3. FDI diffusion at play for Slovak SMEs

The diagnostic assessment of key channels through which FDI diffusion and spillovers on Slovak SMEs can take place reveals a number of strengths and points to challenges and opportunities (Table 3.1). Subsequent chapters (Chapters 4 to 6) notice these challenges and opportunities, identifying policy actions to address them.

Value chain linkages between foreign MNEs and domestic SMEs have the potential to generate knowledge and technology spillovers to domestic SMEs, with positive effects on their productivity and innovation performance. Value chain linkages can be backward, i.e. between foreign MNEs and their domestic suppliers, or forward to domestic buyers. This section attempts to analyse the quality and strength of these vertical buyer/supplier relationships in the Slovak Republic, to gain some insights on their spillover potential.

FDI-SME spillover diffusion may happen through backward linkages of foreign MNEs with their domestic suppliers of intermediate inputs. The more foreign MNEs source inputs for their production from domestically-owned firms – as opposed to sourcing from other foreign affiliates operating locally, or importing inputs from abroad – the higher the potential for vertical spillovers to domestic SMEs. Box 3.1 clarifies the relationship between foreign firms’ sourcing, value added and output, underlying the analysis in this section.

Foreign affiliates in the Slovak Republic tend to rely less on local suppliers to source inputs compared to their peers in other OECD economies. In 2016, about half of foreign MNEs total sourcing was imported from abroad, against an OECD average of less than 40%. Similar shares are reported for foreign MNEs in other small open economies like Denmark or Slovenia (Figure 3.2). By contrast, foreign affiliates in larger economies like the United Kingdom or France tend to purchase more from local suppliers, also reflecting the size of domestic markets and the availability of a larger variety of intermediate goods and services locally.

A large share of FA input is sourced from abroad, pointing to potentially weak supply chain linkages with the local economy. Domestic non-MNEs (e.g. Slovak firms with no establishment abroad) account for less than 30% of total sourcing of foreign affiliates operating in the Slovak Republic, which is one of the lowest shares across OECD economies. The share of domestic MNEs (5%) is also only half the average OECD share (11%). Data do not allow to distinguish between domestic large firms and SMEs. However, the scarce propensity of foreign affiliates to source from domestic firms, either or not multinationals, can be interpreted as a sign of weak supplier linkages between foreign affiliates and domestic businesses, particularly SMEs. In this context, opportunities for smaller domestic suppliers to benefit from knowledge and technology spillovers via backward value chain linkages with foreign MNEs appear to be limited. A closer observation of the supplier chain in the Slovak automotive industry (Box 3.2) provides further evidence to back up this assumption (on the automotive GVC in the Slovak Republic, see also Chapter 2, Box 2.4).

By contrast, sourcing from other foreign affiliates established in the Slovak Republic seems to be relatively common and similar to that of foreign firms established in Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom. Slovak foreign affiliates purchase almost 20% of their total input from other foreign multinational firms operating in the country, which is higher than the OECD average of 13%, suggesting some clustering of foreign affiliates which tend to buy from and supply to each other.

A more granular analysis by sector shows that Slovak foreign affiliates operating in the services sector source more locally compared to those operating in manufacturing (Figure 3.3, Panel A). In high- and low-tech services respectively, around 70% of FA input is sourced from local providers against 40-50% in high- or low-tech manufacturing.

The proportion of FA affiliates local sourcing in the services sector remained substantially unchanged between 2006 and 2016, while it increased by 9 percentage point in high tech manufacturing over the same period. Furthermore, in absolute values, domestic suppliers in manufacturing benefit more from the demand of FA compared to those in other sectors. In the sole high tech manufacturing, the value of FA local sourcing was USD 13 billion in 2018 – against USD 8 billion in the whole services sector (including low and high-tech activities) (Figure 3.3, Panel C).

Domestic firms have a different sourcing pattern, with larger shares of local inputs (Figure 3.3, Panel B). Domestic firms purchased almost 90% of their inputs in high- and low-tech services and 60-70% in high- and low-tech manufacturing locally in 2016, i.e. a larger share than FA across all sectors. Also, their proportion of local sourcing increased between 2006 and 2016 across all sectors, especially in low and high-tech manufacturing.

