"The China Price"
Commentary: How To Level The Playing Field
Shaking Up Trade Theory
Commentary: Does It Matter If China Catches Up To The U.S.?
SPECIAL REPORT -- THE CHINA PRICE
"The China Price"
They are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. Cut your price at least 30% or lose your customers. Nearly every manufacturer is vulnerable -- from furniture to networking gear. The result: A massive shift in economic power is under way
From the rich walnut paneling and carved arches to the molded Italian Renaissance patterns on the ceiling, the circa 1925 council chamber room of Akron's municipal hall evokes a time when the America's manufacturing heartland was at the peak of its power. But when the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed panel, convened there on Sept. 23, it was not to discuss power but decline. One after another, economists, union officials, and small manufacturers took the microphone to describe the devastation Chinese competitors are inflicting on U.S. industries, from kitchenware and car tires to electronic circuit boards.
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These aren't stories of mundane sunset industries equipped with antiquated technology. David W. Johnson, CEO of 92-year-old Summitville Tiles Inc. in Summitville, Ohio, described how imports forced him to shut a state-of-the-art, $120 million tilemaking plant four football fields long, sending Summitville into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Now, a tenfold surge in high-quality Chinese imports at "below our manufacturing costs" threatens to polish Summitville off. Makers of precision machine tools and plastic molds -- essential supports of America's industrial architecture -- told how their business has shrunk as home-appliance makers have shifted manufacturing from Ohio to China. Despite buying the best computer-controlled gear, Douglas S. Bartlett reported that at his Cary (Ill.)-based Bartlett Manufacturing Co., a maker of high-end circuit boards for aerospace and automotive customers, sales are half the late-1990s level and the workforce is one-third smaller. He waved a board Bartlett makes for a U.S. Navy submarine-detection device. His buyer says he can get the same board overseas for 40% less. "From experience I can only assume this is the Chinese price," Bartlett said. "We have faced competition in the past. What is dramatically different about China is that they are about half the price."
China Price Photo Essay
SLIDE SHOW: CHINA PRICES
Where the Jobs Went
"The China price." They are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. In general, it means 30% to 50% less than what you can possibly make something for in the U.S. In the worst cases, it means below your cost of materials. Makers of apparel, footware, electric appliances, and plastics products, which have been shutting U.S. factories for decades, know well the futility of trying to match the China price. It has been a big factor in the loss of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. Meanwhile, America's deficit with China keeps soaring to new records. It is likely to pass $150 billion this year.
Now, manufacturers and workers who never thought they had to worry about the China price are confronting the new math of the mainland. These companies had once held their own against imports mostly because their businesses required advanced skills, heavy investment, and proximity to customers. Many of these companies are in the small-to-midsize sector, which makes up 37% of U.S. manufacturing. The China price is even being felt in high tech. Chinese exports of advanced networking gear, still at a low level, are already affecting prices. And there's talk by some that China could eventually become a major car exporter.
Multinationals have accelerated the mainland's industrialization by shifting production there, and midsize companies that can are following suit. The alternative is to stay at home and fight -- and probably lose. Ohio State University business professor Oded Shenkar, author of the new book The Chinese Century, hears many war stories from local companies. He gives it to them straight: "If you still make anything labor intensive, get out now rather than bleed to death. Shaving 5% here and there won't work." Chinese producers can make the same adjustments. "You need an entirely new business model to compete."
America has survived import waves before, from Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. And it has lived with China for two decades. But something very different is happening. The assumption has long been that the U.S. and other industrialized nations will keep leading in knowledge-intensive industries while developing nations focus on lower-skill sectors. That's now open to debate. "What is stunning about China is that for the first time we have a huge, poor country that can compete both with very low wages and in high tech," says Harvard University economist Richard B. Freeman. "Combine the two, and America has a problem."
How much of a problem? That's in fierce dispute. On one side, the benefits of the relationship with China are enormous. After years of struggling to crack the mainland market, U.S. multinationals from General Motors (GM ) to Procter & Gamble (PG ) and Motorola (MOT ) are finally reaping rich profits. They're making cell phones, shampoo, autos, and PCs in China and selling them to its middle class of some 100 million people, a group that should more than double in size by 2010. "Our commercial success in China is important to our competitiveness worldwide," says Motorola China Chairman Gene Delaney.
By outsourcing components and hardware from China, U.S. companies have sharply boosted their return on capital. China's trade barriers continue to come down, part of its agreement to enter the World Trade Organization in 2001. Big new opportunities will emerge for U.S. insurers, banks, and retailers. China's surging demand for raw materials and commodities has driven prices up worldwide, creating a windfall for U.S. steelmakers, miners, and lumber companies. The cheap cost of Chinese goods has kept inflation low in the U.S. and fueled a consumer boom that helped America weather a recession and kept global growth on track.
But there's a huge cost to the China relationship, too. Foremost is the question of America's huge trade deficit, of which China is the largest and fastest-growing part. While U.S. consumers binge on Chinese-made goods, the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit is nearing a record 6% of gross domestic product. The trade shortfall -- coupled with the U.S. budget deficit -- is driving the dollar ever downward, raising fears that cracks will appear in the global financial system. And by keeping its currency pegged to the greenback at a level analysts see as undervalued, China amplifies the problem.
America's Eroding Base
The deficit with China will keep widening under most projections. That raises the issue: Will America's industrial base erode to a dangerous level? So far the hardest-hit industries have been those that were destined to migrate to low-cost nations anyway. But China is ramping up rapidly in more advanced industries where America remains competitive, adding state-of-the-art capacity in cars, specialty steel, petrochemicals, and microchips. These plants are aimed at meeting insatiable demand in China. But the danger is that if China's growth stalls, the resulting glut will turn into another export wave and disrupt whole new strata of American industry. "As producers in China end up with significant unused capacity, they will try to be much more creative in how they deploy it," says Jim Hemerling, a senior vice-president at Boston Consulting Group's Shanghai office.