AI and Slovakia: Will FDI diminish ?

Artificial intelligence (AI) fueling 4.0 Industrial Revolution has put on center stage several questions in the context of a converging economy, such as the one of Slovakia. Will the introduction of AI help the main pillars of the Slovak economy such as FDI-owned manufacturing industries ? Which policy challenges will it bring to the fore ?

Economic convergence leads to rising wages

Convergence of a national economy to the level of Western economies in the European Union means that via labor productivity increases the overall economic growth surpasses that in the EU – over time the gap between the level of economic performance of Western and Eastern countries decreases. With an overall national wage growth at a certain level – as some key sectors over-perform – some sectors may run out of potential for productivity gains and its labor productivity tempo might be lagging behind the national average of wage growth.

Which are the two scenarios for the development of such sector i.e. sector where labor productivity growth no longer goes hand in hand with wage growth at the national level ?

A) Scenario without much introduction of new machinery

Assume labor compensation/output remains at significant levels (say 40-50%) as is oftentimes the case in manufacturing sectors. Given that wages are rising at the national level, company X must somehow upgrade the production so that supposedly positive gap between return and cost of capital is not eaten up. This can happen either through new processes or introduction of new higher-value products (such as higher value-added car models in car industry). This continuous upgrade of production must go on until the labor productivity growth reaches its limits. At that point, the factory could continue producing but the economic rate of return (ROIC- cost of capital) would start shrinking. Or it can re-allocate production to some other place such as further East. Given that labor constitutes a significant share of output, much lower labor costs in the East in excess of the re-allocation costs may drive decision to move eastward, to a cheaper location.

B) Scenario with a heavy introduction of new machines, incl AI

With the introduction of labor-saving new machinery such as AI machines, labor compensation to output ratio (labor share) would likely plummet (let’s say from 40-50% levels to, say, 10% level) – hence cost advantage of labor diminishes since now labor accounts of much smaller share in cost structure. Whether it is Slovakia or low wage Kazakhstan, there is not much difference in labor cost to produce. However, the costs of re-allocation to the East remain still significant.

On the basis of this simplified analysis, it is clearly in the interest of Slovakia that foreign-owned car plants introduce labor-saving machines since this reduces the incentives that headquarters re-allocate production to cheaper locations, such as in the East.
This is because after AI machines are employed, a labor share on a company level declines dramatically to the point where it nearly does not matter where the factory is located geographically. If now labor accounts for let’s say 10% of produced economic value this means that whether the factory is in France or Slovakia or Kazakhstan matters much less than before from the viewpoint of labor costs. However, given that it is costly to set up a new factory in the East, it is not very likely the car factory would migrate eastward (Kazakhstan). If anything, given the advantages of being in home country it may rather go back to home country (France) despite higher hourly labor costs.

In order to summarize, on the basis of this simplified analysis it seems that sectors where introduction of AI factories is feasible and makes economic sense, their installation would reduce incentives to migrate eastward. On the other hand, a significant gap between domestic wage level and a wage level in the East may create very sharp incentives to re-allocate whenever the labor costs constitute major share of costs, as is the case in sectors without AI machines introduction.

The good news and the bad news for Slovakia

At a nutshell, for Slovakia AI introduction will be good and bad news at the same time. It will be good news because AI will lead to reduction of importance of labor costs in certain sectors as the competitive factor and will blunt incentives for the existing manufacturing plants to leave Slovakia and move eastward where wages are lower than in Slovakia. In such case, geographical location is much less important and given the existence of re-allocation costs incentives will likely be to remain intact geographically.

However, it also means that for a country such as Slovakia future FDI will be much harder to acquire since the advantage of low labor cost as a competitive factor will be significantly reduced in AI intensive sectors. Things like quality of the business environment, tax regime or reduction of country risk ( which will reduce the cost of capital) through better institutional environment will matter relatively more. More generally, it means we might thus move into the world where soft factors such business/institutional environment factors matter more for investment decisions than the labor cost.
Sector-level wise, at the national policy level in Slovakia one should focus efforts to attract FDI on areas where AI will not make much difference and a ratio of wage bill to output remains significant (such as tourism, hospitality, some other services). This is because attempts to lure FDI – in absence of strong advantages in the institutional arena – where wages do not constitute a high share of output anymore would likely prove futile.

AI likely to suppress incentives for FDI

More generally, the application of AI to manufacturing will likely lead to reduction of downhill FDIs globally in the future and probably mean a less integrated world going forward. Pending AI machines installation projects may even already explain some of the recent fall in cross-border FDI in 2018. The world with much less FDI puts a premium on domestic economic policies to nurture home companies and fuel domestic economic growth.