FDI-SME knowledge and technology spillovers may also occur via forward linkages between foreign MNEs and their local suppliers. The extent to which the output of foreign firms is used for the production of domestically owned SMEs – as opposed to being exported, or feed private consumption – determines the spillover potential of this particular diffusion channel.

In the Slovak Republic, almost 60% of FA output is destined to international markets (through direct exports), meaning that only a limited share feeds back into domestic value chains. At less than 30%, the share of foreign MNEs’ total output that is used in the production of firms operating in the Slovak Republic – either domestic multinational, domestic non-multinational or foreign-owned – is one of the lowest across OECD countries (Figure 3.4). This situation reduces the chances of local firms (especially the smaller ones) to benefit from knowledge and technology spillovers through forward value chain linkages with foreign MNEs.

Foreign MNEs and domestic SMEs can establish strategic partnerships around the development of joint R&D and innovation projects, which can create opportunities for technology transfer, especially in high-technology and knowledge-intensive industries. These partnerships can take many forms, including joint ventures, licensing agreements, research collaborations, globalised business networks (i.e. membership-based business organisations, trade associations, stakeholder networks), and R&D and technology alliances. Strategic partnerships between affiliates of foreign MNEs and domestic SMEs have the potential to contribute extensively to knowledge and technology spillovers. This section provides some insights on strengths and opportunities related to strategic partnerships in the Slovak Republic.

Slovak innovative SMEs collaborate for innovation as much as their European peers. In the Slovak Republic, 25% of small and 38% of medium-sized innovative businesses report being engaged in co-operation on R&D and innovation activities with other enterprises or organisations, in line with the EU-27 average of 26% and 36% respectively (Figure 3.5).

Slovak small and medium-sized innovative businesses mostly undertake co-operation with private business partners outside their own enterprise group. Most interestingly, R&D and innovation co-operation with buyer or supplier firms appears to be more common than in other European countries. The share of Slovak innovative small and medium-sized firms co-operating with private sector clients or customers exceeds the EU-27 average, and so does the share of innovative SMEs reporting to co-operate with suppliers. Although data do not allow distinguishing among foreign-owned and domestically-owned partner firms, the fact that R&D collaboration is a relatively common practice among Slovak innovative SMEs, especially within their network of buyers and suppliers, may suggest some potential for spillovers in this area.

Technology licensing is a less common practice among Slovak firms than in other European countries. In 2018, less than 3% of small firms in the Slovak Republic purchased or licensed intellectual property (IP) rights from other firms, a share that is comparatively low across the EU (Figure 3.6). As in most other countries, IP licensing is more common among medium-sized firms (5%) but these still rank lower than their peers in Poland or the Czech Republic (10%). Slovak large firms are also among the less inclined to license or purchase IP rights from other firms across European countries. Overall, the comparatively low diffusion of technology licensing agreements among private business enterprises of all sizes in the Slovak Republic could suggest a scarce potential for spillovers through this particular type of channel. In this respect, however, Eurostat CIS data is not fully conclusive as it does not allow distinguishing whether IP issuing firms are foreign-owned or domestically-owned.

Focusing on the manufacturing sector, data from the World Bank Enterprise Surveys (WB, 2020[7]) suggest a higher propensity of Slovak businesses to establish technology licensing agreements with foreign affiliates than in a selection of benchmarking countries (i.e. Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia) (Figure 3.7). This, by contrast with the former results, would suggest that technology transfers through this channel are likely to materialise mostly within the manufacturing sector.

