Can U.S. Manufacturing Outcompete China?
July 10, 2012
Chinese companies have been taking larger shares of the global manufacturing market, outpacing many of their U.S. counterparts primarily due to lower operating expenses and favorable labor costs. Yet many of China's advantages are eroding while U.S. manufacturing is becoming more competitive, meaning that the scales may soon tip in favor of American industry. For over a century, the United States manufacturing sector was the largest and most advanced in the world. While it remains technologically sophisticated, U.S. manufacturing has ceded much of its market share to Chinese companies in recent years and, according to some reports, China's manufacturing sector outgrew that of the U.S. for the first time in 2010. But the conditions that have made China factory-friendly have begun to fade, while U.S. competitiveness is on the upswing. Is the momentum of industrial growth shifting back to the U.S.?
China is a Giant...China's rapid rebound from the global economic downturn was largely driven by its manufacturing sector, which has expanded at a record pace in recent years. Between 2008 and 2010, Chinese manufacturing grew at an average rate of 20.2 percent per year. In 2010, Chinese manufacturing output climbed to 19.8 percent of the global total, surpassing the U.S.'s 19.4 percent and dropping U.S. manufacturing from the top spot in global rankings for the first time in 110 years, according to the Financial Times Moreover, China's manufacturing production totaled $1.96 trillion in 2010, up 9.3 percent from 2009, while U.S. production was valued at $1.95 trillion, a gain of only 6.6 percent from the prior year. Chinese growth has been astronomical in the 21st century. In 2000, Chinese industrial output accounted for just 6.9 percent of the world total, but grew to nearly 20 percent 10 years later. "Between 2000 and 2010, the number of jobs in American manufacturing fell by 34 percent; it was, in all, a loss of six million jobs," MIT's Technology Review The pace of expansion can be seen across a range of industry groups. According to Business Insider Much of the strength of Chinese competitiveness derives from the fact that it's cheaper to do business there. The combination of a large manufacturing base, relatively low labor costs and numerous support policies have made China an extremely attractive option for international business. "Based on research regarding the actual conditions in China, we believe that the main drivers of competitiveness in China's manufacturing industry are labor resources conformed to the structural transformation of [the manufacturing industry, quality of infrastructure, the government's scheme for sustainable support to technical research and local business dynamics," according to a recent Deloitte The low cost of labor, large workforce and economies of scale have drawn major brands to Chinese manufacturers, particularly in the textiles and electronics industries. The advantages conferred from government support are also a major advantage, as low-interest loans from China's state-owned banks have lured many companies, including U.S.-based firms, to shift their operations overseas. "Over the last 10 years, China has mounted the biggest challenge to the U.S. manufacturing sector ever seen, threatening producers of steel, chemicals, glass, paper, drugs and any number of other items with prices they cannot match," Forbes.com
...But the Tide is TurningDespite its rapid growth over the past decade, many of the advantages that have fueled the expansion of Chinese manufacturing are beginning to deteriorate, and the exponential gains made by Chinese manufacturers seem increasingly unsustainable. "[The era of cheap China may be drawing to a close," the Economist Chinese labor costs have surged 20 percent per year for the past four years, and its most productive industrial centers are increasingly losing the ability to draw cheaper labor from inland China, while corruption and piracy are also degrading profitability. Labor costs for blue-collar workers in Guangdong, a key manufacturing region, rose by 12 percent a year from 2002 to 2009, while in Shanghai costs rose by 14 percent. According to a study from consultancy AlixPartners "[Stamping out products in Guangdong Province is no longer the bargain it once was, and U.S. manufacturing is no longer as expensive," Wired Magazine Apart from China becoming less cost-effective for business, recent economic conditions in the U.S. have also boosted manufacturing competitiveness. A May report from the Boston Company
- A depreciated dollar that has reduced the relative costs of manufacturing in the U.S. and made U.S. exports more globally competitive;
- Lower natural gas prices that have reduced input costs for many manufacturing activities, particularly in energy-based industries like petrochemicals and steel;
- A slowdown in global supply chains, which has made offshoring less effective due to longer transport times;
- A rise in global volatility, which has made management teams less likely to view transportation, wages and currency as predictable factors, and consequently driven them to reduce their exposure to risk by operating within the U.S.; and
- Concerns over intellectual property violations and quality control that have greatly boosted the "nearsourcing" movement.