Recently, there has been a renewal of interest in industrial policy across the world. Advanced economies promise to use industrial policy to revive their declining manufacturing, while emerging markets hope that industrial policies will help them upgrade their production structure and in this way stimulate economic growth. Yet, little is known about the micro determinants of product upgrading.
The existing research suggests that inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) can foster host countries’ production upgrading, where upgrading is measured in terms of the unit values of exports (Harding and Javorcik, 2012).
In our recent work, we move away from unit values – a highly imperfect proxy for product quality – and examine the link between FDI and product upgrading, as captured by complexity of new products introduced by domestic firms. We focus on manufacturing firms in Turkey, a country that has experienced a spectacular surge in FDI inflows during the 2000s and dramatically increased the sophistication of its productive structure in the last decades.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that foreign affiliates stimulate product upgrading among their suppliers. For example, Indesit Company, an Italian white good producer – recently acquired by Whirlpool – has produced refrigerators in Turkey since the 1990s. In 2012, Indesit built a new plant to produce washing machines. To become a supplier of this new plant, a local company purchased new presses and automated its production process. This allowed it to start producing a new and more sophisticated product, a washing machine flange, and to increase efficiency and production volumes. The flange is a very complex product as it needs to be produced with no aesthetic defects by an 800-1,000 tonne metal presses. It also needs to withstand the stress of between 1,000 and 1,400 revolutions per minute while remaining within a certain range of vibration and noisiness. Indesit has shared essential tacit knowledge, information processes, instructions and control procedures with the local company, thus stimulating and supporting the supplier’s complexity upgrading.
Inspired by the anecdotal evidence, our study examines the link between the presence of foreign affiliates and production upgrading by Turkish firms located in the same region and active in the input-supplying industries.
Measuring product complexity
To capture product complexity we use a measure proposed by César Hidalgo and Ricardo Hausmann, who relate the concept of product complexity to the extent and exclusivity of capabilities needed to produce a given product. It is easiest to explain this measure using a Lego analogy. Think of a country as a bucket of Lego pieces with each piece representing the capabilities available there. The set of products (i.e., Lego models) a country can produce depends on the diversity and exclusiveness of the Lego pieces in the bucket. A Lego bucket that contains pieces that can only be used to build a toy bicycle probably does not contain the pieces to create a toy car. However, a Lego bucket that contains pieces that can build a toy car may also have the necessary pieces needed to build a toy bicycle. While two Lego buckets may be capable of building the same number of models, these may be completely different sets of models. Thus, determining the complexity of an economy by looking at the products it produces amounts to determining the diversity and exclusivity of the pieces in a Lego bucket by simply looking at the Lego models it can build.
Our analysis suggests that the presence of foreign affiliates does not affect the propensity of Turkish firms to innovate. However, the presence of foreign affiliates is positively correlated with the complexity level of products newly introduced by Turkish firms active in the supplying industries and located in the same region.
The estimated effect is economically meaningful. A 10 percentage point increase in foreign presence implies moving about half of the way from the production of pot scourers to producing stainless sinks. An increase of about 17 percentage points in FDI in the relevant sectors would be necessary in order to move from the production of stainless sinks to the production of the washing machine flanges.
Our findings matter for policy. Dani Rodrik argues that enhancing an economy’s productive capabilities over an increasing range of manufactured goods can be considered an integral part of economic development. As foreign affiliates facilitate the upgrading of the host country’s productive capabilities, our results, then, imply that FDI inflows can act as an important stimulus for economic growth. Thus, there is room for investment promotion activities, a policy that is quite effective in developing countries. In contrast to many other industrial policies, investment promotion is relatively inexpensive and causes few distortions. Therefore, there is little downside when the government gets it wrong.
Harding, T. and Javorcik, B.S. (2011). ‘Roll out the red carpet and they will come: investment promotion and FDI inflows’, Economic Journal, vol. 121(557), pp. 1445–1476.
Harding, T. and Javorcik, B.S. (2012). ‘Foreign direct investment and export upgrading’, The Review of Economics and Statistics, vol. 94(4), pp. 964–980.
Hidalgo, C.A. and Hausmann, R.(2009). ‘The building blocks of economic complexity’, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 106, pp. 10570–10575.
Javorcik, B.S., Lo Turco, A., Maggioni, D. ‘New and Improved: Does FDI Boost Production Complexity in Host Countries?‘ Economic Journal, forthcoming.
Rodrik, D. (2006). ‘Industrial development: stylized facts and policies’, Kennedy School of Government.
 See Harding and Javorcik (2012).
 Javorcik, Lo Turco and Maggioni (forthcoming).
 See Hidalgo (2009).
 See Hidalgo and Hausmann (2009)
 See Rodrik (2006)
 Harding and Javorcik (2011)