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Brain drain or brain gain? Evidence from corporate boards

Is the brain drain reversing? This column argues that increasing numbers of foreign-educated and economic emigrants are returning home. Evidence suggests that the best of the bunch bring with them strong corporate governance practises and an appetite for internationalisation. Through this ‘brain gain’, the return of skilled professionals boosts emerging markets’ economies.

Development economists have long warned about the costs for developing countries of the emigration of the best and brightest that decamp to universities and businesses in the developed world (Bhagwati 1976). This brain drain has attracted a considerable amount of economic research. 

However, trends may be reversing. Scholars are talking about a ‘brain gain’ rather than a brain drain, claiming that the emigration of the brightest may actually benefit developing countries because emigrants return with more knowledge and organisational skills (Docquier and Rapoport 2012, Nanda and Khanna 2010, The Economist 2011).

The brain gain and the board

We demonstrate (Giannetti, Liao and Yu 2012) a specific channel through which the brain gain arises: the brain gain in the corporate boards of publicly listed companies. Specifically, we highlight the effects of individuals with foreign experience joining the boards of directors on firms’ performance and corporate policies in China.

The arrival of individuals with foreign experience in the board of listed companies in emerging markets seems to enhance the firms’ productivity and performance, because board members perform an important advisory role for management (Fama and Jensen 1983). Board members with foreign experience, having learnt how foreign organisations work, facilitate the adoption of superior management practices which – as shown by Bloom and Van Reenen (2007) – greatly enhance the performance and productivity of firms. Board directors with foreign experience could thus help to bridge large productivity gaps that persist across countries and firms (Hall and Jones 1999, Jones and Romer 2009).

Directors with foreign experience may also more effectively perform the monitoring function of the board and help improve firm-level corporate governance in emerging markets. This is not only thanks to foreign expertise accumulated abroad, but also because these executives are often relatively disenfranchised from local ties. They may have stronger incentives to pursue profitability, rather than to please politicians and other local constituencies.


We explore whether directors with foreign experience lead to performance improvements using a unique dataset from China and by exploiting exogenous variation in the supply of directors with foreign experience caused by policy changes. We hand-collect information on foreign education, work experience and other demographic characteristics from the biographies of 33,707 executive and non-executive directors of 1,733 publicly listed companies from 1999 to 2009. We consider an individual to have foreign experience if he or she studied or worked outside mainland China.

China is an ideal environment to address this issue because:

  • Chinese firms face talent shortage in filling managerial positions;

Since individuals with foreign experience are scarce, not all firms with similarly high demand for directors with foreign experience are able to attract one.

  • During the sample period, almost all provinces introduced incentives for highly skilled individuals with foreign experience to return, at different times.

Since the labour market for board directors is largely local (Knyazeva, Knyazeva and Masulis 2011), the introduction of the provincial policies determined exogenous changes in the supply of potential directors with foreign experience.

Evidence for the brain gain

We find that:

  • When individuals with foreign experience join the board of a company, the firm’s valuation improves;
  • Its total factor productivity increases; and
  • In the subsequent years, the firm’s profitability increases.

We also show that these improvements in performance are accompanied by changes in corporate policies that are generally set by the board:

  • Firms’ propensity to manage earnings decreases and CEO turnover following low profits increases, indicating that corporate governance improves
  • Among the firms that make mergers and acquisitions, the ones with board members with foreign experience are more likely to make an international merger or acquisition.

This suggests that these firms are able to access a broader range of investment opportunities. Similarly, firms with board members with foreign experience are able to access more sources of external financing, as they are more likely to engage a foreign investor when raising capital through private placements than other firms without directors with foreign experience.

Third, firms that hire directors with foreign experience start exporting more.


Overall, our results suggest that firm performance improves because, among other effects, directors with foreign experience facilitate the adoption of strong corporate governance practices and internationalisation.


Bhagwati, J (1974), “The Brain Drain, International Integration of Markets for Professionals and Unemployment: A Theoretical Analysis”, Journal of Development Economics, 1, 19-42.

Bloom, N, and J V Reenen (2007), “Measuring and Explaining Management Practices across Firms and Countries”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122, 1351-1408.

Docquier, F and H Rapoport (2012), “Globalization, Brain Drain, and Development”, Journal of Economic Literature, 50, 681–730.

Fama, E F, and M C Jensen (1983), “Separation of ownership and control”, Journal of Law and Economics, 26, 301–325.

Giannetti, M, G Liao, and X Yu (2012), “The Brain Gain of Corporate Boards: A Natural Experiment from China”, CEPR Discussion Paper 9190.

Hall, R, and C Jones (1999), “Why Do Some Countries Produce So Much More Output per Worker Than Others?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114, 83–116.

Jones, C, and P Romer (2009), “The New Kaldor Facts: Ideas, Institutions, Population, and Human Capital”, NBER Working Paper, 15094.

Knyazeva, A, D Knyazeva, and R Masulis (2011), “Effects of Local Director Markets on Corporate Boards”, Working Paper, University of Rochester.

Nanda, R, and T Khanna (2010), “Diasporas and Domestic Entrepreneurs: Evidence from the Indian Software Industry”, Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, 19, 991–1012.

The Economist (2011), “Drain or Gain?”, 26 May.

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