Today, business is acknowledged to be international and there is a general expectation that this will continue for the foreseeable future. International business may be defined simply as business transactions that take place across national borders. This broad definition includes the very small firm that exports (or imports) a small quantity to only one country, as well as the very large global firm with integrated operations and strategic alliances around the world. Within this broad array, distinctions are often made among different types of international firms, and these distinctions are helpful in understanding a firm’s strategy, organization, and functional decisions (for example, its financial, administrative, marketing, human resource, or operations decisions). One distinction that can be helpful is the distinction between multi-domestic operations, with independent subsidiaries which act essentially as domestic firms, and global operations, with integrated subsidiaries which are closely related and interconnected. These may be thought of as the two ends of a continuum, with many possibilities in between. Firms are unlikely to be at one end of the continuum, though, as they often combine aspects of multi-domestic operations with aspects of global operations.
International business grew over the last half of the twentieth century partly because of liberalization of both trade and investment, and partly because doing business internationally had become easier. In terms of liberalization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiation rounds resulted in trade liberalization, and this was continued with the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. At the same time, worldwide capital movements were liberalized by most governments, particularly with the advent of electronic funds transfers. In addition, the introduction of a new European monetary unit, the euro, into circulation in January 2002 has impacted international business economically. The euro is the currency of the European Union, membership in March 2005 of 25 countries, and the euro replaced each country’s previous currency. As of early 2005, the United States dollar continues to struggle against the euro and the impacts are being felt across industries worldwide.
In terms of ease of doing business internationally, two major forces are important:
- technological developments which make global communication and transportation relatively quick and convenient; and
- the disappearance of a substantial part of the communist world, opening many of the world’s economies to private business.
Domestics Vs. International Business
Domestic and international enterprises, in both the public and private sectors, share the business objectives of functioning successfully to continue operations. Private enterprises seek to function profitably as well. Why, then, is international business different from domestic? The answer lies in the differences across borders. Nation-states generally have unique government systems, laws and regulations, currencies, taxes and duties, and so on, as well as different cultures and practices. An individual traveling from his home country to a foreign country needs to have the proper documents, to carry foreign currency, to be able to communicate in the foreign country, to be dressed appropriately, and so on. Doing business in a foreign country involves similar issues and is thus more complex than doing business at home. The following sections will explore some of these issues. Specifically, comparative advantage is introduced, the international business environment is explored, and forms of international entry are outlined.
Theories of International Trade and Investment
In order to understand international business, it is necessary to have a broad conceptual understanding of why trade and investment across national borders take place. Trade and investment can be examined in terms of the comparative advantage of nations.
Comparative advantage suggests that each nation is relatively good at producing certain products or services. This comparative advantage is based on the nation’s abundant factors of production-land, labor, and capital-and a country will export those products/services that use its abundant factors of production intensively. Simply, consider only two factors of production, labor and capital, and two countries, X and Y. If country X has a relative abundance of labor and country Y a relative abundance of capital, country X should export products/services that use labor intensively, country Y should export products/services that use capital intensively.
This is a very simplistic explanation, of course. There are many more factors of production, of varying qualities, and there are many additional influences on trade such as government regulations. Nevertheless, it is a starting point for understanding what nations are likely to export or import. The concept of comparative advantage can also help explain investment flows. Generally, capital is the most mobile of the factors of production and can move relatively easily from one country to another. Other factors of production, such as land and labor, either do not move or are less mobile. The result is that where capital is available in one country it may be used to invest in other countries to take advantage of their abundant land or labor. Firms may develop expertise and firm specific advantages based initially on abundant resources at home, but as resource needs change, the stage of the product life cycle matures, and home markets become saturated, these firms find it advantageous to invest internationally.
The International Business Environment
International business is different from domestic business because the environment changes when a firm crosses international borders. Typically, a firm understands its domestic environment quite well, but is less familiar with the environment in other countries and must invest more time and resources into understanding the new environment. The following considers some of the important aspects of the environment that change internationally.
The economic environment can be very different from one nation to another. Countries are often divided into three main categories: the more developed or industrialized, the less developed or third world, and the newly industrializing or emerging economies. Within each category there are major variations, but overall the more developed countries are the rich countries, the less developed the poor ones, and the newly industrializing (those moving from poorer to richer). These distinctions are usually made on the basis of gross domestic product per capita (GDP/capita). Better education, infrastructure, technology, health care, and so on are also often associated with higher levels of economic development.
In addition to level of economic development, countries can be classified as free-market, centrally planned, or mixed. Free-market economies are those where government intervenes minimally in business activities, and market forces of supply and demand are allowed to determine production and prices. Centrally planned economies are those where the government determines production and prices based on forecasts of demand and desired levels of supply. Mixed economies are those where some activities are left to market forces and some, for national and individual welfare reasons, are government controlled. In the late twentieth century there has been a substantial move to free-market economies, but the People’s Republic of China, the world’s most populous country, along with a few others, remained largely centrally planned economies, and most countries maintain some government control of business activities.
