Publications by Author: Desai, Mihir A

The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return

In 1688, essayist Josef de la Vega described finance as both “the fairest and most deceitful business . . . the noblest and the most infamous in the world, the finest and most vulgar on earth.” 

The characterization of finance as deceitful, infamous, and vulgar still rings true today – particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. But, what happened to the fairest, noblest, and finest profession that de la Vega saw?  

De la Vega hit on an essential truth that has been forgotten: finance can be just as principled, life-affirming, and worthy as it can be fraught with questionable practices.  Today, finance is shrouded in mystery for outsiders, while many insiders are uneasy with the disrepute of their profession.  How can finance become more accessible and also recover its nobility? 

Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai, in his “last lecture” to the graduating Harvard MBA class of 2015, took up the cause of restoring humanity to finance. With incisive wit and irony, his lecture drew upon a rich knowledge of literature, film, history, and philosophy to explain the inner workings of finance in a manner that has never been seen before. 

This book captures Desai’s lucid exploration of the ideas of finance as seen through the unusual prism of the humanities. Through this novel, creative approach, Desai shows that outsiders can access the underlying ideas easily and insiders can reacquaint themselves with the core humanity of their profession. 

The mix of finance and the humanities creates unusual pairings: Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope are guides to risk management; Jeff Koons becomes an advocate of leverage; and Mel Brooks’s The Producers teaches us about fiduciary responsibility. In Desai’s vision, the principles of finance also provide answers to critical questions in our lives. Among many surprising parallels, bankruptcy teaches us how to react to failure, the lessons of mergers apply to marriages, and the Capital Asset Pricing Model demonstrates the true value of relationships. 

THE WISDOM OF FINANCE is a wholly unique book, offering a refreshing new perspective on one of the world’s most complex and misunderstood professions.    

Desai, Mihir A., Pol Antràs, and C. Fritz Foley. 2007. “Multinational Firms, FDI Flows and Imperfect Capital Markets”. Abstract

This paper examines how costly financial contracting and weak investor protection influence the cross-border operational, financing and investment decisions of firms. We develop a model in which product developers have a comparative advantage in monitoring the deployment of their technology abroad. The paper demonstrates that when firms want to exploit technologies abroad, multinational firm (MNC) activity and foreign direct investment (FDI) flows arise endogenously when monitoring is nonverifiable and financial frictions exist. The mechanism generating MNC activity is not the risk of technological expropriation by local partners but the demands of external funders who require MNC participation to ensure value maximization by local entrepreneurs. The model demonstrates that weak investor protections limit the scale of multinational firm activity, increase the reliance on FDI flows and alter the decision to deploy technology through FDI as opposed to arm’s length licensing. Several distinctive predictions for the impact of weak investor protection on MNC activity and FDI flows are tested and confirmed using firm-level data.

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Also NBER Working Paper No. 12855.

Antràs, Pol, Mihir A. Desai, and C. Fritz Foley. 2007. “Multinational Firms, FDI Flows and Imperfect Capital Markets”. Abstract

This paper examines how costly …nancial contracting and weak investor protection in‡uence the cross-border operational, …nancing and investment decisions of …rms. We develop a model in which product developers can play a useful role in monitoring the deployment of their technology abroad. The analysis demonstrates that when …rms want to exploit technologies abroad, multinational …rm (MNC) activity and foreign direct investment (FDI) ‡ows arise endogenously when monitoring is nonveri…able and …nancial frictions exist. The mechanism generating MNC activity is not the risk of technological expropriation by local partners but the demands of external funders who require MNC participation to ensure value maximization by local entrepreneurs. The model demonstrates that weak investor protections limit the scale of multinational …rm activity, increase the reliance on FDI ‡ows and alter the decision to deploy technology through FDI as opposed to arm’s length licensing. Several distinctive predictions for the impact of weak investor protection on MNC activity and FDI ‡ows are tested and con…rmed using …rm-level data.

