The financialisation of primary sector MNEs

  • Koen Smet
Keywords: Natural resources, Mining, Oil, Food, Primary sector, MNE, Financialisation, Rent theory, Critical political economy


Since the 1990s, three major developments occurred within the primary sector. First, in a rather short time period, resource prices have displayed major changes. During the 1990s, price indices for food, metals and energy resources were more or less stable. Things changed at the dawn of the new millennium and prices peaked around 2008. After the outbreak the financial and economic crisis, prices dropped and have shown a rather volatile path since then. Second, in the same period, state-owned-enterprises and parastatals emerged to become global players. Mainly, companies from the so-called BRICS (e.g. PetroChina, Gazprom, Petrobas) assumed leading roles. Third, a concentration of capital and market power occurred due to multiple mergers and acquisitions (M&A). These multinational enterprises (MNEs) are listed as some of the biggest companies worldwide. Within their respective commodity chains, they hold dominant and defining positions.

To understand and analyse these developments, a framework that draws on Marxist political economy is elaborated. By combining the debate on rent theory with the discussion on financialisation, that is, capital accumulation based on fictitious capital, the following arguments can be made. On the one hand, M&As are partially a response to the increasing influence of financial actors on natural resource markets. Simultaneously, the financial sector induced a change in the corporate governance of MNEs towards the principle of shareholder value. Moreover, the conflict between extractive companies and natural resource owners (that is, nation states) over the distribution of rents gained weight due to increasing prices. Strategic M&A allowed MNEs to enhance their bargaining position and secure access to resource reserves. On the other hand, it is characteristic of the companies embedded in the primary sector to follow a mixed accumulation strategy based on both the accumulation of fictitious capital  (rent appropriation) and productive capital. Precisely, the access to, and control over, pseudo-commodities define the long-term success of these enterprises. By means of M&A, this access and control are secured, an outcome which supports the ability of MNEs to generate revenue based on rents. Therefore, recent developments in natural resource industries are only partially induced by a general, macroeconomic financialisation.

Keywords: Natural resources; Mining; Oil; Food; Primary sector; MNE; Financialisation; Rent theory; Critical political economy


Journal Identifiers

print ISSN: 2042-1478