If one were to ask a group of economists, policymakers, and other public intellectuals how to solve The Great Issue™ of stark global inequalities in wealth and development, they may very well yell “Foreign Direct Investment!” This is exactly what the World Bank has been preaching for the past thirty or so years. After all, neoclassical economics dictate that the private market should find these massive stocks of human capital, natural resources, and an untapped market to boot too good to pass up on. Considering the globalization of the economy at large it would be suboptimal at best and un-capitalist at worst not to jump on the opportunity these resources offer. Of course, it never was this easy. Resource allocation is a game we play, and when the rules and outcomes are unclear costs potentially outweigh benefits. This is often the case in poor countries; therefore, private parties keen on profits get cold feet and back out. They are wary of expropriations and (government) parties defaulting on payments. In other cases, social unrest, terrorism or even war may destroy a company’s operations abroad. Political Risk Insurance (PRI) encompasses a range of products designed to ameliorate the costs associated with these risks.
As stated by Iftinchi and Hurduzeu [pdf], PRI is offered by two main groups; public and private insurers. Public insurers are often linked to, or are an immediate part of, a development bank or government initiative. They tend to be in the market for relatively long-term investments and are less flexible due to their alignment with governments’ foreign policy or sustainability goals. Private parties, on the other hand, insure short- and medium-term projects at highly variable premiums and often with little regard for the (socio-economic) environment. As can be seen in the graph, the main public player is the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), with significant market share in countries with the highest risk rating (BB and worse). Zurich Group is the largest private party, insuring PRI across the board and outperforming MIGA in the, quite relevant from an international development standpoint, ‘CCC and lower’ rated market.
At its very core, the public provision of PRI is supposed to improve global resource allocation. It allows firms to engage in markets which they previously may not have considered. This very idea was central to the initiation of MIGA by the World Bank [pdf]: “sustainable economic growth in many developing and transitional countries would require stimulation of private enterprise and foreign direct investment.” Albeit easy to get behind, there are definite questions to be raised about the World Bank’s interference in this market. As market shares show, private insurers do not necessarily have a problem with fulfilling the demand in place. This issue was already being raised at the very establishment of MIGA; Stefan Sinn dealt with it extensively in his 1986 “Second Thoughts on MIGA” [pdf] paper. Furthermore, he raises fundamental concerns about the role of insurance provision in resource allocation. As with any type of insurance, risks such as moral hazard may, in fact, worsen allocation. Yes, there are obvious benefits to FDI; its size potential in comparison to other forms of development aid [pdf] says as much. And yes, its flow may very well be improved by PRI products. However, the fundamental questions raised by Sinn remain unanswered some 30 years later.
* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