中国成本优势缩水 / China’s Shrinking Cost Advantage

中国成本优势缩水

最近去纽约,发现靠观察商业走势为生的商人和专家表现出近年来较为明显的乐观态度。

可以肯定的是,受美国经济数据向好和欧债危机恐慌缓和的影响,道琼斯和标普公布的第一季度收益达到1998年以来的最高水平,纳斯达克也上升到了1991年来的最高点。

此外,二月份美国50个州中有29个州的失业率呈现出下降趋势。

尽管进入总统选举年会出现一些政治纷争,但美国时来运转的感觉似乎日益强烈。当然,经济不平等和痛苦仍将继续影响大多数美国人,而且还不只限于“占领华尔街”运动的参加者。

美国中产阶级仍然非常不满,这一点在眼下的选举辩论和竞选情况中表现得非常突出。正如杰夫•科尔文在4月9日的《财富》杂志(FORTUNE)中撰文写道:“政客们号称可以治愈中产阶级的伤痛,千万不要相信。”

美国人天性乐观。在经历了长时间的、令人痛苦和恐惧的经济萎缩后,无论是个人、企业,还是市州都做好了复苏的准备。

目前的关键是就业:人们重获工作,消费者重拾信心。

下一步是筹集新的资金与领导力,投入美国的教育体制,以便更好地适应未来的需求。

由于离岸生产、外包、向中国、印度、墨西哥等地转移生产的脚步毫不停歇,美国制造业曾一度被认为已经消亡,但如今看来似乎有些过度恐慌了。

以中国为例,近来发生的、以及预计将要发生的用工和其他成本的上涨已经导致某些产品的生产成本优势收窄。由于影响商业运行的监管、税收和政策既不稳定也不可预见,缺乏跨国公司资源的中小型外企在中国的经营困难重重。除非成本优势十分明显,否则这种风险没有必要。

2011年3月,日本福岛发生了双重灾难,此后不久泰国又发生了特大的洪灾,使得无数美国公司和企业暴露出了过度依赖单一大型供应链的风险。这不仅给美国,也给全世界造成了极大的困扰。同时,它也敲响了警钟,促使许多企业开始反思供应链的风险管理。

美国制造业的用工数量已经下滑了60年,制造业占GDP的比重也从1953年的30%缩水到了2010年的12%。

1979年,中国开始实行改革开放政策,而美国制造业的就业人数也达到了历史上的峰值——1,950万人。2011年,这一数字仅为1,170万人,还不到就业人员总数的9%。

科尔文在前文所述的《财富》杂志文章中还指出,1969年美国高中的毕业率为77%,创下历史最高,但此后就一路走低,跌到了今天的69%,也为这种变化添加了一个注脚。

包括中国在内的其他国家都在尽力为更多的人提供更好的教育,结果美国落到了中游。学历越高、技能越多,收入就越丰厚。IT革命也分流了很多中产阶级原本驾轻就熟的工作,比如制造业、后台区域和供应链。

能够如此乐观地看待美国,部分原因是有报道说美国及包括中国在内的跨国公司正在美国扩建和新建生产设施。美国南方各州在吸引外资方面行动更为积极,也更有成效。

自2009年陷入低点开始,美国制造业已创造了350,000个新的就业机会。

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。

尽管中美发展的阶段不同,但两个国家都需要完善各自的教育体系,更不用说税收及监管政策环境。虽然远隔重洋,但中美双方的利益却以一种十年前恐怕无法预测的方式奇妙地交织在一起。

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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