Sunday, May 15, 2011

Short Article, Big Lessons

From Colombia Reports comes a great article that, on its face, seems to be just a short piece about foreign investment, but actually provides several great lessons about the global economy:
Colombia's largest cement company Argos has bought several cement plants in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina for $760 million, reported local media Thursday.

Argos Cements bought the plants from the French company Lafarge. Argos entered the US market in 2005 and says it plans to become the fourth largest ready mix producer in the U.S.

Chief Executive Jose Velez said in an interview as reported by Dow Jones "We are conservative in our outlook but we do expect more activity in 2010." Velez also said that he is not worried by the weak dollar or the strong peso.

"Because of the weakness of the dollar most of our inputs are cheaper now ... The net impact of the appreciation [of the peso] is zero at this time."

The purchase, which is still subject to approval from U.S. regulators, is part of an long term expansion strategy aimed at consolidating Argos' presence in the U.S. market.
So what kind of lessons can we draw from these few paragraphs?  Here's what I came up with:
  • The obvious benefits of foreign investment in the US economy.  But for Argos' investment, these French-owned cement plants in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina may have gone out of business, eliminating hundreds of American manufacturing jobs in the process.  Now, let's just hope that those "US regulators" don't foul things up.
  • Where all that great foreign investment wants to go.  All of Argos' $760 million investment is going to Right to Work States. i.e., states with laws prohibiting compulsory union membership.  Of course, as I've often noted here, foreign investment in these states - particularly those in the South - is part of a growing trend.  In fact, the empirical evidence shows that RTW states attract more FDI than their forced-unionization counterparts.  Of course, the economic dominance of RTW states isn't isolated to attracting foreign investment.  As Steve Moore and Art Laffer recently noted in a great WSJ op-ed: "As of today there are 22 right-to-work states and 28 union-shop states. Over the past decade (2000-09) the right-to-work states grew faster in nearly every respect than their union-shop counterparts: 54.6% versus 41.1% in gross state product, 53.3% versus 40.6% in personal income, 11.9% versus 6.1% in population, and 4.1% versus -0.6% in payrolls."
  • How global supply chains erode the conventional wisdom on trade and currency and make import liberalization increasingly important.  Velez states: "Because of the weakness of the dollar most of our inputs are cheaper now ... The net impact of the appreciation [of the peso] is zero at this time."  This means that his company is importing raw materials from the United States or from countries whose currencies are pegged to the dollar.  Either way, it's a great example of how global supply chains have made old school currency dogma irrelevant, and why a strong currency and the elimination of import barriers are important for intermediate/downstream producers like, oh I don't know, the United States.  Now, if only there were a way for the United States and Colombia to instantly lower the vast majority of their bilateral trade barriers.  Oh, wait.
  • The origins of that Colombian investment capital - the US-Colombia trade deficit.  One of the constant refrains here is that trade deficits are not "bad things" because, among other things, they necessarily lead to foreign investment in the United States.  As Cafe Hayek's Don Boudreaux put it, "another name for 'U.S. trade deficit' is 'U.S. capital-account surplus' – that is, inflows of investment funds into America that supply (directly or indirectly) financing for more capital creation in America."  (Mark Perry adds more here.)  In 2010, the United States had a $3.6 billion bilateral trade deficit with Colombia, and now $760 million is coming back to the U.S. as investment in domestic cement plants.  In short, Americans gave Argos and other Colombian firms our dollars, and now they're re-investing those dollars in the US economy.  Suddenly, those trade deficits aren't so scary anymore, eh?
I'm sure I missed something.  Feel free to add your lessons in the comments.

(h/t Monica Showalter)

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