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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Making Products in China

Chinese manufacturers
The end of cheap goods?
Some are predicting the end of the cheap “China price”; others are more sanguine
“IT IS the end of cheap goods,” says Bruce Rockowitz. He is the chief executive of Li & Fung, a company that sources more clothes and common household products from Asia than perhaps any other. In the low-tech areas in which Li & Fung specialises, the firm handles an estimated 4% of China’s exports to America and a sizeable chunk of its exports to Europe, too. It has operations in several East Asian countries, where it diligently searches for cheap, reliable suppliers of everything from handbags to bar stools. So when Mr Rockowitz says the era of low-cost Asian production is drawing to a close, people listen.

He argues that Asian manufacturing has gone through a number of phases, each lasting about 30 years. When China was isolated under Mao Zedong, companies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea grew expert at making things. When China reopened in the late 1970s, after Mao’s death, these experienced Asian operators converged on southern China. With almost free access to land and labour, plus an efficient port and logistics hub in nearby Hong Kong, they started to make things ever more cheaply and sell them to the whole world.

For the next 30 years manufacturers in China helped to keep global inflation in check. But that era is now over, says Mr Rockowitz. Chinese wages are rising fast. A wave of new demand, especially from China itself, is feeding a surge in commodity prices. Manufacturers can find some relief by moving production to new areas, such as western China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. But none of these new places will curb inflation the way southern China once did, he predicts. All rely on the same increasingly expensive pool of commodities. Many have rising wages or poor logistics. None can provide the scale and efficiency that was created when manufacturers converged on southern China.

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Hong Kong

Nothing can replace the Chinese miracle. “There is no next,” says Mr Rockowitz. Prices will now start to rise by 5% or more each year, with no end in sight. And that may be optimistic. So far this year, Mr Rockowitz says, Li & Fung’s sourcing operation has seen price increases of 15% on average. Other sourcers of Asian toys, clothes and basic household products tell similarly ominous tales.

Yet manufacturers in some other fields see things differently. On May 31st, the day Mr Rockowitz spoke in Hong Kong, the annual Computex fair opened an hour’s flight away in Taipei. Hotels were packed, even at inflated prices. The world’s hottest technology companies, such as Apple and even Taiwan’s HTC, were absent. But nearly 2,000 vendors showed up to hawk cheap and innovative gizmos.

Mainland Chinese firms arrived in force: more than 500 hired booths, up from 200 last year. Many are from the same parts of China that were once noted for cheap textiles and toys. With government encouragement, the belt that stretches from Shenzhen to Guangzhou has been shifting to more sophisticated products, such as electronics.

Some of the more striking offerings at the fair were ultra-cheap versions of global hits. A company named BananaU advertised tablet computers with Google’s Android operating system for $100. Another pushed Windows-based thin computers looking much like MacBooks for under $250. E-Readers were everywhere and available for a song.

Whether these products can be produced or sold in developed markets is unclear. The quality may be “B” for Banana rather than “A” for Apple. The intellectual property embedded in some devices may not, ahem, have been paid for. But still, the booths were packed. Buyers goggled and haggled over motherboards, memory chips, solid-state drives, servers, graphics cards, non-tangling cables, connectors, monitors and so on.

In 2009 the prices of these electronic goods jumped suddenly, as buyers emerged from the financial crisis and started ordering more equipment from manufacturers which had slashed capacity. But data collected in Taiwan suggest that prices are now falling sharply again (see chart). If the vendors at Computex had a common slogan, it would be “more for less”.

Among the products that generated the most heat were those that saved energy. These included alternating-and direct-current converters, and sensors that could moderate the power consumption of streetlamps, fridges and air conditioners. Such devices were initially marketed for their “green potential”, but what buyers liked was their ability to enhance productivity. Japanese firms, which have had to make do with less power since the earthquake, were particularly eager.

Chinese firms were curious about any product that lowered costs or made it easier to automate. When labour was cheap, Chinese firms used it inefficiently. Now they are learning how to get more from fewer hands. Li & Fung may be sounding the closing bell on one era of production, but the Taipei computer fair suggests that another is emerging.

Thanks to The Economist for this post.