The licensing of foreign technology in manufacturing is indeed significantly more frequent across all types of actors in the country, to the exclusion of other foreign firms. As compared to the patterns that could be observed in the benchmarking countries, licensing is particularly widespread among larger manufacturing firms (78%), but SMEs and domestic firms also make use of foreign technology. Indeed 24% of small and 40% of medium-sized firms in manufacturing use technology licensed from foreign companies against an average of 4% and 24% in selected OECD countries. The share of domestic firms licensing technology from FA is 33% -- more than in any of the selected comparator countries. Conversely, about half of foreign-owned manufacturers in the Slovak Republic licensed technology from (other) foreign firms – more than in Slovenia (26%) but a much lower share than in Portugal (90%) or Poland (70%). There is also less difference between exporters and non-exporters in terms of licensing. The opportunity of technology spillovers are therefore highly uneven, with a possible bias towards large domestic manufacturers.

Joint ventures between domestic and foreign partners played an important role in the Slovak transition to a market economy in the 1990s (Ferencíková, 2016[9]). However, these forms of co-operation received limited research attention in subsequent decades, and up-to-date evidence on the operation of international joint ventures in the Slovak Republic is currently in short supply. A rough estimation of the total number of Slovak-foreign joint ventures operating in the country is provided by Hlusková (2016[10]). According to the author’s calculation, approximately 8 500 joint ventures were operating in the Slovak Republic in 2016, 3 503 of which were headquartered in the Bratislava region, with the Trnava region ranking second (889 joint ventures) and the other regions lagging far behind. Ferencíková (2016[9]) calculates that international joint ventures accounted for 20% of all foreign-invested companies in 2015.

Another way to assess the diffusion of joint venture agreements in the Slovak Republic is to look at existing restrictions on foreign ownership, namely any foreign equity limitations in target sectors or ventures (OECD, forthcoming[11]). According to the OECD Foreign Direct Investment Regulatory Restrictiveness Index (FDI RRI) (OECD, 2020[12]), the Slovak Republic’s score on foreign equity restrictions is above the OECD average and significantly higher than in peer economies like the Czech Republic or Portugal. Restrictions on foreign ownership, however, are most prevalent in the services sector, real estate investment, air and transport. Since the operation of foreign MNEs in the Slovak Republic is rather concentrated in the manufacturing industry (as discussed supra in Chapter 2), then there is no strong evidence of international joint ventures taking place in the Slovak Republic as a result of foreign ownership restrictions. Such restrictions should be avoided as a means to achieve FDI-SME spillovers in the first place, as they are found to have the side effect of deterring FDI (OECD, forthcoming[11]).

Regarding the performance and spillover potential of international joint ventures in the Slovak Republic, a case study conducted in 2001 on six joint ventures between Slovak companies and foreign partners (Ferencíková, 2001[13]) pointed out the positive effects on the performance of the domestic partners involved, among other things in terms of technology improvement, workforce training, management practices and knowledge of foreign markets. The results of a 2013 survey conducted on 44 joint ventures involving Slovak firms (Sásiková, 2013[14]) highlighted that the principal motive of Slovak partners for entering an international joint venture is gaining access to foreign markets, new technologies and the distribution channels of the foreign partner. The majority of the survey respondents were satisfied with the performance of the joint venture and willing to pursue the cooperation experience in the future.

This section assesses spillover potential through labour mobility and associated skills effects in the Slovak Republic. Labour mobility between FDI and local SMEs can be an important source of knowledge spillovers. Foreign MNEs workers can move to domestically-owned firms based on temporary arrangements such as detachments, long-term arrangements such as open-ended contracts, or through the creation of start-ups (i.e. corporate spin-offs). Mobility can also occur in the opposite direction (from domestic SMEs to foreign MNEs), also involving potential for spillovers.

No recent evidence on labour mobility practices between foreign-owned and domestically-owned firms is available for the Slovak Republic. However, looking at broader workforce mobility trends may provide some initial insights on the likelihood of knowledge spillovers to take place through this channel. In this respect, Eurostat data on human resources in science and technology (HRST) flows show that Slovak S&T workers are less mobile than their peers in other European countries. In 2019, only about 3% of total S&T workers in the Slovak Republic had moved to another job within the previous year. This share is comparatively low, with only two countries ranking lower among EU 27 members (i.e. Bulgaria and Romania, both at 2-3%) (Figure 3.8). At the opposite end of the spectrum, S&T workers in the United Kingdom, Denmark or Lithuania were more mobile, with at least 10% of them having changed job in the previous year. Data suggests that job-to-job mobility generally increased between 2010 and 2019 across European countries; however, such increase was much more significant in Estonia (+5%) or France (+3%) than in the Slovak Republic (+0.2%). The overall scarce propensity for job mobility of Slovak S&T workers points in the direction of a weak potential for FDI-SME spillovers through skilled labour mobility.

