Foreign Direct Investment

How FDI Affects Your Life

An American tech company data center in India, an example of foreign direct investment

gorodenkoff / Getty Images 

Foreign direct investment happens when an individual or business owns 10% or more of a foreign company. If an investor owns less than 10%, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) defines it as part of their stock portfolio.

A 10% ownership doesn't give the individual investor a controlling interest in the foreign company. However, it does allow influence over the company's management, operations, and policies. For this reason, governments track investments in their country's businesses. 

In 2018, global foreign direct investment was $1.29 trillion, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. That 2018 FDI figure was down 13% from 2017's $1.49 trillion. The record investment was $2.03 trillion in 2015.

The decline in FDI was due to President Donald Trump's tax cut. Since 2017, U.S multinational corporations have repatriated accumulated foreign earnings. Many of those investments were in Europe.

The Act allows companies to repatriate the $2.6 trillion they held in foreign cash stockpiles. They pay a one-time tax rate of 15.5% on cash and 8% on equipment. The Congressional Research Service found that a similar 2004 tax holiday didn't do much to boost the economy. Instead, companies distributed repatriated cash to shareholders, not employees.

Importance of FDI

Foreign direct investment is critical for developing and emerging market countries. Their companies need multinational funding and expertise to expand their international sales. Their countries need private investment in infrastructure, energy, and water to increase jobs and wages. The U.N. report warned that climate change would hit them the hardest. 

In 2017, developing countries received $671 billion, or 47% of total global FDI. Investments rose 9% in developing Asia, which received $476 billion.

The developed economies—such as the European Union and the United States—also need FDI. Their companies do it for different reasons. Most of these countries' investments are through mergers and acquisitions between mature companies. These global corporations' investments were for either restructuring or refocusing on core businesses.

Pros and Cons of FDI

An infographic with the headline “Foreign Direct Investment.” At the top are the “Pros” and at the bottom are the “Cons.” The pros include an illustration of a globe with locations around the world highlighted and the text “Diversifies investors portfolios,” an illustration of two hands shaking and the text “Promotes stable long term lending,” an illustration of construction equipment and the text “Provides financing to developing countries,” and an illustration of a PC connected to servers and the text “Provides technology to developing counties.” The cons include an illustration of a satellite with the text “Not suitable for strategically important industries,” an illustration of a factory spewing pollution with the text “Investors may have less moral attachment,” and an illustration of the door of a safe with money coming out of it with the text “Unethical access to local markets.”
The Balance


Foreign direct investment benefits the global economy, as well as investors and recipients. Capital goes to the businesses with the best growth prospects, anywhere in the world. Investors seek the best return with the least risk. This profit motive is color-blind and doesn't care about religion or politics.

That gives well-run businesses, regardless of race, color, or creed, a competitive advantage. It reduces the effects of politics, cronyism, and bribery. As a result, the smartest money rewards the best businesses all over the world. Their goods and services go to market faster than without unrestricted FDI.

Individual investors have the potential to achieve greater portfolio efficiency (return per unit of risk), as FDI diversifies their holdings outside of a specific country, industry, or political system. Generally, a broader base of investments will dampen overall portfolio volatility and provide for stronger long-term returns.

Recipient businesses receive "best practices" management, accounting, or legal guidance from their investors. They can incorporate the latest technology, operational practices, and financing tools. By adopting these practices, they enhance their employees' lifestyles. That raises the standard of living for more people in the recipient country. FDI rewards the best companies in any country. It reduces the influence of local governments over them.

Recipient countries see their standard of living rise. As the recipient company benefits from the investment, it can pay higher taxes. Unfortunately, some nations offset this benefit by offering tax incentives to attract FDI.

Another advantage of FDI is that it offsets the volatility created by "hot money." That's when short-term lenders and currency traders create an asset bubble. They invest lots of money all at once, then sell their investments just as fast.

That can create a boom-bust cycle that ruins economies and ends political regimes. Foreign direct investment takes longer to set up and has a more permanent footprint in a country. 


Countries should not allow foreign ownership of companies in strategically important industries. That could lower the comparative advantage of the nation, according to an IMF report.

