Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Can America Compete with Cheap Labor Countries?

One of the constant refrains you hear from people opposing trade liberalization is that, sure, it sounds good in theory, but in reality free trade is a disaster for America because the USA simply cannot compete with low-wage countries like China, and thus "outsourcing" will crush the American worker while enriching fat-cat industrialists.  But does this argument jibe with reality?

In short, no.

Thomas Heffner of Economy in Crisis provides a good example of the protectionists' most basic outsourcing argument:
American workers can not and should not have to compete with third world wage rates. Some Chinese manufacturers are paid 33 cents an hour according to a 2005 AFLCIO report. This cents-an-hour pay in many countries around the world has caused American companies and entire industries to move abroad (see the lost industry list here). It also led Princeton economist Alan Blinder to estimate 42-56 million jobs could potentially be sent overseas.
And trust me, Heffner is not alone - instances of this argument literally flood the interwebs (and our political discourse).  But unfortunately for the folks using such simplistic defeatism to justify their protectionist policies, their arguments simply cannot withstand scrutiny when checked against the actual facts on the ground, which show that labor costs are only one of many factors that executives consider when deciding where to locate a factory.  That fact is made abundantly clear in this new FT story:
Most big US manufacturing companies are considering relocating factories from low-cost Asian countries to the US or Latin America as they face rising logistics and transport costs, according to a report being released today by Accenture, the consultants.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which have wreaked havoc on global supply chains, have underlined how multinational manufacturers can find themselves stranded without critical components.

For example, General Motors, the US carmaker, plans to stop production today at a factory in Louisiana that makes pick-up trucks, due to lack of parts normally supplied from Japan.

Boeing, the aircraft-maker whose 787 Dreamliner relies on Japanese manufacturers for more than a third of its parts, said it had enough inventory of components for the next few weeks, but was unsure of supplies beyond that. Jamco, the Japanese company that makes the 787’s galleys, warned that deliveries could be affected by fuel shortages.

Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of earthmoving equipment by revenues, said its factories around the world could be “sporadically impacted” by the disruption to its Japanese supply chain. The company has already located alternative sources for components produced by its Japanese suppliers.

The problems in Japan could prompt big manufacturers to reassess the risks in their global supply chains. The Accenture report suggests that, long before the earthquake, such companies were already looking at simplifying supply chains by bringing them closer to end-markets.

Some 61 per cent of manufacturing executives surveyed by the consultancy said they were considering more closely matching supply location with demand location by onshoring or “nearshoring” manufacturing and supply.

Matt Reilly, Accenture’s managing director of process and innovation performance, said that this could lead to a wave of factory relocations in the next three years as big US manufacturers move production from Asia to the US and Latin America. “In the past five years, companies were driving at labour cost arbitrage and lower material costs,” Mr Reilly said.

“But now that oil and transportation prices have gone up, productivity gains are not as big as they were, and there are issues around risk in supply chains, companies are starting to go where the customers are, instead of where the raw materials are.” He said the shift was also being driven by customer demands for quicker supply times and greater customisation.

“A lot of what’s going on in manufacturing innovation is about trying to get customer feedback quickly and injecting that back into the supply chain, so that features and functions can be changed quickly,” he said. “It’s tough to do that when you’ve got stuff going on in Thailand or Japan.”

A string of other international companies have also cautioned that their supply chains could be disrupted by the Japan quake, including Sony Ericsson, Volkswagen, Volvo and GKN, the UK car and aerospace components manufacturer.
In short, yes, labor costs are a factor in corporate sourcing, and sometimes a big one (especially for low-end manufacturing), but the idea that America simply can't compete with low-wage nations based solely on the wage differential is a huge fallacy.  And it's been a fallacy for a long time now (especially when fuel costs are on the rise).  Of course, anyone with a good grasp of basic economics coulda told you that, but it's certainly nice when reality so neatly tracks theory, isn't it?

Lots more on the outsourcing myth here, if you're interested.


Steve Craven said...

Coincidentally, Scott, I met today with a client that has contract manufacturing done in China. As the cost of labor has risen in China, they have gradually shifted their contracts from coastal Chinese plants to interior firms. And now they are beginning to move new contracts to Indonesia. Just as Adam Smith said it should be.

Anonymous said...

You don't mention many other factors, like relative regulatory compliance burdens...

Scott Lincicome said...

Hi Anon,

Sorry, the global-competitiveness-killing effects of onerous tax and regulatory burdens has been a consistent theme of this blog; I probably should've mentioned that here again too. (The perils of blogging after a long day of work!)