By Peter Havlik, senior economist and former deputy director at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been the main driver of restructuring and modernisation of many countries’ economies. In Central and Eastern Europe, FDI has been instrumental in both privatisations of state-owned enterprises and in launching new investment projects. FDI flows in manufacturing have created modern, competitive, export-oriented industries and generated export revenues. However, FDI flowing into the services sectors (including finance and insurance but especially retail trade and real estate) have been more controversial since they boost import demand rather than create new export opportunities.

Global FDI flows are highly volatile and there is no straightforward explanation for such fluctuations. In 2016, FDI to Russia went up sharply, partly because of a single large transaction related to the oil company Rosneft; flows to Kazakhstan recovered as well. FDI flow into Ukraine also increased in 2016, primarily due to bank recapitalisations (reorganization of how a corporation finances its assets) and the privatisation of some companies with the participation of institutional investors such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. FDI flows to Georgia were relatively high in 2014-2016, presumably thanks to the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA), three free trade areas established between the EU, and Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. A similar trend, albeit at a much smaller scale, was observed in Moldova.

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DCFTA countries have been laggards with respect to attracting FDI, largely due to ‘frozen’ conflicts over disputed territories and a poor investment climate in general. Moreover, FDI in the DCFTA countries, similarly to Russia, have a skewed geographic origin: in Ukraine, for example, more than 30% of FDI stocks originate in Cyprus; the share of FDI from Western Europe was just 36% of total FDI stocks in 2016. The extremely high shares of Cyprus and other offshore destinations indicate that this kind of FDI most likely just represents a recycling of domestic capital flight— when assets or money rapidly flow out of a country—and possibly also tax evasion. One can probably safely assume that this kind of FDI is also not particularly conducive to upgrading and modernising the economy. Progress towards institutional reforms in general would therefore instead result in diminishing the shares of FDI that originates from offshore.

The experience of EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe (EU CEEs) indicates that FDI inflows have significantly contributed to the modernisation and restructuring of their economies (about 80% of FDI there originates from Western Europe in contrast to less than 40% in Russia and Ukraine). FDI in the manufacturing industry, business services such as IT, software development, and logistics, has been especially beneficial. Such investments have been particularly welcome as they help to establish competitive export-oriented industries (the successful German-CEE automotive cluster is a case in point). After EU accession, foreign investors have to be treated as domestic ones. Recently, though, a renewed economic nationalism in some countries, such as in Hungary and Poland, has resulted in selective treatment of investors by economic sectors, causing a de facto restriction of foreign investment in banking, trade, etc.

However, it is not just the volume of the registered FDI and its origin that matter; its sectoral composition, investors’ motives, and other FDI structural and ‘quality’ characteristics are also important. In EU CEEs, the bulk of FDI has been concentrated in manufacturing, trade, and financial services: each of these three broad sectors account for about 20-30% of total FDI stocks. In this respect, the DCFTA countries are not very different from Hungary, Poland, Romania, or Slovakia. As far as Eurasian Economic Union countries are concerned, most FDI has been concentrated in energy and mining sectors (especially in Kazakhstan and Russia). In Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania, there are some (small) foreign investments in agriculture. The energy sector is an important FDI target in Georgia, Moldova, and Romania (there are no comparable data for Belarus).

How to explain the huge differences in various FDI structural characteristics across individual transition countries? A number of factors definitely play a role: geography, size of the country, resource endowments, costs and skills of labour, government FDI policies and the investment climate in general. According to the latest World Bank Ease of Doing Business survey for 2018 (published on 31 October 2017 and registering big shifts in ranking scores), Eurasian Economic Union and DCFTA countries received the following ranking (out of 190 countries surveyed): Georgia (9), Poland (27), Russian Federation (35), Kazakhstan (36), Belarus (38), Slovakia (39), Moldova (44), Romania (45), Armenia (47), Hungary (48), Azerbaijan (57), Ukraine (76) and Kyrgyzstan (77). Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Georgia were among the top 10 countries which have managed to improve their ranking recently.

In conclusion, the analysis from the forthcoming IIASA Fast Track FDI study implies that Eurasian Economic Union and DCFTA countries have not been particularly attractive for foreign investors; and if ‘round-trip’ inflows from offshore are excluded this issue is even more evident. This goes a long way to explaining why restructuring in the region has stalled. This pattern can change only with marked improvements in the domestic regulatory environments and investment climates. FDI inflows should also be promoted by pro-active government policies (at national and regional levels) which focus on attracting FDI in manufacturing and business services in order to assist restructuring and modernization.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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