Is China Losing Its Competitive Edge?
The advantage of China solely as a low-cost, manufacturing-for-export market is dimin-ishing. Companies that integrate China into their global supply chains as a source of competitive advantage are far more successful than companies that pursue narrower objectives in China, finds a study jointly conducted by management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham Shanghai).
More specifically, companies that pursue China as both a growth market and a market for lower-cost labor and sources, and integrate these operationally, enjoy significantly higher profits than companies pursuing just one of those objectives. Companies that employ dual sourcing and sales strategies report an average profitability rate two-thirds higher than those focused on just one of those objectives (29.6% compared with 17.8%). Despite the returns that this approach can generate, only one out of four companies is able to combine a strong in-country market growth effort with their manufacturing and sourcing operations.
The first annual study, titled “China Manufacturing Competitiveness 2007-2008,” found that while a stronger Chinese currency and rising wages were putting pressures on manufacturing margins, failures to deploy operational best practices and to fully leverage China as both a growth market and source of labor and products are also limiting profits.
“The manufacturing philosophy employed by many foreign multinationals in China in recent decades is in need of an overhaul,” said Ronald Haddock, Vice President, Booz Allen. “China’s changing cost and currency structure have shifted, forcing companies to rethink how they structure their Chinese operations and how they perceive China in their overall global strategy. At the same time, China is increasingly a major source of product and business model innovation. We’re seeing globalization at work and China’s role has changed.”
More than half of the surveyed foreign-owned or foreign-invested companies manufacturing products in China believe that the country is losing its competi-tive edge in manufacturing to other low-cost nations. As a result, nearly one in five manufacturers surveyed has concrete plans to relocate or expand China operations to other countries, with Vietnam and India seen as the top alternatives to China.
Among the study’s key findings:
Operations management is a factor: The study found that three out of four companies lack fundamen-tal best practices in their China operations, including integrating the dual functions of export platforms and domestic market pen-etration. Survey respondents cited a num-ber of best practices that have yet to be fully applied in China. Just 11% reported fully applying integrated planning systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and material requirement plan-ning (MRP). Even fewer companies—only 7%—had fully deployed analytical invento-ry calculation tools and processes, and 4% employed best practices for supply chain risk management.
Declining competitiveness: More than half (54%) of companies surveyed believe that China is losing its competitiveness to other low-cost countries. Seven out of 10 respondents cited the rising renminbi as a major reason for China’s decline, while wage inflation was cited by 52% of those polled. Wages for white-collar managers and blue collar workers have jumped 9.1% and 7.6%, respectively. Staff retention is also a major concern, with 33% of respondents citing it as a reason for lost competitiveness. At the same time that costs are increasing, China is lagging behind global standards in many opera-tional dimensions, most notably in logistics infrastructure, trade environment, access to technology, management capabilities, and protection of intellectual property.
Companies eyeing Vietnam and India: Nearly one in five companies surveyed (17%) say they have concrete plans to relocate at least some of their China-based operations to other coun-tries. Although 88% of these corporations say that they originally chose China for its lower labor costs, they are finding that cheaper labor and tax benefits have made alternative locations more attractive. Among these corporations, Vietnam is the top alternative to China, according to 63% of this group, while 37% say India is their first choice. Among all respondents, when asked to compare China to alter-nate countries, they cited lower labor costs in those other countries as the largest differentiator, at 3.7 out of a scale of 5, indicating that China’s reputation as a source of cheap manufacturing labor is diminishing. However, the alternative countries lag China in market potential and infrastructure.
Majority staying in China: Despite the rising costs of manufacturing in China, 83% of manufacturers said they will maintain their operations in the country. China’s vast domestic market was cited by 78% of respondents as the reason to maintain the status quo, while 39% were unwilling to establish a new supply chain, motivating them to remain in China.
“China’s phenomenal economic growth and market reform story, together with a dynamic and challenging business environment, will continue to put pressure on manufacturing compa-nies,” said Brenda Foster, President, AmCham Shanghai. “They will have to focus on continually improving their competitiveness and devoting more resources to innovation as they pursue their strategies and plans in China.”
Major economic indexes of the Chinese printing industry, and new market information and business opportunities in India and Vietnam are available to NPES member companies by contacting Mike Hurley, Director, International Trade at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (703) 264-7212.