Scholars and practitioners alike have extensively discussed what makes different firms choose to invest in different places, and have looked at what this can mean for both the host countries and sending countries. But what can policymakers do in practice to make a real difference to their country or region? Do the classic “tried and tested” methods really do their job?

The standard go-to strategy has been to bring in various types of locational incentives to encourage foreign investors in. But empirical evidence on whether these really work in practice remains very limited. For example, if two countries or regions start off a “price war” to bring in one big multinational, they’ll just drive down the overall benefits to themselves until the costs will probably exceed the benefits (see for example the incentive packages offered by hundreds of North American cities to try and attract Amazon’s second headquarter) .

Recent research by LSE’s Global Investments and Local Development team has looked into foreign direct investment (FDI) policies to try to demonstrate what policies really work, when compared to just doing nothing. This approach is based on counterfactuals, i.e. scenarios describing what would have happened if no measure were put in place. This makes it possible to isolate the effect of the policy from any other element which may affect its impact, capturing its ‘additional’ effect on top of anything else.

This approach has shaped our new research on one of the main ways countries and regions try to bring in investment – investment promotion agencies (IPAs). We then evaluated one of the most widely used tools to embed investments in regions by facilitating collaborations between Multinationals and domestic firms: targeted subsidies for innovative collaboration.

Investment Promotion Agencies exist around the world to try to attract foreign investors either on behalf of a whole nation, or for a city or region – solving problems for investors, lobbying policymakers, running ad campaigns or even actively seeking out investors. The activity of IPAs is now an essential component of national and local government strategies to attract inward investment and their number has grown rapidly across the globe. National and sub-national IPAs registered at the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (WAIPA) have increased from 112 in 2002 to 170 in 2018. Notwithstanding their growing importance IPAs have remained understudied and there is no existing systematic research on sub-national regional agencies.

Our research has tried to fill this gap. The counterfactual assessment of the impact of European national and regional IPAs is based on the first census of all the national and regional investment agencies across Europe and offers a real sense of how effective they are, comparing the sectors and regions of an economy where an agency is actively seeking investment with those where it is not. This new dataset, the ERC MASSIVE Project National and Regional IPAs Database at LSE, was gathered by sending out an ad hoc survey to all investments agencies and was analysed by means of rigorous counterfactual methods (differences-in-differences models and synthetic control method to estimate IPAs effectiveness in attracting foreign investments to the host regions). We presented our paper on the topic, “FDI inflows in European regions: What role for investment promotion agencies?” at the ERSA Conference 2018.

The results suggest that regional agencies work — regardless of what kind of region they’re set up in, they bring more foreign companies, more investment and more local jobs. The analysis reveals that the most effective strategy for regional IPAs involves the definition of a specific targeting plan towards key sectors of local economy. Conversely, evidence on the impact of national agencies is more mixed. When national IPAs try to target specific sectors they might be simply diverting towards specific regions (where targeted sectors are strong) investments that would have arrived anyways in their country. This can become zero sum — just redistributing FDI, rather than bringing it in totally fresh.

The attraction of FDI is only a small part of the broader picture that policymakers should take into account when looking at ways to boost their local economies through internationalisation. Embedding foreign firms into the local economy is at least as important as their attraction — unless these outside firms build new links with local ones, the benefits will be negligible.

Recent research has also looked into what it takes to bring about collaboration by assessing a key policy tool leveraging collaboration between firms (see here for a summary of the research). Here the counterfactual analysis goes to the micro level of the individual (beneficiary and non-beneficiary) firms and looked at a €1 billion public subsidies programme in Italy’s less-developed regions. The programme was designed to foster innovative investment based on collaborative projects between all types of firms, including domestic and foreign. Importantly in this case, much of these funds have been given out on the condition that firms work together.

So, does this incentive pay off when innovative multinationals collaborate with local firms? Unfortunately, not really. Many of the most innovative firms involved just “crowd-out” their investment – that is, they take the money from the subsidy and then cut that amount from the investment they were already going to do. They also fail to encourage even more innovative industries like ICT and healthcare any more than they support ones like farming. What’s more, there’s no significant effect on the largest multinationals – they just don’t react anywhere near as much as hoped. Participation in collaborative projects is expensive for multinationals in terms of bureaucratic and transaction costs. Therefore, when they collaborate, they divert resources away from the core innovative activities.

By taking an evidence-based approach, our research has been able to shed light on two widely used policy tools that governments use to attract foreign investment and foster collaboration with domestic firms. This approach offers policymakers new evidence to make informed decisions and go for well-tested ‘medications’ beyond anecdotal evidence, offering the best possible returns to taxpayer money invested in these policies in Europe and beyond.

Read more from the MASSIVE project here and here.



  • This blog post is based on the ongoing research of the MASSIVE (Multinationals, Institutions and Innovation in Europe) project funded by the European Research Council and conducted by the Global Investments Local Development (GILD) team.
  • The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by Joe Gavlas, under a CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 licence
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Riccardo Crescenzi is a professor of economic geography at LSE and is the current holder of a European Research Council (ERC) grant. He is an associate at the Centre for International Development, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and is also affiliated with the European Institute, Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the Spatial Economics Research Centre (SERC) at LSE. He has been a Jean Monnet fellow at the European University Institute (EUI) and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Taubman Centre, Harvard University and at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He has provided academic advice to, amongst others, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Parliament, the European Commission (DG Regional Policy), the Inter-American Investment Bank (IADB) and various national and regional governments.

Marco Di Cataldo is an ERC post-doctoral fellow at LSE’s department of geography and environment. He completed his PhD in Economic Geography at the LSE in January 2018, and is a member of the MASSIVE project and the the editorial board of the LSE GILD blog. His research is focused on regional economic development, the analysis and evaluation of EU policies, public economics, political economy, and the economics of organised crime. His most recent works include research on the impact of collusion between mafia and politics on local public finance, the evaluation of EU Cohesion Policy in the UK, the determinants of Brexit, and the effectiveness of public policies for the attraction of FDI.

Mara Giua is an assistant professor of economics at the University Roma Tre (Italy) and a visiting fellow at LSE. Her research is focused on regional economic performance and public policies for regional development. She is particularly interested in territorial imbalances and regional economic disparities across Europe and into the analysis of regional, urban and internationalisation policies (genesis and ex-post impact).