By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the unemployment rate stubbornly above 9 percent, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Wednesday unveiled an initiative to encourage both U.S. and foreign companies to create more jobs in the United States.
Building on previous U.S. government efforts to attract foreign investment, the SelectUSA initiative will help U.S. states deal with federal regulations that may discourage an overseas company from investing in the United States or encourage a U.S. firm to look abroad, senior Commerce Department officials said.
"In recent years, we have been losing ground to our foreign competitors in attracting and retaining business investment and have seen U.S. jobs move overseas," Locke said.
"By refocusing government resources, SelectUSA can make government work better to strengthen the economy and create new jobs for American workers. Simply put, business investment in the U.S. means jobs for the American people and that is the Obama administration's number one goal."
Foreign companies poured about $130 billion into the United States in 2009 through mergers and acquisitions or the building of facilities. That represented about 12 percent of total global foreign direct investment, down from an average of 23.4 percent in the late 1990s, the Commerce Department said.
The United States still is the biggest recipient of business investment but other countries have worked to improve their competitive positions and ramped up their marketing and outreach efforts to help attract job-creating business investment, the department said.
President Barack Obama took note of the changed global landscape in an executive order on Wednesday establishing the SelectUSA initiative.
"In an era of global capital mobility, the United States faces increasing competition for retaining and attracting industries of the future and the jobs they create," Obama said. "My administration is committed to enhancing the efforts of the United States to win the growing global competition for business investment."
WELCOMED BY BUSINESS GROUPS
Business groups welcomed the initiative, which they said could give U.S. employment a much-needed boost.
John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable of top U.S. corporate executives, said SelectUSA "has the potential to cut through the red tape, break through U.S. investment barriers and clear the path for job creation."
For example, both major corporations and smaller companies can face costly delays in winning government approval of sites they have selected to build new facilities. SelectUSA will act as "single point of entry" at the federal level "to get things done and make sure there are no unreasonable barriers in the way," a senior Commerce Department official told reporters.
"We think there's a unique role the federal government can play. Just speeding up the process and making sure that we're not a barrier, that the federal government is not a barrier to job creation and economic growth," the official said.
The interagency group also will promote the United States as the best market for business operations and launch a new website, www.SelectUSA.gov, to provide comprehensive information on federal programs and services available to companies that operate in the United States.
"The U.S. subsidiaries of global companies employ more than 5 million Americans and if ever there was a time to aggressively market the U.S. as a place to do business, the time is now," said Nancy McLernon, president and CEO of the Organization for International Investment.
"In the race to 'win the future' it's the country that successfully attracts the world's investment that will ultimately win," she said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Bill Trott)