Second, foreign investors might strip the business of its value without adding any. They could sell unprofitable portions of the company to local, less sophisticated investors. They can use the company's collateral to get low-cost, local loans. Instead of reinvesting it, they lend the funds back to the parent company. 


Trade agreements are a powerful way for countries to encourage more FDI. A great example of this is the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, the world's largest free trade agreement. It increased FDI between the United States, Canada, and Mexico to $731 billion in 2015. That was just one of NAFTA's advantages.

Foreign Direct Investment Statistics

Four agencies keep track of FDI statistics.  

  1. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development publishes the Global Investment Trends Monitor. It summarizes FDI trends around the world. 
  2. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development publishes quarterly FDI statistics for its member countries. It reports on both inflows and outflows. The only statistics it doesn't capture are those between the emerging markets themselves.
  3. The IMF published its first Worldwide Survey of Foreign Direct Investment Positions in 2010. This annual worldwide survey is available as an online database. It covers investment positions for 72 countries. The IMF received help from the European Central Bank, Eurostat, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
  4. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports on the FDI activities of foreign affiliates of U.S. companies. It provides the financial and operating data of these affiliates. It says which U.S. companies were acquired or created by foreign ones. It also describes how much U.S. companies have invested overseas.  

The Bottom Line

A foreign direct investment happens when a corporation or individual invests and owns at least ten percent of a foreign company. When an American tech company opens a data center in India, it makes an FDI. The BEA tracks U.S. FDIs. 

Many developing countries need FDI to facilitate economic growth or repair. International trade agreements have paved the way for increasing FDI flows. FDI has benefited countries through:

  • Raised living standards in emerging markets.
  • Competitive global capital allocation.
  • Dampening of market volatility caused by asset bubbles. 

But FDI can become a disadvantage when:

  • Comparative advantage is lowered by foreign investment in strategic industries.
  • It strips or adds no value to businesses.

In an increasingly globalized economy, the opportunities for foreign direct investment is growing. Investing abroad may be very financially rewarding, but also consider that such investment carries weighty risks.

Article Sources

  1. International Monetary Fund, "Definition of Foreign Investment Terms," Annex I. Existing Definitions. Accessed Feb. 15, 2020.

  2. International Monetary Fund. "What Is Direct Investment?" Accessed Feb. 8, 2020.

  3. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). "UNCTAD 2019 e-Handbook of Statistics: Foreign Direct Investment." Accessed Feb. 8, 2020.

  4. Tax Foundation. "Evaluating the Changed Incentives for Repatriating Foreign Earnings." Accessed Feb. 8, 2020.

  5. Congressional Research Service. "Tax Reform: Repatriation of Foreign Earnings." Accessed Feb. 8, 2020.

  6. United Nations. "Mitigating Climate Change Through Attracting Foreign Direct Investment in Advanced Fossil Fuel Technologies." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  7. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). "World Investment Report 2018: Chapter I Global Investment Trends and Prospects." Accessed Feb. 8, 2020.

  8. OFII. "Foreign Direct Investment in the United States." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  9. The World Bank. "How Developing Countries Can Get the Most Out of Direct Investment." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  10. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "International Investing." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  11. International Monetary Fund. "Guilt By Association." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  12. International Monetary Fund. “How Beneficial Is Foreign Direct Investment for Developing Countries?” Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  13. Congressional Research Service. "The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," Table A-4. U.S. Foreign Direct Investment Positions with Canada and Mexico. Page 37. Accessed Feb. 19, 2020.

  14. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "Global Investment Trends Monitor (Series)." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  15. Organization For Economic Co-Operation and Development. "Foreign Direct Investment Statistics: Data, Analysis and Forecasts." Accessed Feb. 9, 2020.

  16. International Monetary Fund. "Press Release: IMF Publishes First Worldwide Survey of Foreign Direct Investment Positions." Accessed Dec. 10, 2019.

  17. Bureau of Economic Analysis. "Foreign Direct Investment in the United States (FDIUS)." Accessed Dec. 10, 2019.