US ramps up efforts to lure foreign investment

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama has pledged an aggressive expansion of US efforts to draw foreign investment by clearing away red tape and having US diplomats court investors who want to break into the market.

"We know we can do more. We know we can do better," Mr Obama said on Thursday at a conference his administration organised that attracted business representatives from around the world.

While the United States drew US$166 billion (S$205 billion) in direct investment dollars in 2012, more than any other country, the US share of foreign direct investment has fallen to 17 percent from more than a third in 2000, according to the Organization for International Investment, a trade group that represents the US operations of global companies.

Seeking to reverse that trend, Mr Obama said the United States would start to coordinate efforts at the federal level to attract investment in a way it has not before. Until now, states and cities have been responsible for making pitches for business from abroad.

"As a country, we don't always make our case in a coordinated way that links our teams overseas to the right senior officials in Washington," he said. "And we're going to change that, make our advocacy more efficient, more effective, more connected."

The president's plug comes at a time of sluggish US economic growth and uncertainty over the country's fiscal outlook as the president and congressional Republicans fight over cuts to government spending and how much deficit cutting is necessary to put the country on a sustainable fiscal course.

Mr Obama said US officials would seek to make it easier for foreign firms to navigate the thicket of federal, state and local requirements for doing business in the United States. He promised "a single point of contact" for interested investors.

The decline of US market share of global foreign direct investment is due in part to rapid growth in emerging economies, OFII President Nancy McLernon said. But the United States has also failed to market itself aggressively and has lagged Europe in attracting investment from developing nations, she added.

Mr Obama promised that top administration officials will play a more active role in pitching the United States as an attractive place to invest.

"Officials at the highest levels, up to and including me, are going to do even more to make the case for investing in America," he said.

The remarks were made at the inaugural SelectUSA Investment Summit, a two-day conference designed to promote direct investment and job creation in the United States.

The conference drew more than 1,200 business leaders from nearly 60 countries, and top US executives, including Wal-Mart Inc's Bill Simon, Deloitte's Joe Echevarria and Samsung Electronics North America's David Steel.

Mr Obama said he was making it a formal part of the portfolios of embassies around the world to woo investors. The administration said it will focus diplomatic outreach efforts on 32 countries it believes are potentially particularly attractive sources of investment.

It is also going to increase the amount of information that is available to states and localities to prepare them better to attract investors, Mr Obama said.

Since much of foreign direct investment in the United States reflects firms buying up US companies, there at times has been public resistance.

White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling sought to combat any such concerns.

"We want to make clear, this is not a xenophobic nation," he said at the conference. "If you want to come here and make your fortune playing by the rules, investing in the United States, creating jobs, we don't just tolerate it, we welcome you with open arms."