Urenio Watch Watch: Innovation ecosystems

The Global Networks of Multinational Firms

When and why do multinationals group together overseas? Do they agglomerate in the same fashion abroad as they do at home? An answer to these questions is central to the long-standing debate over the consequences of foreign direct investment (FDI). It is critical to understand interdependencies of multinational networks and how multinationals influence one another in their activities at home and overseas.

HBS professor Laura Alfaro and George Washington University professor Maggie Chen examine the global network of multinationals and study the significance and causes of multinational agglomeration. Their results provide further evidence of the increasing separation of headquarters services and production activities within multinational firms. The differential specialization of headquarters and subsidiaries leads to distinct patterns of agglomeration. Key concepts include:

  • Recent decades have witnessed an explosion in the activities of multinational corporations, but little is understood about global patterns of multinational agglomeration.
  • Examples of this trend include firms that agglomerated in Silicon Valley and in Detroit now having subsidiaries clustered in Bangalore (termed “the Silicon Valley of India”) and in Slovakia (“the Detroit of the East”).
  • A new data set provides detailed location, ownership, and activity information for establishments in more than 100 countries.
  • Multinational subsidiaries with knowledge spillovers, among other factors, tend to agglomerate to one another. The importance of these agglomeration economies is, however, different across headquarters, subsidiary, and employment networks.
  • Many factors play a role in the location decisions of firms, so it may not be possible for a country to duplicate the circumstances that led to agglomeration in other nations.
  • Policymakers need to consider the interdependence of multinational firms when making decisions about FDI.