Each week, new waves of populist rhetoric pushing against globalization spew from each corner of the globe. Voters, angry with the inequitable distribution of wealth and prosperity wrought by globalized trade, rail against international trade agreements and large corporate interests in the Western world. Yet one phenomenon appears to have slipped past the iron gates of isolationism: the transition of corporations from multinational to “metanational” firms.
A brief definition: multinational firms have facilities or firms in more than one nation state. Metanational firms essentially operate as stateless actors – often comprised of a series of individual franchises or firms loosely surrounding a holding company held in a low tax country. A primary example is Accenture Consulting. Based around a Swiss holding company, employees operate as contractors who are based in regional hubs and disperse based on projects, ensuring to not remain in any one place too long to avoid the need to declare residency.
In the eyes of metanational firms, legal domicile is but a formality. The age of the stateless actor has allowed for the rise of billions in almost tax-free revenues being accrued globally. With 69 of the top 100 economic entities being private sector actors, the global balance is shifting away from absolute state power. The 10 largest banks in the world control almost 50% of managed assets worldwide. Despite the venomous rhetoric surrounding firms going global, the economic case for denationalization has never been more appealing.
Take the United States: as a polarized voter base strives to decide between two unpopular choices, the tone surrounding the issues of trade and globalization has given corporations pause. An estimated $3T USD raised by American multinationals has gone untaxed in 2016 alone as American firms seek to store their gains on friendlier, cheaper shores. Both candidates have preached the value of lowering the corporate tax rate to encourage an inflow of repatriated earnings. The ignition of a trade war will have few positive side-effects for businesses, though the prospect of a weaker dollar and strong tax reform to create stimulus does pose some upside.
The United States appears to be adopting policies that will hope to bring the nation back to it’s glory days of nationalized industries and proud corporate citizens. But the case for imposing increased tariffs on imports and repressing free trade policies make only the installation of head offices and bank accounts in the United States appealing, not the return of manufacturing jobs from overseas.
An estimated 85% of economists in 2012 claimed that the benefits of free trade outweighed any impacts on employment. The imposition of policies that repress trade will not see the return of jobs for non-skilled blue collar workers throughout the continental United States. Rather, it will only further exacerbate the problem of inequity and inequality that has so divided the Western world.
If voters wish to curb trade, the election of either candidate will further that agenda. But if voters wish to create a nation that is fairer and more equitable, the core solution remains creating a favourable business climate. The economic case for free trade cannot be ignored as logical. But, much like allowing corporate interests free reign over a financial system, it cannot be imposed without oversight or in tandem with complementary solutions. Otherwise stateless actors will simply continue to play a system and will endure; no matter how much it crumbles around them.
Ciolli, J. 2016. Whether Clinton or Trump, multinationals set to win the election. Bloomberg News: Markets. New York.
Doz et al. 1996. The metanational corporation. INSEAD. France.
Francis, D. 2016. These 25 companies are more powerful than many countries. Foreign Policy Magazine. New York.