Marketing Ourselves

November 28, 1990|By Jonathan Paul Yates | Jonathan Paul Yates,Mr. Yates, a former congressional aide, is a free-lance writer on international trade issues.

SILVER SPRING — Silver Spring. GOING TO an Orioles game is no longer quite the national pastime it once was.

Eat a Ball Park hot dog at Memorial Stadium, and you'll be consuming a British product. French's mustard on the hot dog: British too. Soft shelled crabs from the Eastern Shore before or after the game are from the Japanese-owned Handy Soft Shell Crab Co. in Crisfield. Beer from A&P, German. Springsteen's ''Glory Days'' played between innings is the property of CBS Sony, a Japanese company. Buyers from Japan even made a serious effort to purchase the Orioles then they were for sale in 1988.

What does this foreign investment in the United States and ownership of American assets mean for the country as a whole and for the citizens of Maryland?

No one knows, not even the government. The government does not even know how much foreign investors own in U.S. assets: Accounting for the actual amount is inexact, leading many to believe the U.S. debt to be higher than the $663 billion reported in 1989. Lax disclosure requirements result in the U.S. not even knowing who or what foreign investor owns its land and businesses.

Foreign investors own over $2 trillion in U.S. assets, including such local institutions as First Maryland Bank (Irish), Monumental Corporation (Dutch), and Maryland Casualty Co. (Swiss). Rep. Helen Delich Bentley sees a new day dawning for the United States, where ''the Japanese and other investors own the best assets and the Americans are the poor guys on the block.''

Particularly concerned about the level of Japanese investment, Mrs. Bentley excoriates the ''naive approach'' of selling off the best American properties to foreign investors, claiming that ''It is the complete enveloping of this country by Japanese investors that worries me.''

Investors from Japan and other countries, primarily Canada and Britain, own over $3 billion in property, plant and equipment in Maryland. About 50,000 workers in Maryland are employed by over 500 foreign-owned companies. Thousands of acres of Maryland real estate, including office buildings in Baltimore, farmland on the Eastern Shore and residential developments in Columbia are now the holdings of overseas entities.

Why foreign companies invest in Maryland is detailed in the Baltimore Washington Common Market International Market Fact Sheet: ''[Maryland is] an attractive market for foreign investment and international trade activities because it combines, in a single region, the nation's fourth-largest market, with a population exceeding 5.9 million, and the highest median household

effective buying income in the U.S. -- $33,400; a diverse and balanced mix of business and industry, and a large pool of labor and professional talent; access to a consumer market of $71 billion, and to other major U.S. markets due to its central location and highly developed transportation network; access to foreign markets through three major airports and the Port of Baltimore; availability of sites for commercial and industrial use, governmental assistance programs, and four foreign-trade zones.''

But there is another, less benign side to why foreign investment in Maryland is so extensive. While Representative Bentley and other members of Congress from Maryland such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Tom McMillen view foreign investment with caution, state officials, led by Governor Schaefer, do not just invite foreign investors to the state, they embrace them with tax abatements, training assistance and other economic inducements.

The state maintains four offices abroad, in Belgium, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its economic-development officers, led by the governor, take trips to encourage foreign investment in Maryland. In less than four years in office, Mr. Schaefer has taken eight economic-development trips to 20 countries on four continents. He has taken more foreign trips than any other governor in the last two years according to City and State magazine, at a cost of $600,000. Mr. Schaefer credits these trips with luring $140 million in foreign investment into Maryland.

As recently as nine years ago, the U.S. was the world's largest creditor nation, with Americans owning $141 billion more in overseas assets than foreign investors held. Now the U.S. is the world's most indebted nation, far surpassing Brazil and Mexico combined.

There are many reasons for this switch: international trade deficits with Japan and West Germany, resulting in billions of excess dollars to invest in American assets; a dollar declining in value since 1985, making U.S. properties much cheaper; revisions in regulations allowing for greater international investment; technological advances in areas such as communications and travel allowing for greater international investment; state officials encouraging foreign investment; and the wealthy from other countries searching for safe, secure investments in a politically stable country.

From the over $2 trillion invested in the U.S. comes foreign ownership, and with that issues of loyalty and commitment. According to The Sun's business editor, Philip Moeller, foreign ''control means that capital generated here may flow to other communities, that city problems may not be as pressing to distant owners as the concerns they face in their hometowns and that charitable giving and public-sector involvement usually do not occur as much in satellite cities as in headquarter sites.''

While the massive foreign investment in Maryland and the United States is an issue for 1990 and beyond, over 200 years ago George Washington warned about ''the individual wiles of foreign influence, the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience proves that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.''

Mr. Yates, a former congressional aide, is a free-lance writer on international trade issues.

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