China — a labor cost savings bonanza?
9.17.2012 Leave a comment
Not really, according to Yves Smith:
For some time, we’ve argued that outsourcing and offshoring were overdone. For manufactured goods, direct factory labor is typically only 10% to 15% of final product costs. Even if you get significant savings there, the offsets are increased shipping, inventory, and managerial/coordination costs (which serves as an excuse to transfer savings on factory workers to the top brass). In addition, extended supply chains also entail higher risks. I’ve had executives and senior managers in various industries tell me that there internal estimates of the savings from outsourcing weren’t compelling, but senior management went ahead on the (typically correct) assumption that investors would approve.
But even in the cases where the outsourcing cost savings were significant, the idea that American wages were way out of line with Chinese wages and the only future for American workers was grinding wages lower and lower to compete with China has been oversold. Various writers, including yours truly, pointed out that China’s wage advantage would not hold indefinitely even if it managed to keep its currency peg (which, separately, it hasn’t; the change to a currency basket has over time resulted in appreciation against the dollar).
The reason? China’s much higher inflation rate would over time reprice labor in nominal terms at home, which with a currency peg (or the current dirty float) would translate into real increases to foreign buyers. To put it more simply, double digit inflation over time would be tantamount to a currency revaluation.
Despite popular (and worse, pundit and media) perceptions otherwise, China no longer enjoys a labor cost advantage in many areas.
In fact, the United States has recently seen an increase in manufacturing investment. Why, then, do we so often hear American pundits attacking off shoring American capital when capital is now flowing back to the United States? The issue also has a political component:
Despite the fact that this trend is well under way, we’re certain to hear a steady diet of haranguing from neoliberal economists about how American workers have to suck it up and accept even lower wages. What’s driving falling real wages is poor domestic economic policies, namely, the mismanagement of the post crisis period. Japan warned the US early on that the biggest mistake it had made was not forcing its banks to recognize losses. But we ignored their lesson and are in the process of suffering what may turn out to be a lost decade. Time to blame the real perps, our bank enablers, rather than the poster bad guy, the Chinese wage slave.
Michał Kalecki expected blunders like this (.pdf) from the capitalists and their foot soldiers. We should never lose sight of the fact that capitalism is not an intrinsically rational economic system. The opposite is true.