Friday, August 17, 2012

Could China be re-balancing growth to the wrong consumer?

I have written before that China's official policy is to re-balance its engine of growth away from infrastructure-led investment to the Chinese consumer (as examples, see Crouching tiger, hidden profit and China beyond the hard/soft landing debate). Having hit a recent slow patch, it appears that the Chinese authorities have decided to pull out all stops to stimulate growth using the same old policy tools of infrastructure spending again ahead of the leadership changeover this year (see China’s doubling-down continues, via local governments). Barry Eichengreen described the intended transition and believed that the policy response is bad news long-term [emphasis added]:
[A]t another level, the policy response is only storing up problems for the future. Prior to the current slowdown, the Chinese authorities had committed to restructuring their economy. Restructuring meant redirecting Chinese output from foreign to domestic markets, which implied a change in the product mix, given differences in Chinese and foreign spending patterns. Restructuring meant rebalancing domestic spending from investment to consumption. The investment rate would be lowered from a stratospheric 50 percent, given that no economy can productively invest such a large share of its national income for any length of time. There would be no more construction of ghost towns and no more bullet trains running off the rails, in other words. As wages rose, the share of consumption would be allowed to rise from 1/3 of GDP toward the 2/3 that is the international norm. Bank balance sheets would be strengthened by holding financial institutions to stricter reserve requirements and higher lending standards. The result was to be a better balanced, more stable, and less financially vulnerable Chinese economy.

Given the global slowdown and the Chinese policy response, this restructuring agenda is now on hold. The new measures will succeed in keeping high single-digit growth going for a time, as they did in 2009-10. But they will do so by aggravating the economy’s imbalances and storing up problems for the future. This is not good news for those of us concerned with China’s longer run prospects.
Reverse offshoring begins
Already, the strains are starting to show. The Chinese competitive advantage of a seemingly inexhaustable supply of cheap labor is starting to erode. Wage pressures are rising as fewer and fewer workers are migrating from the countryside to search for work in the cities. In reaction, the decision of multi-national companies to offshore production to low-wage countries like China is not the no-brainer it once was. Indeed, a recent poll by Boston Consulting Group (full study here) indicates that more than one-third of American manufacturers are considering reversing the offshoring trend and to bring the jobs back to American shores [emphasis added]:
Decision makers at 106 companies across a broad range of industries responded to the survey, which BCG conducted in late February. Thirty-seven percent said they plan to reshore manufacturing operations or are “actively considering” it. That response rate rose to 48 percent among executives at companies with $10 billion or more in revenues—a third of the sample.

The top factors cited as driving future decisions on production locations: labor costs (57 percent), product quality (41 percent), ease of doing business (29 percent), and proximity to customers (28 percent). In addition, 92 percent said they believe that labor costs in China “will continue to escalate,” and 70 percent agreed that “sourcing in China is more costly than it looks on paper.”
In particular, some companies are nearing "tipping points":
Interest in shifting manufacturing to the U.S. is particularly strong among companies in several sectors identified in BCG’s March report as nearing a “tipping point.” In these industry groups, China’s cost advantage is likely to shrink within the next few years to the point where companies should rethink where they produce certain goods, mainly those for sale in North America. These tipping-point sectors are transportation goods, appliances and electrical equipment, furniture, plastic and rubber products, machinery, fabricated metal products, and computers and electronics. BCG predicts that production of 10 to 30 percent of U.S. imports from China in these industries, which account for approximately 70 percent of goods that the U.S. imports from that nation, could shift to the U.S. before the end of the decade.
This development must be particularly worrisome to Chinese policymakers and makes the objective to re-balance growth away from infrastructure spending to the Chinese consumer far more urgent. In this way, the Chinese economy would be able to grow more sustainably by creating a new source of demand from their own domestic economy. Alas, it does not appear likely to happen as re-focusing growth away from infrastructure spending would seriously hurt Party insiders who have gotten obscenely rich in this boom, as I point out before (see Good News: China soft landing, Bad News...)

Ironically, the latest Chinese move to engage in the more-of-the-same infrastructure based stimulus will have the effect of re-balancing growth away from infrastructure spending to the consumer. But instead of the Chinese consumer, it will be the American consumer as the reverse offshoring trend starts to take hold and accelerate.

Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. ("Qwest"). This article is prepared by Mr. Hui as an outside business activity. As such, Qwest does not review or approve materials presented herein. The opinions and any recommendations expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or recommendations of Qwest.

None of the information or opinions expressed in this blog constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or other instrument. Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice and any recommendations that may be contained herein have not been based upon a consideration of the investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific recipient. Any purchase or sale activity in any securities or other instrument should be based upon your own analysis and conclusions. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Either Qwest or Mr. Hui may hold or control long or short positions in the securities or instruments mentioned.

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