Clearly the level of economic activity combined with education, infrastructure, and so on, as well as the degree of government control of the economy, affect virtually all facets of doing business, and a firm needs to understand this environment if it is to operate successfully internationally.
The political environment refers to the type of government, the government relationship with business, and the political risk in a country. Doing business internationally thus implies dealing with different types of governments, relationships, and levels of risk.
There are many different types of political systems, for example, multi-party democracies, one-party states, constitutional monarchies, dictatorships (military and nonmilitary). Also, governments change in different ways, for example, by regular elections, occasional elections, death, coups, war. Government-business relationships also differ from country to country. Business may be viewed positively as the engine of growth, it may be viewed negatively as the exploiter of the workers, or somewhere in between as providing both benefits and drawbacks. Specific government-business relationships can also vary from positive to negative depending on the type of business operations involved and the relationship between the people of the host country and the people of the home country. To be effective in a foreign location an international firm relies on the goodwill of the foreign government and needs to have a good understanding of all of these aspects of the political environment.
A particular concern of international firms is the degree of political risk in a foreign location. Political risk refers to the likelihood of government activity that has unwanted consequences for the firm. These consequences can be dramatic as in forced divestment, where a government requires the firm give up its assets, or more moderate, as in unwelcome regulations or interference in operations. In any case the risk occurs because of uncertainty about the likelihood of government activity occurring. Generally, risk is associated with instability and a country is thus seen as more risky if the government is likely to change unexpectedly, if there is social unrest, if there are riots, revolutions, war, terrorism, and so on. Firms naturally prefer countries that are stable and that present little political risk, but the returns need to be weighed against the risks, and firms often do business in countries where the risk is relatively high. In these situations, firms seek to manage the perceived risk through insurance, ownership and management choices, supply and market control, financing arrangements, and so on. In addition, the degree of political risk is not solely a function of the country, but depends on the company and its activities as well-a risky country for one company may be relatively safe for another.
The cultural environment is one of the critical components of the international business environment and one of the most difficult to understand. This is because the cultural environment is essentially unseen; it has been described as a shared, commonly held body of general beliefs and values that determine what is right for one group. National culture is described as the body of general beliefs and values that are shared by a nation. Beliefs and values are generally seen as formed by factors such as history, language, religion, geographic location, government, and education; thus firms begin a cultural analysis by seeking to understand these factors.
Firms want to understand what beliefs and values they may find in countries where they do business, and a number of models of cultural values have been proposed by scholars. The most well-known is the model of cultural dimensions developed by Hofstede in1980. This model proposes four dimensions of cultural values including individualism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance and masculinity. Individualism is the degree to which a nation values and encourages individual action and decision making. Uncertainty avoidance is the degree to which a nation is willing to accept and deal with uncertainty. Power distance is the degree to which a national accepts and sanctions differences in power. And masculinity is the degree to which a nation accepts traditional male values or traditional female values. This model of cultural values has been used extensively because it provides data for a wide array of countries. Many academics and managers found this model helpful in exploring management approaches that would be appropriate in different cultures. For example, in a nation that is high on individualism one expects individual goals, individual tasks, and individual reward systems to be effective, whereas the reverse would be the case in a nation that is low on individualism. While this model is popular, there have been many attempts to develop more complex and inclusive models of culture.
The competitive environment can also change from country to country. This is partly because of the economic, political, and cultural environments; these environmental factors help determine the type and degree of competition that exists in a given country. Competition can come from a variety of sources. It can be public or private sector, come from large or small organizations, be domestic or global, and stem from traditional or new competitors. For the domestic firm the most likely sources of competition may be well understood. The same is not the case when one moves to compete in a new environment. For example, in the 1990s in the United States most business was privately owned and competition was among private sector companies, while in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) businesses were owned by the state. Thus, a U.S. company in the PRC could find itself competing with organizations owned by state entities such as the PRC army. This could change the nature of competition dramatically.
The nature of competition can also change from place to place as the following illustrate: competition may be encouraged and accepted or discouraged in favor of cooperation; relations between buyers and sellers may be friendly or hostile; barriers to entry and exit may be low or high; regulations may permit or prohibit certain activities. To be effective internationally, firms need to understand these competitive issues and assess their impact.
An important aspect of the competitive environment is the level, and acceptance, of technological innovation in different countries. The last decades of the twentieth century saw major advances in technology, and this is continuing in the twenty-first century. Technology often is seen as giving firms a competitive advantage; hence, firms compete for access to the newest in technology, and international firms transfer technology to be globally competitive. It is easier than ever for even small businesses to have a global presence thanks to the internet, which greatly expands their exposure, their market, and their potential customer base. For economic, political, and cultural reasons, some countries are more accepting of technological innovations, others less accepting.
International Entry Choices
International firms may choose to do business in a variety of ways. Some of the most common include exports, licenses, contracts and turnkey operations, franchises, joint ventures, wholly owned subsidiaries, and strategic alliances.