The quality of human capital will continue to matter and its relatively low cost may be a driver for certain inward investments (such as shared services) in sectors where there is still a high share of labor compensation on output. Investment in country’s human capital should thus remain important – after-all, AI machines dominated factories will require presence of super-sophisticated managers/engineers. Given that future incoming FDI will likely slow down – at least in those sectors where robots can replace humans – much higher effort should be focused on building a domestic enterprise sector via start-ups support and different schemes of nurturing domestic entrepreneurship.

A divergence back again ?

If the simplified analysis above is correct, implications of it seem quite dim for developing countries and challenges they are facing. Given that their business and institutional environments are relatively weak and labor cost is a primary competitive advantage factor, FDI where robots can replace humans will likely be not lured to such areas to the same extent as before. Some FDI factories might even migrate uphill to areas with better business, tax and institutional environment since importance of labor cost will be so drastically reduced. In developing countries, bottlenecks on markets with super-sophisticated managers/engineers to run such AI-intensive factories may contribute to that as well. Weak business and institutional environment, underdeveloped human capital all leading to now much lower intake of FDI and low sophistication of domestic economies to begin with, mean that such developing countries might face challenges to develop modern export sectors and thus to follow development model based on export-led growth focusing on sophisticated sectors. It could also lead to the race to the bottom regarding environmental standards as developing countries try to compete on non-labor cost factors. Whether AI heavily applied to manufacturing sector also means a higher probability of middle-income trap incidence for countries such as Slovakia is worth pondering too.

Vladimir Zlacky,
Bratislava, 26 JUne 2019

It is brands, Economist !

It is brands, Economist !

Typically, many economists have not always fully appreciated business disciplines of softer nature – marketing as a field quickly comes to one’s mind. Yet, it is enormous how significant is the value astute marketing people can create for the national economy. They not only help salespeople of companies penetrate markets home and far abroad but through strategic brand-building enormously enhance the economic value of production.

It is not rare that a branded product – a product which carries a recognized and reputed brand – can sell for a multiple of price of a generic product. This is typically a result of concerted brand-building efforts by and within a given organization. Consistent and attractive visuals and designs of products, thought-out media advertising, marketing events of many kinds, aligned organizational behavior – these all can come under a rubric of brand-building. Yes, brand-building also entails a cost but typically astute marketing people can create the brand where a brand price premium can exceed the incurred cost substantially.

When the national economy has many high-quality brands this might also have macroeconomic implications. It can mean that countries with the most astute marketing people can see their GDP enhanced by these strategic marketing efforts more than others. This is something not completely obvious when one thinks about the role and the effect of marketing in the economy (one would think perhaps, in a first cut, of mostly zero-sum game when analyzing marketing effects within a sector). Furthermore, branded products command a much higher degree of customer loyalty – this has implications for competitiveness of the national economies. Just think what a 20% appreciation of domestic currency does with the competitiveness/profit margins of commodities exporting countries vs. highly branded products exporting countries. The latter economy is clearly much more robust to currency value shocks.

When looking at this issue via the glasses of somebody born and living in a Central-Eastern European (CEE) country one has to appreciate the road traveled since the inception of transformation of these economies to a market model also in case of local marketing activities. The marketing area was extremely neglected during the socialism regime as very little advertising and brand-building took place. During the last 30 years enormous progress was achieved as demonstrated by springing up of many attractive brands in these economies, although most of them are only of local significance. Obviously, not all progress was domestically driven but rather the effect of inflow of FDI, which brought some marketing practices, and of other foreign influences cannot be underestimated.

Yet, while the marketing expertise in the CEE economies has advanced, further improvement could be achieved by bringing business education closer to business people in these countries. Offshoots of Western business schools could perhaps find this high growth terrain of converging economies of CEE a very lucrative base for spreading their influence. If establishing their branches in CEE, they could further nurture Western management practices and culture in these countries. Besides so important marketing field as noted above, other creative areas such as general/strategic management, leadership and people management or entrepreneurship could thus be supported in CEE too. By means of not only degree programs but of various executive and evening/weekend programs such schools could help local business people grow in expertise. Spearheading entrepreneurial and start-ups culture in countries where FDIs have been a typical engine of development to date should also be commended if such school(s) appeared in the region.

Given that human capital – also that entailing best business practices – seems one of the bottlenecks of further economic development in CEE, the government could also contribute by introducing tax incentives for the whole sector of lifelong learning, including business school education.

Vladimir Zlacky
May 4, 2019

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