, Irving and Simon Reisman (1957), Canada – United States Economic Relations, Ottawa, Canada: Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects, Queen’s Printer.

Eastman, Harry C. and Stefan Stykolt (1967), The Tariff and Competition in Canada, Toronto, Canada: MacMillan Company of Canada.

Harris, Richard G. with David Cox (1983), Trade, Industrial Policy and Canadian Manufacturing, Toronto, Canada: Ontario Economic Council.

Hejazi, Walid and A. Edward Safarian (2001), ‘The Complementarity between U.S. foreign direct investment stock and trade’, Atlantic Economic Journal, 29(4), 420-37.

Hejazi, Walid and A. Edward Safarian (1999), ‘Trade, foreign direct investment, and R&D spillovers’, Journal of International Business Studies, 30(3), 491-511.

Safarian, A. Edward (1993), Multinational Enterprise and Public Policy, Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Safarian, A. Edward (1983), Governments and Multinationals: Policies in the Developed Countries, Toronto, Canada: British-North America Committee.

Safarian, A. Edward (1974), Canadian Federalism and Economic Integration, Ottawa Canada: Privy Council Office, Government of Canada.

Safarian, A. Edward (1969), The Performance of Foreign-Owned Firms in Canada, Montreal, Canada: Canadian-American Committee.

Safarian, A. Edward (1966), Foreign Ownership of Canadian Industry, Toronto, Canada: McGraw Hill Company of Canada Limited.

Safarian, A. Edward (1959), The Canadian Economy in the Great Depression, Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Safarian, A. Edward and Walid Hejazi (2001), Canada and Foreign Direct Investment: A Study of Determinants, Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Centre for Public Management.

Safarian, A. Edward and E. Bower Carty (1954), ‘Foreign financing of Canadian investment in the post-war period’, Proceedings of the Business and Economic Statistics Section, American Statistical Association, 72-79.

Trefler, Daniel (1999), ‘An interview with Elhanan Helpman’, Macroeconomic Dynamics, 3(4), 571-601.

Whalley, John (1996), ‘International barriers to trade and endogenous growth considerations’, and “Comment’ by Robin Boadway in Peter Howitt (ed.), The Implications of Knowledge-Based Growth for Micro-economic Policies, Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 163-85.
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