For some time, we’ve argued that outsourcing and offshoring were overdone. For manufactured goods, direct factory labor is typically only 10% to 15% of final product costs. Even if you get significant savings there, the offsets are increased shipping, inventory, and managerial/coordination costs (which serves as an excuse to transfer savings on factory workers to the top brass). In addition, extended supply chains also entail higher risks. I’ve had executives and senior managers in various industries tell me that there internal estimates of the savings from outsourcing weren’t compelling, but senior management went ahead on the (typically correct) assumption that investors would approve.
But even in the cases where the outsourcing cost savings were significant, the idea that American wages were way out of line with Chinese wages and the only future for American workers was grinding wages lower and lower to compete with China has been oversold. Various writers, including yours truly, pointed out that China’s wage advantage would not hold indefinitely even if it managed to keep its currency peg (which, separately, it hasn’t; the change to a currency basket has over time resulted in appreciation against the dollar).
The reason? China’s much higher inflation rate would over time reprice labor in nominal terms at home, which with a currency peg (or the current dirty float) would translate into real increases to foreign buyers. To put it more simply, double digit inflation over time would be tantamount to a currency revaluation.
Despite popular (and worse, pundit and media) perceptions otherwise, China no longer enjoys a labor cost advantage in many areas. In recent years, China has seen some manufacturers move to lower-cost countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, but the smaller size of their workforces has limited the impact on Chinese wages. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard takes note of this peculiarly underreported trend in his latest article, “The End of China’s Easy Growth“:
A new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers entitled “A Homecoming for US Manufacturing” claims it is now cheaper for whole clusters of US industry to produce at home, close to their markets. Firms are “re-shoring” — to use the vogue term — to cut transport and inventory costs and take advantage of cheap shale gas. The weaker dollar has iced the cake.
PwC said the US has clawed back a cost advantage of 2pc in steel output against China, at least for the North American market. Its “heat map” gives the US the edge in chemicals, primary metals, electrical products, machinery, paper, transport equipment, and wood, in that order…
Google is building its Nexus Q Music and video player in the US. General Electric and Ford are switching to plants at home. So is Caterpillar, which is interesting since its chief Chinese rival Sany Heavy Industry is in trouble. It has just asked creditors to waive a $510m financial covenant.
Boston Consulting Group has been banging on this homecoming drum for some time, arguing that wage inflation of 16pc annually for a decade has eroded China’s lead. The gap in “productivity-adjusted wages” was 22pc of US levels in 2005. It will be 43pc (61pc for the US South) by 2015.
Despite the fact that this trend is well under way, we’re certain to hear a steady diet of haranguing from neoliberal economists about how American workers have to suck it up and accept even lower wages. What’s driving falling real wages is poor domestic economic policies, namely, the mismanagement of the post crisis period. Japan warned the US early on that the biggest mistake it had made was not forcing its banks to recognize losses. But we ignored their lesson and are in the process of suffering what may turn out to be a lost decade. Time to blame the real perps, our bank enablers, rather than the poster bad guy, the Chinese wage slave.