How to Compete Against the New Breed of National Champions
Going up against the latest wave of state-supported competitors requires a new playbook for Western companies.
On March 12, 2018, the U.S. government blocked Broadcom Inc.’s proposed merger with Qualcomm Inc. on the grounds of national security. The presumption was that the merger of the two chipmakers would have resulted in a third company, China’s Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., gaining a dominant position in the market for 5G mobile network technologies. Huawei is a “national champion” — a company that is heavily subsidized (either implicitly or explicitly) or, in some cases, owned by a government — and the U.S. government is concerned that its growth could provide the Chinese government with undue access to and control over U.S. communication networks.
While the threat posed by national champions is nothing new, their essential character has substantially changed, and the competitive advantage of national champions in the global marketplace has become more pronounced. Today’s national champions are much more sophisticated, competing in more industries, and harder to spot than ever before. As a result, Western companies need a new strategic guide for competing against them.
A New Breed of Competitor
Traditionally, national champions have been large industrial companies, subject to a high degree of direct governmental oversight and intervention. Typically, they are unresponsive to global competitive forces, depending instead on explicit government subsidizes and protection. For instance, Indonesia’s state-owned electricity provider, Perusahaan Listrik Negara, enjoys a government-created monopoly, but its inability to satisfy growing domestic demand has resulted in a costly and unreliable energy supply in the world’s fourth most populous country.1
Today, however, there is a new breed of national champions. They differ from traditional champions in two principal ways: the form and degree of their government connections, and their basis of competition.
Modern national champions can be hard to identify. Their connections to government take a variety of forms, both corporate and noncorporate (via sovereign and other investment funds). The degree of government ownership and intervention in these national champions also varies widely. Sometimes governments hold explicit majority or minority ownership stakes in these companies, but increasingly, government involvement is more implicit.
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This involvement includes restrictions on foreign competition, preferred access to government financing, funding through sovereign investment funds, preferential government contracts, and privileged access to natural resources. In Russia, for instance, the government’s internet firewall protects national champions, such as Yandex NV and Mail.ru Group Ltd., from direct competition with Western competitors, such as Google. In the U.S.,
1. S. Poczter, “You Can’t Count on Me: The Impact of Electricity Unreliability on Productivity,” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 46, no. 3 (2017): 579-602.
2. Global Economic Symposium, “Escaping the Middle Income Trap: The Challenge,” (2014), www.global-economic-symposium.org.
3. M.-C. Hu and J.A. Mathews, “China’s national innovative capacity,” Research Policy 37, no. 9 (2008): 1465-1479.
5. A. Mayeda and I. King, “U.S. Cuts Off China’s ZTE From American Tech for Seven Years,” (April 16, 2018), www.bloomberg.com.
6. K. Palepu and K. Misztal, “Novozymes: Cracking the Emerging Markets Code,” Harvard Business School Case Study 9-112-084 (2012).