It had a tent revival atmosphere, upbeat pop music, a giant artsy American flag and an almost giddy sense of good things about to happen.
Add an A-list of Cabinet members and President Obama, several hundred foreign executives, an army of state economic officials and plenty of space for speed-dating capitalism, and you have America’s first-ever effort to put itself on the block for overseas investors.
Welcome to the Big Shill — a.k.a. the Select USA 2013 Investment Summit — where a mayor from a city such as Carmel, Ind., population 85,000, could pitch the advantages of his new city center to such people as Lin Zuoming, president of China’s giant aviation conglomerate AVIC.
Having recruited the tired, the poor and the huddled masses, its seems, it’s time to target the world’s 1 percent, who this week have taken over the Marriott Wardman Park’s 1,300 rooms for what U.S. officials hope will be two days of dealmaking.
“I am here because I want your company to know there is no better place to do business than in the United States,” Obama said in lunchtime remarks to the crowd, which included executives from the world’s biggest corporations down to small startups trying to grow beyond the borders of such countries as the Netherlands.
“Why be outside the world’s largest market?” Obama asked, a barker at the world’s richest carnival. “When you bet on America, that bet pays off.”
The president was the headliner of an administration push to persuade foreign entrepreneurs to bring their money here, build plants, set up offices — and hire people. It’s an endeavor serious enough that, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said, the country’s ambassadors and foreign trade officials are going to have their job performance rated in part on how well they do in encouraging inbound investment to the United States.
“They’re going be judged,” Pritzker said. “Just the way we advocate on behalf of exports, we’re going to bring the same intensity.”
As if on cue, the coffee shops and bars of the Marriott were speckled with members of the nation’s diplomatic corps — Gary Locke, ambassador to China, in a casual chat with delegates from that country, Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar head to head with the director of a Singapore asset management firm.
Foreign companies already have about $2.7 trillion in assets in the United States, including car factories, tech firms, banks and oil rigs. But the yearly flow of investment has lagged in recent years, and the administration, perhaps taking a cue from Malaysia, Georgia and other developing countries that have mounted extensive global marketing campaigns, is hoping it can rebrand the United States as the next best place to expand.
The effort comes with the U.S. economy sitting at a seeming crossroads in the struggle to achieve more than sluggish growth. On one hand, major components of spending and demand — whether exports or retail sales — are growing more slowly than hoped.
On the other, some positive trends are starting to converge: a major boost in U.S. energy production has given the country an important new selling point; the stagnation of wages may be disappointing to U.S. workers but is also making the labor force more competitive internationally; political leaders have become aggressive in trying to open foreign markets, a potential plus for firms that make products in the United States.
Add it up, and administration officials argue that the time is right for a U.S. resurgence — or at least that’s the message they were selling in Woodley Park, with the use of some major firepower.
In a media briefing room, Wal-Mart chief executive Bill Simon spoke about a 30-year mega-cycle of production costs that shifted manufacturing overseas and that is starting to bring it back — a point he illustrated with new deals to buy shoes, curtains and glassware produced in the United States. In the main ballroom, investment giant and BlackRock chief executive Laurence Fink ticked off the strengths of the country’s capital markets. On the lower-level exhibition floor, the equivalent of the bathing-suit competition was underway as a parade of federal officials introduced their agencies and offered services to the crowd.
“Hi there, I’m Matt. I represent the Environmental Protection Agency. I am here to help people make things in America,” said one official, as the emcee shuttled the agencies quickly across a dais.
“Next up, the Department of Homeland Security. . . ”
Across the exhibition space, executives munched on Halloween candy, thumbed through invitations to a Puerto Rican rum party and milled around state, county and city sales booths where they learned many new facts.
“Where in the World Is Alabama?,” the sign at that state’s display offered, while Minnesota flagged its credentials as “A Great Place to Live” and Kentucky offered its “Unbridled Spirit.”
“It’s nice to see the show,” said Dirk Aalbers, project manager for Horus, a company in the Netherlands that develops specialty video software for police and other government agencies.
It’s not as if the United States does not already sell itself. There is an extensive bureaucracy based around the world to do just that.
But Kapil Sharma, who represents India’s Tata Sons industrial company in the United States, said he thought the session marked an important turning point for the administration, from private encouragement of foreign companies to “a very public display of affection.”
And for Carmel Mayor James Brainard, it was even more intimate, bringing him face to face with a high-ranking executive and Communist Party central committee member from China, which is hungrily searching for property and businesses around the world.
Nailing down investors “is a real contest,” he said in front of a display showing off his town’s award as Money magazine’s best place to live and photos of its many new buildings. “They probably haven’t heard of Indiana. And certainly not Carmel.”