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Desai, Mihir A., and Dhammika Dharmapala. 2007. “Taxes, Institutions and Foreign Diversification Opportunities”. Abstract

Investors can access foreign diversification opportunities through either foreign portfolio investment (FPI) or foreign direct investment (FDI). By combining data on US outbound FPI and FDI, this paper analyzes whether the composition of US outbound capital flows reflect efforts to bypass home country tax regimes and weak host country investor protections. The cross-country analysis indicates that a 10% decrease in a foreign country’s corporate tax rate increases US investors’ equity FPI holdings by 21%, controlling for effects on FDI. This suggests that the residual tax on foreign multinational firm earnings biases capital flows to low corporate tax countries toward FPI. A one standard deviation increase in a foreign country’s investor protections is shown to be associated with a 24% increase in US investors’ equity FPI holdings. These results are robust to various controls, are not evident for debt capital flows, and are confirmed using an instrumental variables analysis. The use of FPI to bypass home country taxation of multinational firms is also apparent using only portfolio investment responses to within-country corporate tax rate changes in a panel from 1994 to 2005. Investors appear to alter their portfolio choices to circumvent home and host country institutional regimes.

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Also NBER Working Paper No. 13132.


In the absence of owners, how effective are the constraints imposed by the state in promoting effective firm governance? This paper develops state-level indices of governance environment facing not-for-profits and examines the effects of these rules on not-for-profit behavior. Stronger provisions aimed at detecting managerial misbehavior are associated with significantly greater charitable expenditures, increased foundation payouts and lower insider compensation. Instrumental variables analysis confirms the relationship between the governance environment and not-for-profit performance. The paper also examines how governance influences an alternative metric of not-for-profit performance—the provision of social insurance. Stronger governance measures are associated with intertemporal smoothing of resources and greater activity in response to negative economic shocks.

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Also NBER Working Paper No. 11140.

Desai, Mihir A., C. Fritz Foley, and J.R. Hines Jr. 2005. “Foreign Direct Investment and Domestic Economic Activity”. Abstract

How does rising foreign investment influence domestic economic activity? Firms whose foreign operations grow rapidly exhibit coincident rapid growth of domestic operations, but this pattern alone is inconclusive, as foreign and domestic business activities are jointly determined. This study uses foreign GDP growth rates, interacted with lagged firm-specific geographic distributions of foreign investment, to predict changes in foreign investment by a large panel of American firms. Estimates produced using this instrument for changes in foreign activity indicate that 10% greater foreign capital investment is associated with 2.2% greater domestic investment, and that 10% greater foreign employee compensation is associated with 4.0% greater domestic employee compensation. Changes in foreign and domestic sales, assets, and numbers of employees are likewise positively associated; the evidence also indicates that greater foreign investment is associated with additional domestic exports and R&D spending. The data do not support the popular notion that greater foreign activity crowds out domestic activity by the same firms, instead suggesting the reverse.

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Also NBER Working Paper No. 11717 and Ross School of Business Working Paper No. 1020. October 2005.


Affiliate–level evidence indicates that American multinational firms circumvent capital controls by adjusting their reported intrafirm trade, affiliate profitability, and dividend repatriations. As a result, the reported profit impact of local capital controls is comparable to the effect of 24 percent higher corporate tax rates, and affiliates located in countries imposing capital controls are 9.8 percent more likely than other affiliates to remit dividends to parent companies. Multinational affiliates located in countries with capital controls face 5.4 percent higher interest rates on local borrowing than do affiliates of the same parent borrowing locally in countries without capital controls. Together, the costliness of avoidance and higher interest rates raise the cost of capital, significantly reducing the level of foreign direct investment. American affiliates are 13–16 percent smaller in countries with capital controls than they are in comparable countries without capital controls. These effects are reversed when countries liberalize their capital account restrictions.

Working Paper 10337, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2004.

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This paper examines the expropriation of a foreign investor by a local partner and the subsequent resolution of that case through international arbitration. Ronald Lauder, a U.S. investor, created a media holding company for investments in Eastern Europe that included a once–successful joint venture with Vladimir Zelezny in the Czech Republic. Despite Lauder's 99% interest in the underlying Czech entity, Zelezny managed to divert the value of the underlying entity for his personal benefit. Subsequent to the expropriation, Lauder employed international agreements and tribunals to recoup 354.9 million USD from the Czech Republic. This clinical examination of an expropriation and its aftermath illustrates how ownership shares can be of secondary importance in determining control, how corporate control is shaped by geography, and how differential access to investor protections in global capital markets can contribute to the persistence of differences, rather than convergence, in investor protections.

