Multinationals and Global Capitalism: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century

By Geoffrey Jones | Go to book overview
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3 Natural resources

3.1 Multinationals and resources

Multinational investment in natural resources exploitation began early and grew rapidly during the nineteenth century. This was the first sector where entrepreneurs discerned and exploited opportunities to create value by operating across borders. These strategies were among the principal drivers of integration during the first global economy. They created some of the world's largest multinationals whose leadership of their respective industries was to persist until the present day.

The forms taken by multinationals reflect the highly heterogeneous nature of natural resources. The two main subsections of renewable resources (agriculture and forestry) and nonrenewable (mining and petroleum) have different characteristics. The distribution of hard minerals and petroleum around the world is fortuitous and asymmetric with respect to final markets. There are significant scale economies in the exploitation of minerals. Minerals can also only be used once in their original form. This makes questions of ownership and optimal exploitation of the resource of great strategic importance. These characteristics tend to create a different industry structure than in renewable resource industries, where there are often multiple sources for many agricultural commodities, and where products can often be developed by small investors with relative ease (McKern 1993).

There are industry-specific variations even within the wider renewable/nonrenewable categories. Mining industries generally share a number of common features: these include the importance of geology, the capital-intensity and high-risk nature of their business, and that most metals are homogeneous products sold in world markets. But there are also important differences between minerals. Minerals differ widely in their availability. Bauxite, the raw material from which aluminum is normally derived, is not widely distributed, at least in terms of sufficient richness for commercial use. In contrast, tin and zinc are far more widely found round the world.


3.2 Origins

3.2.1 Mining

There has been cross-border trade in precious metals and other commodities since the ancient world, but this had only exceptionally involved the ownership of mines in

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