Corporate Nationality

Tyler Cowen had a post yesterday on the basic irrationality of viewing General Motors and Chrysler as “American” and Toyota and Honda as “Japanese.”

He points out that not only do Toyota and Honda manufacture cars in the United States, but these are publicly traded firms. Americans can — and do — own shares in both firms, and could own more if we wanted to. Conversely, an “American” company like Apple actually does very little production in the United States. Nestle is “Swiss” but it’s a giant multinational corporation and Switzerland is a small country so the vast majority of its operations are elsewhere.

What I find interesting, however, is not so much how irrational it is to attribute nationality to a business enterprise but how much nationality really does seem to matter. For example, the oil business is an global business. And the six “supermajor” firms are all global firms. But the CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell is Dutch. The CEO of Total is French. The CEO of BP is British. And the CEOs of ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil are Americans. It’s a bit hard to understand why a competitive international labor market would work out that way. And beyond CEO nationality, local norms seem to make a big difference. The CEO of Total earns way less money than the CEOs of the other supermajors and to a first approximation the reason is that he’s French, and French CEOs just don’t get paid very well. More broadly, European and Japanese executives earn less money than American executives, with British executives in the middle. I recall that one of the issues with the DaimlerChrysler merger was that the executive pay scales were totally out of whack.

Beyond CEOs, Nestle has 15 directors. Of them one is Indian, one is Swiss/American, seven are Swiss, and the rest are from other European countries. But there’s nothing especially “European” — and certainly nothing Swiss — about the company’s actual operations. They earn a lot of money in Europe, but the majority of their revenue is from outside of Europe, and there’s production all over the world. It’s also totally normal for large multinational firms to be disproportionately owned by shareholders located in their “home country” and home continent.


Corporate nationality, in other words, doesn’t matter. But it seems as if it actually does. And for somewhat mysterious reasons.