Friday, October 7, 2011

The China Threat that Isn't, Ctd.

Remember how China, armed with a "manipulated currency" and massive government subsidies, was allegedly taking all of America's manufacturing jobs?  Well, it looks like the Chinese are in a giving mood all of a sudden.  First, the FT reports on a new study by Boston Consulting Group (available here) showing that the "re-shoring" phenomenon (discussed frequently here) is picking up speed:
Rising Chinese labour costs are changing the economics of global manufacturing and could contribute to the creation of 3m jobs in the US by 2020, according to a study being released on Friday.

The Boston Consulting Group analysis says the new jobs will be generated by a “re-shoring” of manufacturing activity lost to China over the past decade.

“Re-shoring is part of a broad trend that will emerge as ... production gradually swings back to the US,” Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at the consultancy, told the Financial Times.

The Boston Consulting Group estimates that the trend could cut the US’s merchandise trade deficit with the rest of the world, excluding oil, from $360bn in 2010 to about $260bn by the end of the decade. The shift would also reduce its soaring deficit with China, which reached $273bn in 2010 and has triggered an intense political controversy over China’s exchange rate policies.

“While Chinese labour costs are rising, US competitiveness has been improving,” says Mei Xu, the Chinese-born co-owner of Chesapeake Bay Candle, which makes candles and other home fragrance products. “We can invest in automation to make our candles in a factory near Baltimore for a similar cost to doing the same job in China.”

Chesapeake Bay Candle has created 50 jobs, with another 50 likely next year, since it invested in US production. Half of the company’s production is now US-based. Last year all of its products were made in China.

According to Ms Xu, her company can now react more rapidly to customer design requests, while cutting out hold-ups due to transport delays and customs bureaucracy....

John Heppner, of the security division of Fortune Brands, a US consumer goods company, said its Wisconsin padlock factory hired 100 workers after “a reappraisal of whether it makes sense to base as much of our manufacturing in China”.
The BCG study is definitely worth reading in full, so be sure to check it out.  And according to another article out today, this time in the Wall Street Journal, Chesapeake Bay Candle and Fortune Brands definitely aren't alone:
Globalization has come full circle at Otis Elevator Co.

The U.S. manufacturer, whose elevators zip up and down structures as diverse as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, is moving production from its factory in Nogales, Mexico, to a new plant in South Carolina.

Fifteen years ago, Otis Elevator joined the stampede of U.S. manufacturers who moved production to Mexico in a bid to save money. Now they're moving it all back. Tim Aeppel explains why on The News Hub.

More startling: Otis says the move will save it money.

What's happening at Otis is part of a broader shift in the way manufacturers tally costs.

Their outlook has been changing as the cost of producing abroad has risen and they have devised more efficient ways to make things close to where they want to sell them.

International companies ranging from Ford Motor Co. to General Electric Co. have started returning to the U.S. some jobs that they had previously shipped offshore, a process sometimes dubbed as "reshoring."...

A number of forces are behind the modest influx. Wages and other costs are going up in foreign countries—especially China—while pay in many industrial sectors inside the U.S. has risen slowly or even fallen in many cases. Transportation costs have grown, as have the costs of holding large stocks of inventory, a common precaution when producing goods far from their end market.

Companies also recognize how moving jobs to the U.S. at a time of high unemployment can enhance their image. "A lot of companies still don't publicize plant closures in the U.S.-which they're still doing," says Mr. Paul, while going out of their way to tout moving jobs back into the country. But longer term, he says, there should be genuine gains for the American economy and workers.

Stephen Maurer, the head of the manufacturing practice at consultants AlixPartners LLP, says some things will always be made in low-cost places, like clothes, "because they involve tons of labor."

But for many other goods, the numbers are shifting. In new study, Mr. Maurer found that it's still cheaper to make a long list of basic industrial goods in places like Vietnam, Russia, or Mexico, but the gap has shrunk. Some analysts say this trend is accelerating and will eventually make the U.S. the cheapest place to produce a wider range of goods. Otis thinks that's already the case for its elevators....

Among other things, the [South Carolina] plant will be closer to many of the company's customers, about 70% of whom are on the East Coast of the U.S.

The company figures that will lower its freight and logistics costs 17.3%.

Another 20% of savings, the company says, will come from "efficiencies" of having all its white-collar workers associated with elevator design and production located at the new factory....

It also will be easier for customers to visit the plant. Nogales is 65 miles from the nearest U.S. commercial airport, in Tucson, Ariz.
That AlixPartners study on what they call "near-shoring" is here.  The WSJ article goes on to say that not all jobs leaving China are coming to the states - other, low-cost, labor-intensive ones are heading to Mexico.  But regardless of whether the manufacturing jobs are heading to the United States or to Mexico, three things are abundantly clear: (i) rising costs in China are causing more than a trickle of manufacturers to leave the country and move elsewhere; (ii) many companies are discovering that its actually better for their bottom lines to manufacture in the United States; and (iii) the idea that China is going to inevitably take all of the United States' manufacturing jobs is, once again, proving to be a somewhat misguided prognostication.

Maybe it's news like this that caused AEI's Dan Blumenthal to list in a new FP op-ed the following items among his "top ten unicorns about China policy":
3. China will inevitably overtake America, and America must manage its decline elegantly. This is a new China-policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and America's decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why postwar Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is, China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt-to-GDP ratio as high as 80 percent, thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, a senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).

The United States also has big problems. But Americans are debating them vigorously, know what they are, and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China's political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems....

4 (related to 3). China is America's banker. America cannot anger its banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. Treasurys because its economy does not allow investors to put money elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the United States starts to bring down its debts and deficits, China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. Treasurys, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans toward the United States....

6. America's greatest challenge is managing China's rise. Actually, America's greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact a pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.
Good stuff.  (Bluementhal's foreign policy insights are also worth checking out, of course.)

So given all of this news and analysis (and plenty more like it), can someone please explain to me again why so many US politicians and unions are blaming China for all of America's economic problems and lashing out at the Chinese in order to allegedly prevent China's inevitable destruction of the US economy?

Oh, right.

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