For decades, China has been a top destination for foreign firms to move their operations abroad, now the trend is reversing—Chinese firms, especially manufacturers, are now moving to the US, not only to lower the cost of production but also to build their brands in global market. Indeed, China is losing its old advantage of cheap labor and raw material, and in certain parts of the US, the land is much cheaper than in China. Meanwhile, the re-booming US economy, flexible financial system and beneficiary tax policies are also driving ambitious Chinese entrepreneurs, who are changing the “Made in China” to “Made in the US”.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is “a fusion of technologies” that blurs the lines “between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” according to Klaus Schwab, the founder of the Davos Forum. This fusion of so many fields will ultimately see 4IR change the world far more fundamentally than the first three industrial revolutions. Any analysis of the many technological breakthroughs that now define this new 4IR business world is incomplete at best if it misses the China factor. At the dawn of the 4IR era, China is much better positioned than in the past to seize the opportunities offered by an industrial transformation.
Although official data for first-quarter GDP and industrial growth exceeded expectations, the industrial economy has not yet bottomed out, according to the latest CKGSB survey. The survey, led by CKGSB Professor Gan Jie, shows that overcapacity remains at a historical high, both in terms of its prevalence and severity in Q1 2017. As in 2016 Q4, rising costs have been the driving force behind rising prices. Among firms with product costs inflation above 5%, cost rises were the most prominent. Meanwhile, the advantage of state-owned firms over private firms has increased in recent quarters.
Despite the periodic ferocity of China bears in recent years, Matthews Asia Investment Strategist Andy Rothman–who has been investing in consumer-facing companies in China for over 20 years–often refers to China as having the greatest consumer story. According to Rothman, this is not only because the real income (adjusted for inflation) in urban China has gone up by 120%, but also because Chinese people themselves are pretty optimistic about their futures. However, he also notes that one needs to be realistic: over the next ten years, real income growth is not going to be 130% and retail sales growth will continue to decelerate.
Predicting China’s future is hard given its size, history and complexity of population, but it’s easy to share an opinion about the country—anybody can come in and say something about China, whether it’s news media or self-styled pundits. The cost of entry for having a view on China is so low that basically anybody can have one. The ongoing topic is the Chinese economy: bulls and bears have been arguing non-stop about the state of the economy. Damien Ma, Fellow of the Think Tank at the Chicago-based Paulson Institute, talks about how find the true signal in the noise, and discusses the less relevant factors one should dismiss.
Under the banner industrial policy “Made in China 2025”, China seeks to replace the advanced foreign manufactured goods that it has long relied upon with domestically-produced goods. But the effort is spooking the foreign business community, and the plan may not address China’s most genuine needs. Precise details of the implementation of the grand policy are only now beginning to emerge. For Chinese companies, the real long-term impact of the plan is at best unclear. But for foreign companies, although there will be business opportunities in the short-term, the plan as a whole presents big challenges to their future in China.
Foreign Direct Investment has been an incredibly important catalyst for China’s economic development, bringing in the capital, technology and know-how that made China the world’s factory. But China is no longer so fresh and attractive to foreign investors as return on assets is falling. FDI to China increased 3.9% on the year to RMB 731.8 billion in the first 11 months of 2016—the 2015 expansion was 5.6%. Besides, increasing labor costs have become a heavy burden to foreign enterprises, especially manufacturers, who can cut costs by moving to Southeast Asia.
Chinese industrial economy still faces severe problem of overcapacity, according to the latest CKGSB survey of over 2,000 industrial firms nationwide. The survey, led by CKGSB Professor Gan Jie, shows a significant rise in product prices in the fourth quarter of 2016, posing worrying signs of inflation. The investment confidence also remains low: only 1% of the firms considered it a “good” time to make fixed investments, a mere 2% made expansionary investments and 9% of firms made fixed investments. However, given the government’s commitment, the BSI team remains optimistic about the long-term outlook of the Chinese economy.
Debt is a ticking-time bomb for the Chinese economy. In the past three years central government stopped local governments from financing through investment vehicles and set a cap for the issuance of bonds. But new forms of debt continue to be formed. Local officials appear not to care about borrowing more, as long as the money can be used in projects that may translate to political achievements. And with those achievements, officials will be promoted to a higher level–as will the debt burden. A more worrisome thought will be: can those additional government debts and investments support China’s long-term growth?
Optimism for Chinese firms over the next six months still holds, but the corporate financing environment is getting difficult and the corporate inventory is increasing, according to the CKGSB Business Conditions Index, which registered 61.5 in February, a slight increase on January’s mark of 59.8. For CKGSBʼs sample of successful businesses operating in China, corporate sales index fell slightly from 82.7 to 80.5, while profits rose from 67.0 to 72.2, both are well above the confidence threshold of 50. Yet the other two sub-indices—corporate financing and in inventory—are below 50.