Exporting is often the first international choice for firms, and many firms rely substantially on exports throughout their history. Exports are seen as relatively simple because the firm is relying on domestic production, can use a variety of intermediaries to assist in the process, and expects its foreign customers to deal with the marketing and sales issues. Many firms begin by exporting reactively; then become proactive when they realize the potential benefits of addressing a market that is much larger than the domestic one. Effective exporting requires attention to detail if the process is to be successful; for example, the exporter needs to decide if and when to use different intermediaries, select an appropriate transportation method, preparing export documentation, prepare the product, arrange acceptable payment terms, and so on. Most importantly, the exporter usually leaves marketing and sales to the foreign customers, and these may not receive the same attention as if the firm itself under-took these activities. Larger exporters often undertake their own marketing and establish sales subsidiaries in important foreign markets.
Licenses are granted from a licensor to a licensee for the rights to some intangible property (e.g. patents, processes, copyrights, trademarks) for agreed on compensation (a royalty payment). Many companies feel that production in a foreign country is desirable but they do not want to undertake this production themselves. In this situation the firm can grant a license to a foreign firm to undertake the production. The licensing agreement gives access to foreign markets through foreign production without the necessity of investing in the foreign location. This is particularly attractive for a company that does not have the financial or managerial capacity to invest and undertake foreign production. The major disadvantage to a licensing agreement is the dependence on the foreign producer for quality, efficiency, and promotion of the product-if the licensee is not effective this reflects on the licensor. In addition, the licensor risks losing some of its technology and creating a potential competitor. This means the licensor should choose a licensee carefully to be sure the licensee will perform at an acceptable level and is trustworthy. The agreement is important to both parties and should ensure that both parties benefit equitably.
Contracts are used frequently by firms that provide specialized services, such as management, technical knowledge, engineering, information technology, education, and so on, in a foreign location for a specified time period and fee. Contracts are attractive for firms that have talents not being fully utilized at home and in demand in foreign locations. They are relatively short-term, allowing for flexibility, and the fee is usually fixed so that revenues are known in advance. The major drawback is their short-term nature, which means that the contracting firm needs to develop new business constantly and negotiate new contracts. This negotiation is time consuming, costly, and requires skill at cross-cultural negotiations. Revenues are likely to be uneven and the firm must be able to weather periods when no new contracts materialize.
Turnkey contracts are a specific kind of contract where a firm constructs a facility, starts operations, trains local personnel, then transfers the facility (turns over the keys) to the foreign owner. These contracts are usually for very large infrastructure projects, such as dams, railways, and airports, and involve substantial financing; thus they are often financed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Companies that specialize in these projects can be very profitable, but they require specialized expertise. Further, the investment in obtaining these projects is very high, so only a relatively small number of large firms are involved in these projects, and often they involve a syndicate or collaboration of firms.
Similar to licensing agreements, franchises involve the sale of the right to operate a complete business operation. Well-known examples include independently owned fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. A successful franchise requires control over something that others are willing to pay for, such as a name, set of products, or a way of doing things, and the availability of willing and able franchisees. Finding franchisees and maintaining control over franchisable assets in foreign countries can be difficult; to be successful at international franchising firms need to ensure they can accomplish both of these.
Joint ventures involve shared ownership in a subsidiary company. A joint venture allows a firm to take an investment position in a foreign location without taking on the complete responsibility for the foreign investment. Joint ventures can take many forms. For example, there can be two partners or more, partners can share equally or have varying stakes, partners can come from the private sector or the public, partners can be silent or active, partners can be local or international. The decisions on what to share, how much to share, with whom to share, and how long to share are all important to the success of a joint venture. Joint ventures have been likened to marriages, with the suggestion that the choice of partner is critically important. Many joint ventures fail because partners have not agreed on their objectives and find it difficult to work out conflicts. Joint ventures provide an effective international entry when partners are complementary, but firms need to be thorough in their preparation for a joint venture.
Wholly-owned subsidiaries involve the establishment of businesses in foreign locations which are owned entirely by the investing firm. This entry choice puts the investor parent in full control of operations but also requires the ability to provide the needed capital and management, and to take on all of the risk. Where control is important and the firm is capable of the investment, it is often the preferred choice. Other firms feel the need for local input from local partners, or specialized input from international partners, and opt for joint ventures or strategic alliances, even where they are financially capable of 100 percent ownership.
Strategic alliances are arrangements among companies to cooperate for strategic purposes. Licenses and joint ventures are forms of strategic alliances, but are often differentiated from them. Strategic alliances can involve no joint ownership or specific license agreement, but rather two companies working together to develop a synergy. Joint advertising programs are a form of strategic alliance, as are joint research and development programs. Strategic alliances seem to make some firms vulnerable to loss of competitive advantage, especially where small firms ally with larger firms. In spite of this, many smaller firms find strategic alliances allow them to enter the international arena when they could not do so alone.
To conclude, international business grew substantially in the second half of the twentieth century, and this growth is likely to continue. The international environment is complex and it is very important for firms to understand this environment and make effective choices in this complex environment. The previous discussion introduced the concept of comparative advantage, explored some of the important aspects of the international business environment, and outlined the major international entry choices available to firms. The topic of international business is itself complex, and this short discussion serves only to introduce a few ideas on international business issues.