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Global Supply Chain News: As Chinese Manufacturing Advantage Wanes, Which are the 16 Countries Poised to Fill the Void?
It's no secret that while still low, Chinese manufacturing wages have been rising rapidly over the past few years, to the point where several studied have found that the most expensive areas in China will be on par with the least expensive areas of the US by 2015 or so, when factoring in productivity.
A new study from the analysts at Stratfor Global Intelligence sees it even more sharply: China's days as a low cost manufacturing magnet are over. That does not mean China's will move into decline, says Stratfor's George Friedman, but it does mean the world will see the emergence of a whole new cast of low cost countries to which labor-intensive manufacturing work will increasing flow.
China's almost 30-year position as low cost offshoring leader is unusually long as these things go, Friedman says. But while the country could still prosper by switching economic strategies, "this era of Chinese development -- pyramiding on low wages to conquer global markets -- is ending simply because there are now other nations with even lower wages and other advantages. China will have to behave differently from the way it does now, and thus other countries are poised to take its place," Friedman provocatively writes.
He notes, for example, how in the 1960s, Japan was notorious for cheap, often low quality exports to Western markets. Soon, its cost advantages declined and then disappeared altogether, forcing Japan in the 1990s to make at successful leap to high quality electronics and autos to keep its export engine going, even as it now has one of the highest labor costs in the world (the Japanese electronics market of course has been pummeled recently by Apple, Samsung, and others).
In fact, Friedman says such a process is almost always experienced in developing counrties, and is happening right now in China. First, traditional, rural-oriented life is upended as huge numbers of often young people head to new factories and more urban areas to make goods for Western markets. The culture is fundamentally changed, in part as the population sees a path to a better life for themselves and their children.
"As the process matures, low wages rise -- producing simple products for the world market is not as profitable as producing more sophisticated products -- and the rate of growth slows down in favor of more predictable profits from more complex goods and services," Friedman says.
He believes, however, that for a variety of reasons, China will have more trouble navigating this transition that say Japan did.
Friedman adds that "China is at the fringes of its low-wage, high-growth era. Other countries will replace it. The international system opens the door to low-wage countries with appropriate infrastructure and sufficient order to do business. Low-wage countries seize the opportunity and climb upon the escalator of the international system, and with them come the political and business elite and the poor, for whom even the brutality of early industrialism is a relief."
"So what countries will emerge to fill the void? Stratfor has wittily come up with the concept of the Post-China 16, the countries that are most likely and in many cases already have taken low cost manufacturing work away from China.
These PC-16 countries are shown in the graphic below.
Friedman says that in In general, Strafor is already seeing a continual flow of companies leaving China, or choosing not to invest in China, and going to these 16 countries - and that this flow is now quickening, especially in the areas of apparel, footwear and mobile phone assembly. A move of these industries to new locations can be seen as an "early indicator" of more significant moves across other sector a few years later.
"The first impetus is the desire of global entrepreneurs, usually fairly small businesses themselves, to escape the increasingly non-competitive wages and business environment of the previous growth giant," Friedman adds. "Large, complex enterprises can't move fast and can't use the labor force of the emerging countries because it is untrained in every way. The businesses that make the move are smaller, with small amounts capital involved and therefore lower risk."
SCDigest will note that even though they are often large business, the apparel and soft goods sector requires relatively little investment to set-up shop in new sourcing locations, and has been used to doing this type of change for decades.
The inclusion of four African countries in the list - 25% of the total - seems especially interesting.
If true, this evolution will obviously have significant supply chain implications, not only in terms of potentially moving sourcing locations to these new countries, but also relative to a potential change in mindset and investment from one that has recently been very China-centric to something else.
But this change is really going to happen, Friedman says.
"The parabola of economic development dictates that what has not yet risen will rise and eventually fall," he writes. "The process unleashed in the Industrial Revolution does not seem to be stoppable. In our view, this is the next turning of the wheel."