Great Lakes partnership buoys foreign investment


An organization representing the eight states and two Canadian provinces that surround the Great Lakes has announced a partnership with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to recruit foreign manufacturing investment to the region.

The Council of Great Lakes Governors and The Paulson Institute, based at the University of Chicago, said last week that it will try to exploit growing interest in China and other emerging economies in making "direct investments" in advanced nations. Such investments – which often involve buying or expanding plants and other assets – have greater potential to create jobs than bond holdings bought or sold through paper transactions, Paulson said.

"The U.S. overall is not getting its fair share" of those kinds of Chinese investments, he said in a phone interview from Chicago, where the governors' organization was meeting. "A lot is going to other developing nations, or Europe, or Canada. And the Midwest is not get ting a fair share of what is coming" to the U.S. in comparison to states such as Texas and California, he added.

Governments' ability to attract investors is limited by the need to avoid favoring one company over another, he said. Still, they can play a significant role – especially in helping mid-tier companies with limited experience in dealing with overseas investors and partners.

"There's room for a sophisticated clearinghouse, one that is really quite strategic about some specific capabilities a state has and matching those with the right people in a foreign country," he said.

Less than $2 billion of China's foreign direct investment was in U.S. companies in 2005, but that total had grown nearly eight times by 2013. So this is a good time for a stepped-up campaign to lure investments that would boost Great Lakes manufacturing and employment, said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, co-chairman of the council.

"We have an outstanding manufacturing base," led by automobiles but including a wide variety of other products, Snyder said. "There's a good opportunity for more of this kind of direct investment in the Midwest."

China's notoriously polluted environment offers especially promising prospects, Paulson said. The Michigan-based auto industry is a leader in developing systems that reduce emissions, and the Great Lakes region is becoming a hub for research and production of clean-water technology.

Another possibility: With its aging population, Chinese investors might be interested in Ohio's surging medical device sector.

Snyder and Paulson will host a "competitiveness forum" this summer in Detroit to discuss the pitfalls and opportunities presented by foreign investment in regional manufacturing. Later, the partnership will look for ways to link foreign investors with opportunities in the Great Lakes. Another goal: finding good fits overseas for research, development and innovation hatched in the region.

The council includes the governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New York and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec.

"By working together, we can help our region seize the opportunities that the global economy present," said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, its other co-chairman.

Paulson said the best type of foreign direct investment would be in "greenfield" projects – building new factories or stores that provide steady employment. Another target will be investors who could become complete or partial owners of troubled companies and pump in capital enabling the businesses to grow.

"The bottom line is, we want the right kind of investments that will create jobs," he said. "That will be the challenge for the next 20 to 25 years, even when our economy is growing at a faster rate."

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