Foreign Electricity Companies in Argentina and Brazil: The Case of American and Foreign Power (1926 – 1965)
[Original title: Companhias estrangeiras de eletricidade na Argentina e no Brasil: o caso da American & Foreign Power (1926-1965]
The article analyses the evolution, strategies and position of American & Foreign Power subsidiaries in electric power sector in Argentina and Brazil from their entry in the mid-1920s to their nationalisation. We compare the economic performance and entry strategies followed by the American holding in different host economies. We also examine the relations between the American electricity firms and the Governments of both countries, focusing on the debates and policies that explain American & Foreign Power’s withdrawal from Argentina and Brazil in 1959-1965. Finally, the article reviews the role of foreign direct investment in the development of electric power sector in both countries. The study is based upon the Annual Reports and Proceedings of American & Foreign Power (1923-1963) and other corporate reports, Government statistics and official Reports from Argentina, Brazil and the United States.
Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal
This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-11-02. Its topic deals with the popular subject of energy provision. Indeed, there has been no shortage of turning points in the history of the energy markets around the world. Since the development of the electricity in the late nineteenth century, energy markets have been a constant cause for debate. The discussion ranges from technical and engineering issues (such as heated debates around Nikola Telsa and Thomas Alva Edison), to the adoption of common standards, to questions as to who will provide the service, to a wider debate on government policies such as pricing and, more recently, on how to become “greener” (see for example the debate on UK gas and electricity providers).
In the developing countries, the debate on energy has been tied to the relation between the foreign direct investment, the efficient provision of electricity, and nationalization policies (topics that, by the way, were picked up from a business history perspective in William J. Hausman, Peter Hertner & Mira Wilkins “Global Electrification” (2008, CUP). The question on the relation between foreign companies investing in such countries and the debate on the effects of imperialism is also latent in recent research (see for example the work of Marcelo Bucheli, Stephanie Decker, or Niall Ferguson). In this line of work, the paper by Macchione Saes and Lanciotti further explores the intricate relationship between a foreign company and its host countries but, at the same time, offers a contribution to the literature on Latin American foreign investment during the second half of the twentieth century.
According to Alexandre Macchione and Norma Lanciotti, the arrival of the American and Foreign Power Co in Brazil and Argentina marked the start of an expansion of US direct investment in those countries, while seeking new consumer markets during the 1920s (p. 2). However, it is important to notice that the company arrived to the region more than 20 years after the first electricity companies had established. Therefore, the case of American and Foreign Power Co offers an example of the aggressive expansion of an electricity company that only few years after its arrival suffered the effects of the crisis of 1929 and later on, had to deal with centralization and nationalization policies.
The aim of the paper is to analyse the evolution, strategies, and position of the American and Foreign Power Company in both countries between 1926 and 1965. Divided in four sections, including an introduction and the concluding remarks, it presents first the greater attention that US companies gave to Latin America after the First World War, looking mainly to the evolution of the company in the US market and the subsidiaries in Brazil and Argentina. Then, the paper discusses the shift of the regulation and describes the complex relation between the state and the company. As a result, the main sections widely discuss the investment strategies which focus was in improving the service while achieving higher returns.
Three important issues emerge from this paper, namely:
1) The US investment was dominated by a few large holding companies that controlled the utilities supply in various countries. The localization in South America answers to both the search of economies of scale through new consumer markets and the need to diversify investment (p. 3). In order to keep growing in the local markets, the electricity companies acquired small and medium concessions keeping their organizational structure. Clearly, this served to the purpose of increasing returns, but there is no mention of the effects of this choice in the need for improving the service. In other words, how efficient the company became as a result of greater scale.
2) The effects of the Great Depression were greater than expected for the directors of the company. As explained by Macchione and Lanciotti, their main concern was that currency devaluation would damage the sustainability and profitability of their investments (p. 13), but they did not expect the shifted in the regulation that followed in the 1930s and 1940s. The link between government policy and business strategy is then questioned by the authors and the company strategies are evaluated. Small differences between the two countries are noticed, opening space for a future discussion on how foreign companies deal with diverse economic and political contexts, including an analysis of their role as regulators.
3) One of the main factors for the company’s decision to withdraw from the region was the expropriation lead by the Latin American governments since the late 1950s (p.22). But to what extent expropriations responded to the inefficiency of the company? Macchione and Lanciotti explained that the low quality of the service added to the fluctuation of the long-term revenues and, in some cases, led to the confiscation of assets by the local national government. These arguments, of course, are not to minimise political and nationalistic ideas driving the confiscation of assets in Latin America during the twentieth century.
In summary, the paper Macchione and Lanciotti offers a case study that brings together elements from Latin American economic history that deserve more attention. These include the role of state, the interaction between businesses and regulators, foreign direct investment, and the relative efficiency of domestic acquisitions by foreign companies in the long-term. This paper is an important contribution to understand from the company perspective the links between strategy and government policies.