根据去年波士顿咨询集团（the Boston Consulting Group）的研究预测，如果将（包含但并不仅限于人员费用的）全部成本计算在内，中国制造业的相对优势将在五年内缩水，与美国低端制造业的成本相比将不再具有竞争优势。
China’s Shrinking Cost Advantage
During a recent visit to New York I found a distinctly more upbeat mood as compared with recent years, among business executives as well as professionals who watch business trends for a living.
For one thing, the Dow and S&P posted their biggest first quarter gains since 1998, and the Nasdaq its biggest since 1991, driven largely by improved US economic data and easing fears about the European debt crisis.
For another, February saw unemployment rates fall in 29 of the 50 U.S. states.
Despite the political divisiveness on display in this presidential election year, there seems to be an emerging sense that America is beginning to get its mojo back. That’s not to overlook the economic inequality and pain which still affects many Americans, not only the Occupy Wall Street movement participants.
The Middle Class in America is still very unhappy, which figures prominently in the current presidential election year debates and dynamics. As Geoff Colvin wrote in the April 9 issue of FORTUNE: “Politicians say they can cure the middle class blues. Don’t believe them.”
Americans are generally an optimistic lot. Following a long, painful, and scary period of economic contraction for people, companies, states and cities, people are ready for recovery.
At this stage, a lot of it has to do with jobs: people returning to work, and consumers regaining confidence.
In the next phase, one challenge will be to muster new investment and leadership into the American education system to better suit future needs.
There had been a sense that American manufacturing was dead due to the relentless pace of offshoring, outsourcing, and moving production to China, India, and Mexico. This is now looking like an exaggerated fear.
In the case of China, recent and anticipated increases in labor and other costs have sharply curtailed the cost advantage of making some types of products there. The impact of inconsistencies and unpredictability in regulatory, tax, and policy affecting business make it challenging for small to medium size foreign companies to operate there, because they lack the resources of giant MNCs. The risks are difficult to justify unless the cost advantage is very significant.
The March, 2011 double disaster in Japan’s Fukushima, shortly followed by phenomenal floods in Thailand, exposed the risks of overreliance on a single, massive supply chain for countless companies and industries in the U.S. This disruption caused problems not only in the U.S. but around the world, and it was a wake-up call for many, resulting in a widespread corporate rethink on supply chain risk management.
Manufacturing employment in the U.S. has been in decline for 60 years. Manufacturing output as a percentage of GDP shrank from around 30 percent in 1953 to about 12 percent in 2010.
In 1979, as China was embarking on its Open Door and Reform Policy, American employment in manufacturing reached its all-time high of 19.5 million people. In 2011, that number was just 11.7 million, representing less than 9 percent of total employment.
As a footnote, as Colvin points out in the FORTUNE piece mentioned above, America’s high school graduation rate peaked at 77 percent in 1969 and has been dropping ever since, to about 69 percent currently.
As other countries, including China, did a better job of providing more people with higher education, America slipped to the middle. The higher educated and skilled earned more, and the IT revolution shifted more jobs away from those which the middle class had been best suited for, in manufacturing, back office, and supply chains.
Some of the rebound in optimism in America has been kindled by reports that both American and international — including Chinese — companies are building or expanding new manufacturing facilities in the U.S. Southern U.S. states have been particularly active and successful in promoting inbound investment.
Since the low point in late 2009, nearly 350,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created in the U.S.
A study last year by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that if all the costs (including but not limited to labor costs) are taken into account, the relative advantage of manufacturing in China will shrink over the next five years, to the point where it will no longer be competitive with the lower end of the spectrum of U.S. manufacturing costs.
Although China and the U.S. are at very different stages of development, both urgently need to look at improving their respective education systems, not to mention tax and regulatory policy environments. And despite being separated by the great Pacific Ocean, their interests are curiously intertwined, in a complex way which few could possibly have forecast even ten years ago.
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