To dodge trade war, Chinese exporters shift production to low-cost nations

In this May 13, 2019, file photo, a woman walks by a bench painted with an American flag outside a fashion boutique selling US brand clothing at the capital city's popular shopping mall in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
Updated 27 June 2019
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To dodge trade war, Chinese exporters shift production to low-cost nations

  • Chinese exporters long battled with rising domestic labor costs
  • China-US trade war was the final straw

GUANGZHOU, China/YANGON, Myanmar: Pressured by a labor crunch and rising wages in China, Shu Ke’an, whose company supplies bulletproof vests, rifle bags and other tactical gear to the United States, first considered shifting some production to Southeast Asia a few years ago, but nothing came of it.
When trade tensions flared into a tariff war last year, however, it was the final straw.
A day after US President Donald imposed additional tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods in September, Shu, 49, decided to start making vests for his US clients in Myanmar instead.
Since then, the Trump administration has further hiked tariffs on Chinese imports, raising the US taxes on Shu’s Guangzhou-made bulletproof vests to 42.6%.
With more than half of his company’s income reliant on orders from the United States, Shu was happy with his Myanmar decision.
“The trade war was actually a blessing in disguise,” he said.
With Trump poised to slap 25% tariffs on another $300 billion-plus of Chinese goods, no exporter in China will be unscathed.
In recent years, some Chinese manufacturers had already started to relocate some of their capacity to countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, due to high operating costs at home. The trade war is now pushing more to follow suit, especially makers of low-tech and low-value goods.
A few Chinese exporters have also tried to dodge the trade war bullet by quietly transhipping via third countries.

Choice destination
Nine months on, Shu’s firm, Yakeda Tactical Gear Co, is relying on his new Myanmar factory, which started operations in December, to produce new orders for its US clients.
The 220 workers at his original Guangzhou plant, in China’s Pearl River Delta manufacturing powerhouse, now mostly supply clients in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
In Yangon, meanwhile, Shu’s Myanmar factory turns raw materials imported from China into backpacks, kit bags and pouches for rifles and pistols — all labelled “Made in Myanmar” — almost all of which are exported to the United States.
“Our factory is receiving many orders. The products are being exported to the US and Europe. So, I believe our future will be improved from working in this factory,” said Marlar Cho, 36, a supervisor at the factory.
The factory manager, 40-year-old Jiang Aoxiong from eastern China, said they were constantly rushing to keep up with orders, despite its 600-strong workforce.
Though international criticism of Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has crimped Western investment, the Southeast Asian nation has become the choice destination for some Chinese firms, drawn to its cheap and abundant labor.
The former British colony, located on China’s southwestern border, exports some 5,000 products to the United States duty-free under a US trade program for developing nations — another big plus.
In the 12 months through April, approved Chinese projects increased by $585 million, the latest data from Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration shows.
The infusion of Chinese capital has helped fuel expansion in Myanmar’s fledging industrial sector.
In May, firms saw the fastest rise in workforce numbers since 2015, while production scaled a 13-month high, the latest Nikkei Myanmar Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index survey showed.

Stay or go?
ACMEX Group, a tire maker based in China’s coastal Shandong province, already had some experience with offshoring when the trade war began.
About two years ago, it started manufacturing some tires in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia to take advantage of lower labor and raw material costs and avoid US anti-dumping duties.
With fresh tariffs in the trade war, the company plans to boost the proportion of tires made abroad to 50% from 20%, and build its own factories instead of outsourcing to existing factories, Chairman Guan Zheng said.
“The time is ripe now,” he said, adding that supply chain infrastructure had improved.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Guangdong bulletproof vest maker moved production to Myanmar

