Research Political Sciences

Why the Multinationals that Influence the World Are Born

, by Claudio Todesco
A series of tradeoffs determine the choice to create a group of companies instead of managing operations within a single company, according to a study by Altomonte, Ottaviano and Rungi

Business groups rule the global economy. Data show that about 70% of the global international trade is linked to multinational groups and about a third is linked to companies belonging to the same multinational group. These large groups with hundreds of subsidiaries all over the world influence macroeconomic phenomena. But why do they decide to perform their activities through subsidiaries? And which hierarchical structure do they choose?

Carlo Altomonte (Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management) and Gianmarco Ottaviano (Department of Economics) provide an answer in the paper co-authored with Armando Rungi Business Groups as Knowledge-based Hierarchies. The choice to organize economic activities as a business group rather than an integrated entity is driven by a series of trade-offs between competitive advantages and knowledge dispersion. The authors provide an empirical support exploiting a dataset including 270,000 parent companies controlling more than 1,500,000 subsidiaries worldwide. "The make-or-buy decision is usually studied in relation to outsourcing", Altamonte says. "We applied it to parent companies performing their activities through legally autonomous companies under their control. We found that it is more likely that a company will organize itself through subsidiaries when it operates in a context where intellectual property rights are protected. However, given the risk of knowledge dispersion, the same company does not use independent external subcontractors".

The authors also investigate business groups' hierarchical structure. "A vertical group is more likely to emerge than an horizontal one if the parent company faces lower communication costs between its hierarchical layers. Routine production problems are dealt with by subsidiaries lower in the group's hierarchy. The activities become increasingly complex as we get near to the parent company". This is the case of Alphabet Inc, the multinational conglomerate that owns Google. The most innovative companies such as Deep Mind (artificial intelligence research and application) and Waymo (the self-driving car project) are hierarchically closer to the parent.

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