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This paper studies the effects of financial constraints on firm growth by investigating if large depreciations differentially impact multinational affiliates and local firms in emerging markets. U.S. multinational affiliates increase sales, assets and investment significantly more than local firms during, and subsequent to, currency crises. The enhanced relative performance of multinationals is traced to their ability to use internal capital markets to capitalize on the competitiveness benefits of large depreciations. Investment specifications indicate that increases in leverage resulting from sharp depreciations constrain local firms from capitalizing on these investment opportunities, but do not constrain multinational affiliates. Multinational parents also infuse new capital in their affiliates after currency crises. These results indicate another role for foreign direct investment in emerging markets–multinational affiliates expand economic activity during currency crises when local firms are most constrained.

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Desai, Mihir A. 2004. “Market Reactions to Export Subsidies”. Abstract

This paper analyzes the economic impact of export subsidies by investigating stock price reactions to a critical event in 1997. On November 18, 1997, the European Union announced its intention to file a complaint before the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that the United States provided American exporters illegal subsidies by permitting them to use Foreign Sales Corporations to exempt a fraction of export profits from taxation. Share prices of American exporters fell sharply on this news, and its implication that the WTO might force the United States to eliminate the subsidy. The share price declines were largest for exporters whose tax situations made the threatened export subsidy particularly valuable. Share prices of exporters with high profit margins also declined markedly on November 18, 1997, suggesting that the export subsidies were most valuable to firms earning market rents. This last evidence is consistent with strategic trade models in which export subsidies improve the competitive positions of firms in imperfectly competitive markets.

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This paper reassesses the burden of the current U.S. international tax regime and reconsiders well–known welfare benchmarks used to guide international tax reform. Reinventing corporate tax policy requires that international considerations be placed front and center in the debate on how to tax corporate income. A simple framework for assessing current rules suggests a U.S. tax burden on foreign income in the neighborhood of $50 billion a year. This sizeable U.S. taxation of foreign investment income is inconsistent with promoting efficient ownership of capital assets, either from a national or a global perspective. Consequently, there are large potential welfare gains available from reducing the U.S. taxation of foreign income, a direction of reform that requires abandoning the comfortable, if misleading, logic of using similar systems to tax foreign and domestic income.

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Desai, Mihir A. 2004. “Theft and Taxes”. Abstract

This paper analyzes the interaction between corporate taxes and corporate governance. We show that the characteristics of a taxation system affect the extraction of private benefits by company insiders. A higher tax rate increases the amount of income insiders divert and thus worsens governance outcomes. In contrast, stronger tax enforcement reduces diversion and, in so doing, can raise the stock market value of a company in spite of the increase in the tax burden. We also show that the corporate governance system affects the level of tax revenues and the sensitivity of tax revenues to tax changes. When the corporate governance system is ineffective (i.e., when it is easy to divert income), an increase in the tax rate can reduce tax revenues. We test this prediction in a panel of countries. Consistent with the model, we find that corporate tax rate increases have smaller (in fact, negative) effects on revenues when corporate governance is weaker. Finally, this approach provides a novel justification for the existence of a separate corporate tax based on profits.

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We explore the impact of the institutional environment on the nature of entrepreneurial activity across Europe. Political, legal, and regulatory variables that have been shown to impact capital market development influence entrepreneurial activity in the emerging markets of Europe, but not in the more mature economies of Europe. Greater fairness and greater protection of property rights increase entry rates, reduce exit rates, and lower average firm size. Additionally, these same factors also associated with increased industrial vintage – a size–weighted measure of age – and reduced skewness in firm–size distributions. The results suggest that capital constraints induced by these institutional factors impact both entry and the ability of firms to transition and grow, particularly in lesser–developed markets.

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