• Shandong tire maker moved capacity to Thailand

The experience of companies like ACMEX and Shu’s Yakeda Tactical Gear underlines how the trade war has put Chinese exporters on the back foot, needing to either diversify their client base, increase domestic sales or move production to a third country.
But all those options require time and money, which are not necessarily available to China’s legion of small exporters grappling with thinning profit margins.
Even locations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have grown too dear for some.
While China has encouraged the relocation of some heavy industry overseas to ease overcapacity and support its ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure plan, Beijing is less supportive of a broader move to shift manufacturing offshore.
Liang Ming, director of the Institute of International Trade at the Ministry of Commerce’s Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, rejected the idea that Chinese firms were leaving China in droves.
“Few companies are actually moving. If they move, they risk losses if there is a China-US deal,” Liang told reporters earlier this month, adding that any relocation back to China would be expensive.
As trade pressures intensify, analysts say China will loosen policy further in months ahead to shore up economic growth.
Investors are also watching to see how much Beijing allows the yuan to weaken to offset higher US tariffs. The tightly-managed currency has depreciated about 2% against the dollar since trade tensions worsened in early May.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are due to meet in Osaka at a G20 summit at the end of this week in a bid to reset ties poisoned by the trade war.
And though costs and labor may be cheaper, some Chinese firms with experience of offshoring say there are downsides too.
Factory manager Jiang complained about lower worker productivity in Myanmar compared with China, flooded roads during the rainy season, and power cuts of eight to nine hours every day.
“If there is no trade war between China and the US, we definitely would not have come to Myanmar to open our factory,” he said.
 


BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

Oliver Zipse
Updated 19 July 2019
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BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

  • German giant has lost ground to Mercedes-Benz and Tesla as tech steps up

FRANKFURT: BMW has named Oliver Zipse as its new CEO, continuing the German carmaker’s tradition of promoting production chiefs to the top job even as the auto industry expands into new areas such as technology and services.
Hailing Zipse’s “decisive” leadership style, BMW hopes the 55-year-old can help it win back its edge in electric cars and the premium market  from rival Mercedes-Benz.
But some analysts questioned whether Zipse was the right choice with new fields such as software and services like car-sharing becoming increasingly important.
“What is intriguing is the cultural bias to appoint the head of production. It works sometimes but ... being good at building cars is not a defining edge the way it was 20 years ago,” said Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois.
Current CEO Harald Krueger, and former chiefs Norbert Reithofer, Bernd Pischetsrieder and Joachim Milberg were all former production heads.
Zipse joined BMW as a trainee in 1991 and served as head of brand and product strategies and boss of BMW’s Oxford plant in England before joining the board.
He will become chief executive on Aug. 16, taking over from Krueger who said he would not be available for a second term.
“With Oliver Zipse, a decisive strategic and analytical leader will assume the Chair of the Board of Management of BMW. He will provide fresh momentum in shaping  the future,” said Reithofer.
Zipse helped expand BMW’s efficient production network in Hungary, China and the US, in a move that delivered industry-leading profit margins.
Under Krueger, BMW was overtaken in 2016 by Mercedes-Benz as the best-selling luxury car brand.
It also had an early lead over US  rival Tesla in electric cars, but scaled back ambitions after its i3 model failed to sell large numbers.
Reithofer initially championed Krueger’s low-key consensus-seeking leadership, but pressured him to roll out electric vehicles more aggressively, forcing Krueger to skip the Paris Motor Show in 2016 to reevaluate BMW’s electric strategy.
Krueger’s reluctance to push low-margin electric vehicles led to an exodus of talented electric vehicle experts, including Christian Senger, now Volkswagen’s (VW) board member responsible for software, and Audi’s Markus Duesmann, who is seen as a future CEO of the company.
Both were poached by VW CEO Herbert Diess, a former BMW board member responsible for research who was himself passed over for BMW’s top job in 2015.
VW has since pushed a radical 80 billion euro ($90 billion) electric car mass production strategy, and a sweeping alliance with Ford.

Other skills
“A CEO needs to have an idea for how mobility will evolve in the future. This goes far beyond optimising an existing business,” said Carsten Breitfeld, chief executive of China-based ICONIQ motors, and former BMW engineer. “He needs to build teams, attract talent, and promote a culture oriented along consumer electronics and internet dynamics.”
German manufacturers have dominated the high-performance market for decades, but analysts warn shifts towards sophisticated technology and software is opening the door to new challengers.
“Tesla has a lead of three to four years in areas like software and electronics. There is a risk that the Germans can’t catch up,” UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said.
Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport car magazine, normally quick to champion German manufacturers, this week ran a cover questioning BMW’s future.
“Production expertise is important, but if you want to avoid ending up being a hardware provider for Google or Apple, you need to have the ability to move up the food chain into data and software,” a former BMW board member said.