Foreign stake in America: How big, how ominous? Financial Invasion of the USA, by Earl H. Fry. New York: McGraw-Hill. $9.95.
The subtitle to this book asks the question "A Threat to American Society?" The author gives an equivocal answer: "No, at least not yet." Mr. Fry begins by discussing the furor that "The American Challenge," J.-J. Servan-Schreiber's book, caused when it was published in France more than a decade ago. At that time, the spread of American multinational corporations abroad was raising the specter of permanent American economic domination of Europe. This fear was probably overdone at the time, and events in any case have blown it to the winds.
Mr. Fry's own book has no such stirring or provocative message. It is, however, a responsibly written compendium of the evidence on hand (most data going through 1978 at the latest), indicating the degree of foreign penetration of US business and real estate markets. Mr. Fry, who is a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, is aware he is dealing with a dynamic issue. But the folks in Washington who keep the statistical records can't keep up with the change fast enough. Indeed, the most dynamic effect may be about to burst upon us, since a handful of OPEC countries have several back-to-back years of surplus oil money running as high as $100 billion annually.
The author looks broadly at four types of investment in this country: agricultural land, income-producing real estate (such as shopping centers or major commercial buildings), securities transactions, and outright purchase of companies or the implantation of a foreign company here. The only case in which he raises even a yellow flag is in the matter of agricultural land. There have been sufficient sales in some scattered parts of the Middle West and in the rich agricultural center of California to raise local concern. An appendix to the book details present state regulations regarding foreign land ownership.
He also takes a look at the sections of the country that have been of most interest to foreigners. Other than the agricultural areas just named, the Sunbelt states have received more than their share of new investments. The attractions have been the same as they are for Americans -- pleasant living, lower wages, generally right-to-work conditions.
One chapter contains a discussion of the controls over foreign penetration which are in place in Canada and France. Mr. Fry notes that, unlike the international agreement over trade (the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade, or GATT), there is no internationally agreed-upon framework for monitoring the impact of foreign investment in each country, and no code of ethics. However, rules such as have been in place for years in Canada and France let a foreign investor know ahead of time what the local requirements are and provide an orderly procedure for passing on new investment plans.
He discusses the bidding that took place between Ohio and Pennsylvania for the Volkswagen plant, and argues that such competition among states could be mutually destructive if too much of it occured. To date, however, this does not seem to be the problem he fears it could become.
It is good to know where we are as the 1980s begin. So far, most long-term investment here has come from Europeans and Japanese, who see America as a highly profitable mass market. The steady decline of the dollar for the past 10 years makes investment here relatively cheap for them. But it is also time to be prepared with more definite rules if there should be a new wave of investment in the '80s. This could most easily come from the OPEC surplus countries, although to date they have been hesitant about making long-term commitments abroad with their hoard of funds.
Professor Fry does not fear foreign investment and notes that most of it has produced more jobs for Americans. But he concludes that we need to keep better track of what is happening, to ensure that it remains desirable, on balance. Two 1978 laws will make it possible to keep better track of foreign invesment in banking and agricultural land. More monitoring should be done of foreign investment in banking and agricultural land, he says, and of foreign purchases of commercial and residential properties. And a US version of Canada's Foreign Investment Review Agency could review plans for foreign investment in industry here.