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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Columbia U. Conference Shows Incentives Pervasive but Controls Work

Day one of the Columbia International Investment Conference in New York has concluded, and the takeaways are very clear. The topic is investment incentives, prompted by Louise Story's "United States of Subsides" series last December. Story moderated panel 1, which covered the pervasiveness of subsidies. How widely used are investment subsidies? As the presentations made clear, they are used by virtually every country in the world. That is depressing takeaway number one.

The second big lesson is that for most types of foreign direct investment, the use of incentives has no effect at all. Resource companies, companies seeking strategic assets, and companies needing to sell in a particular market are coming regardless of the use of incentives. (I would qualify the last part to say that only applies when coming to markets that aren't divided into a number of competing jurisdictions, such as the US and EU, where the member states can engage in subsidy wars, related but gated article here.) It is only for "efficiency seeking" or cost minimization investment that incentives can make some difference in location decisions.

Third, one of the biggest cost of incentives consists of funds given to firms that were coming to your location even if they had not received the subsidy, according to Louis Wells, the panel 2 moderator. He says most studies place this at 60% to 70%. A more recent study by Peter Fisher (p. 8) says that a more typical figure for the amount of jobs is only about 9%, versus the 30-40% implied by Wells. This means that the real cost per job of projects is at least 2.5 times as large as reported cost per job, and may be up to 11 times higher. And don't forget that there is also a big opportunity cost based on the value of other possible uses of the funds given away. As I have pointed out, all the public sector jobs lost since December 2007 could be replaced if incentives were abolished.

Fourth, the good news is that there are control methods that do work. I have written before about this, and a conference presentation by Investment Consulting Associates (p. 3) illustrates this with a comparison of incentives in the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. Recall that European Union state aid policy aims to direct bigger incentives to poorer regions of the EU. ICA's database shows that the mean incentive was more than twice as large ($8.61 million vs. $3.41 million) in the Czech Republic than in the UK; the  mean "aid intensity" (subsidy/investment) was 36% in the Czech  Republic compared to just 15% in the UK; and mean cost per job was $67,088 in the Czech Republic versus only $20,288 in the UK. These are precisely the outcomes the European Commission wants to achieve with the state aid rules, creating a reliable bias in favor of poorer regions (and at the same time the poorer regions have subsidy limits holding down what investors can receive).

Tomorrow (Thursday, November 14) will have panels on "What are the alternatives" and my panel, "The way forward," where we will discuss EU rules and other methods of controlling out-of-control incentive wars. You can follow the action on Twitter at #CIIC13.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.