In the Slovak Republic, manufacturing workers employed by foreign-owned firms earn almost 80% higher wages compared to those employed by the average domestic firms. Similar wage premia are observed in Portugal (86%) and, to a slightly lesser extent, in Hungary and the Czech Republic (50-60%) (Figure 3.9). Such a high wage gap is likely to discourage mobility of workers from large foreign MNEs to smaller firms in the domestic sector, suggesting that this may not be a major source of productivity spillovers for Slovak SMEs.

Foreign MNEs’ wage premia in the Slovak Republic are likely to be related to their larger size and higher productivity (OECD, 2019[15]). As discussed in Chapter 2, the productivity gap between small and large firms in the country is bigger than in most other OECD economies, and the business population is polarised between a few large very productive firms, which are often foreign-owned, and numerous local low-efficient SMEs (OECD, 2019[16]). This productivity gap is reflected in wage trends. The difference between the average salary of workers in large firms (more than 250 employees) and micro firms (up to 9 employees) increased by 40% between 2009 and 2016, a much more significant rate than in other OECD countries (OECD, 2019[16]).

Some firm-level evidence point to limited labour mobility spillovers and high competition for talent between foreign affiliates and domestic firms. The interviews conducted by (Pavlínek, 2017[5]) with 50 Slovak firms (22 domestic and 28 foreign) in the automotive sector suggest a limited transfer of knowledge and skills to domestic firms through workers trained by foreign subsidiaries. Indeed only 14% of the local firms interviewed reported having hired staff who previously worked for foreign subsidiaries, and only one firm agreed that those workers brought with them useful knowledge. The interviews also point to an increasing competition for skilled labour between foreign subsidiaries and domestic firms on the Slovak labour market, with more than half of the respondents declaring a loss of workers to foreign subsidiaries, and increasing difficulties to recruit skilled workers following the market entry of foreign investors.

The availability of in-work training and learning opportunities contributes to determine the quality of a working environment and can therefore be expected to weigh on workers’ job mobility decisions (Cazes, Hijzen and Saint-Martin, 2015[17]). Available evidence shows that the performance of Slovak SMEs in terms of staff training could be improved. In 2019, only 12% of small and 34% of medium-sized firms had offered any type of ICT training to their employees over the previous year – which is less than in most European countries and also below the reported share for the EU 27 as a whole (Figure 3.10, Panel A). Slovak innovative SMEs also invest less than their European peers in staff training (Figure 3.10, Panel B). The lack of opportunities for on-the-job training and skills upgrading in the SME sector may contribute to discourage the mobility of MNEs workers toward smaller local firms and thereby further reduce the potential for knowledge spillovers through this particular diffusion channel.

The direct engagement of foreign MNEs in local training initiatives, e.g. through their participation in dual education agreements with local vocation schools (Box 3.4), is likely to further accentuate a brain drain towards foreign employers, widening the skill gap with domestic SMEs. In the longer term, however, such initiatives may also result in an increase of the domestic talent pool, with benefits to local entrepreneurship development.

Other FDI-SME diffusion channels include market mechanisms related to competition and imitation effects. Competition effects may take place when an above-average efficient MNE enters the market, putting pressure on domestic companies to become more innovative and productive. The new standards set by the foreign company (for instance in terms of product design, quality control or speed of delivery) can stimulate innovation and thereby productivity growth in local companies. Imitation and tacit learning can also become a channel of productivity spillovers to local firms (OECD, 2022, forthcoming[4]). Building on the discussion above and in Chapter 2, this section discusses how and to what extent such effects might be at play in the Slovak Republic FDI and SME sectors.

