A history of foreign investment

Economic historian investigates the history and impact of foreign multinationals in Australia

Economic and business historian Senior Professor Simon Ville from UOW's Faculty of Business and Law is investigating the history of multinational enterprises in Australia to fill a major gap in economic and business history literature for the twentieth-century.

Prof Ville is one of four Chief Investigators on the project, which is funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant scheme. Prof Ville will be working alongside Associate Professor Pierre van der Eng from The Australian National University, Emeritus Professor David Merrett and A/Prof Andre Sammartino, both from The University of Melbourne.

According to Prof Ville, foreign multinational enterprises (MNEs) have occupied an important place in Australian business for over a century but their contribution to Australia's economic, commercial, environmental, social and cultural life has been the subject of strenuous debate over decades.

“For nearly two centuries, foreign multinational enterprises have arrived in waves on Australia’s shores. Foreign MNEs are an enduring feature of Australia’s economic landscape,” Prof Ville, who has broad expertise in Australian, British and comparative international economic and business history, said.

“Some of these enterprises are highly visible and influential household names -- Shell, Ford, Coca Cola, Toyota, Samsung. In 2016, foreign multinationals accounted for more than a third of our top 2000 firms and owned $1.1 trillion of assets in Australia. Yet there is much we do not understand about these major organisations – or, indeed, smaller ones often hidden from view.”

Why have foreign MNEs chosen to invest here? Where did they come from? How have they adapted to the Australian environment? These are the types of questions Prof Ville and his co-investigators are aiming to find clear answers to. The overall impact of MNEs on Australia will also be investigated.

“Foreign corporations have played a critical but poorly understood role here. The assumed economic, social, political, and cultural impact of foreign multinationals is a highly contested topic with opinions ranging from demonising them as tax cheats, competition and cultural imperialists to supporting them as vital conduits for investment, innovation and job creation.”

“By assessing the impact of multinational corporations from multiple perspectives, including their contributions to capital formation, export earnings, employment, and improvements in production, product and managerial technologies, we will be able to get a clear understanding of exactly what their role was and is.”

Prof Ville said the project’s findings will inform public debate and policy about the roles of foreign investment and foreign enterprises in the Australian economy today.

“Ownership patterns have also shifted over time – the existence of Chinese state-owned enterprises in Australia, for example, motivates policy questions about host nation security. Analysis of past experiences would inform current thinking about the value and appropriateness of different structures.”

An expert team

Each investigator on the project will bring a unique set of skills and knowledge to the table.

Prof Ville, the project’s coordinator, has extensive experience handling large archival collections and a strong track record in coordinating large projects, most recently as lead editor of the Cambridge Economic History of Australia.

Prof Van der Eng possesses knowledge of European and Asian economic and business history and can communicate in multiple languages (fluent in French, German, Dutch, basic reading in Japanese, Chinese), which means he will focus on MNEs from these countries.

“His work on Japanese and Chinese MNEs in Asia will provide a comparative basis for looking at their Australian experience and impact on policy and economic development,” Prof Ville said.

Em/Prof Merrett’s expertise in Australian business history and its outbound MNEs will enable him to focus on applying his knowledge to the Australian business environment and the behaviour of firms towards their setting.

A/Prof Sammartino’s PhD was in Australian business history and his current trajectory of research lies in international business and strategic management.

“He has recently published in some of the most influential international journals at the forefront of conceptual work in these disciplines and his knowledge in these areas will enable him to tie empirical research results to current theory, particularly in relation to MNE entry modes and strategic decision-making,” Prof Ville said.