Over the past five years, the business model of China’s clothing industry has been unraveling. For decades, China’s vast apparel industry competed mainly on price. But with labor, land and raw materials costs rising, environmental regulations tightening and competition becoming ever fiercer, even many of China’s best-known brands have struggled. There has been one exception: HLA. The Jiangsu Province-based menswear label has grown stronger even as competitors shuttered hundreds of outlets. In this interview, Li Lode, Professor of Operations Management at CKGSB and Professor Emeritus at Yale University, explains how HLA’s success has been made possible by smart strategic decisions.
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
China led the world technologically in the early 15th century, yet Europe surpassed it overnight. How did this come about? Maverick economist Deirdre McCloskey offers an answer in her work. Although in her youth she fell under the sway of socialist economists, she brings an iconoclasts’ view to her subject believing it is wrong to limit the achievements of humanity to academic theories concerned solely with maximization of utility. Her latest book, Bourgeois Equality, is the concluding volume in a trilogy that seeks to explain “The Bourgeois Era,” which she believes laid the basis for the material and spiritual wealth enjoy by the modern world.
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?
The Chinese economy faces some serious problems, including a slowing GDP growth, environmental degradation and financial disequilibrium. According to Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, there are some specific solutions, such as making sure that opportunities for children are the same regardless of where in China and to whom they are born, making sure that the success of enterprises depends on the quality of what they sell and taxes are collected in a fair way and, finally, making sure that those who lead enterprises and communities do so for the benefit of their stakeholders.
Central banking is not enough. While monetary policy did much to recover from the global financial crisis, its instruments have been largely exhausted and rendered ineffective. Low interest rates and quantitative easing may have kept the engine spinning, but are not pillars of sustainable economic policy. In China, there might still be scope for more monetary easing, but Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic advisor at financial services group Allianz and formerly at the helm of investment firm PIMCO, warns that, ‘‘China needs to avoid the trap that the advanced countries have fallen into, namely that of excessive prolonged reliance on central banks.’’
Managers instinctively think about the threat of competitors because they can push down prices and lower profits. But there are other threats to profits that managers should not ignore. One of these is the threat that suppliers can pose. This idea was formalized and called “supplier power” by Harvard economist Michael Porter in 1979. The idea is that even with little competition a firm can still lose profits to a supplier that has significant bargaining power. But the situation gets even more complicated when the people bearing the supplier power are its own star employees. What should a company do about that?
The opening of the 1960s television show Star Trek which followed the voyages of the Starship Enterprise explained that its crew’s mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” For firms the mission can be quite different as they often have to go where others have already gone. Unless a firm is the first to enter a market, it will face one or more incumbents upon entry. In such cases, how should a firm decide whether and where to enter? A look at how this worked out in the case of Uber and Didi Kuaidi in China’s competitive taxi hailing app market.
When I was in grade school, fights would occasionally break out on the playground. The commencement of these fights was usually hard to predict: one boy would make a remark to another boy that he did not like, the words would become more heated and then a fight would erupt. Fortunately, these fights usually subsided quickly with no one hurt. Fights between firms can also occur. It is usually in firms’ interests to cooperate and keep prices high. Despite this, firms sometimes engage in ruinous price wars. Although often as unpredictable as schoolyard skirmishes, fights between firms are sometimes a bit more predictable. Here’s how.
A common view of China’s central planning is that it has failed; since China grew faster when its reforms replaced planning with markets, the sooner China gets rid of Five Year Plans the better. This view is rather simplistic. Evidence shows that the Five Year Plans have played an important role in China’s progress. It was the fastest way for China to mobilize capital and labor for industrialization. And when China transitioned from a planned to a market economy and the two worked in parallel, it maintained employment, livelihoods, infrastructure and the supply of basic goods, hence a stable foundation for the nascent market economy.