Imitation effects are more likely to happen to local companies which operate in the same sector or value chain function of the foreign-owned company (OECD, 2022, forthcoming[4]). Frequent collaboration with foreign-owned competitor firms is likely to increase the opportunities for imitation and tacit learning by domestic firms.

In the Slovak Republic, collaboration on R&D and innovation with competitors or other enterprises of the same sector, albeit still rare, is slightly above the EU average, particularly among small firms. Overall, 8% of total firms across all sizes collaborate with competitors, against an average of 6% in the EU 27 countries (Figure 3.11). Disaggregated data by firm size show that Slovak small firms are largely responsible for this performance. Results are close to the European average for medium and large firms, while they are comparatively higher for small firms (over 8% report horizontal collaboration, relative to an EU average of 5%). Data do not distinguish between foreign-owned and domestically-owned competitors. However, collaboration among competitors suggests some potential for FDI-SME spillovers through imitation or tacit learning.

Competitors could also be a relevant source of information for Slovak innovative firms. Beyond their own business group and their network of buyers and suppliers (see also supra – Strategic partnerships), Slovak small firms appear to turn relatively often to competitors or other enterprises of the same sector to source knowledge. 15% of small innovative firms in the Slovak Republic consider competitors as a source of knowledge of high importance for their innovation activities (Figure 3.12), which is more than the OECD average of 11%. This share is even larger for medium-sized and large firms (17% and 20%) and in both cases remains above the OECD average (which is 12% for medium-sized and 16% for large firms).

The analysis conducted in Chapter 2 (Figure 2.19) highlighted that, if high costs, lack of internal finance and difficulties in obtaining public funding are the main perceived barriers to innovation in Slovak SMEs, high competition is also reported to be a significant hindering factor, particularly by smaller firms. Almost 65% of small and 60% of medium-sized and large innovative firms in the Slovak Republic see high competition as a medium to highly important barrier to their innovation performance (against 44% and 41% respectively in the EU) (Figure 3.13). The strong perception of market competition as a barrier to innovation could be related to the difficulties Slovak SMEs face in catching up with higher quality standards (e.g. in terms of product design, management practices, or speed of delivery). It could also be seen as symptomatic of the more limited absorptive capacities of local business population. Perceiving competition as a barrier to innovation could therefore be rather a signal of the poor efficiency of competition/imitation effects for knowledge spillovers in the Slovak economy.

If market competition can stimulate innovation and thereby become a source of productivity growth, it may also result in the exit of firms that are not able -or quick enough- to adapt. High business dynamism, as measured by firm entries and exists, may therefore signal a well-functioning innovative and competitive market, where new entrants challenge incumbent firms and eventually force the exit of the less productive among them. This reallocation of productive resources to more efficient firms is a key driver of economic performance. However, firm exits in a context of high competition could also signal the existence of market distortions that prevent SMEs from scaling up capacity or competing. This might be the case, for instance, when exiting firms are actually not the less productive incumbents, but rather recent entrants which failed to grow (OECD, 2021[23]).

Business demography indicators (e.g. market entry and exit rates, churn rate, business survival rate) are commonly used to measure competition and, in combination with other indicators, can help assess the status of market conditions in the Slovak economy (OECD, 2021[23]). The Slovak business sector is very dynamic, with high firms birth and death rates and one of the highest churn rates in the OECD area (24.1% in 2017) (Chapter 2, Figure 2.15). For the manufacturing sector from 2013-2017, the Slovak churn rate average was about 22%, which was much higher than the OECD average of 15% in that period. The Slovak Republic additionally had a higher churn rate in manufacturing compared to similar OECD countries like the Czech Republic (16%) or Portugal (18%). However, the low survival rate of new businesses in the country points in the direction of inefficient scaling up drivers. In 2017 indeed, only about 27% of Slovak start-ups were still operating in their 5th year. The very high share of low-productive micro firms in the business population also suggests less than optimal efficiency of market competition selection effects.

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