Some are predicting the end of the cheap “China price”; others are moresanguine
“IT IS the end of cheap goods,” says Bruce Rockowitz. He is the chief executive of Li & Fung, a company that sources more clothes and common household products from Asia than perhaps any other. In the low-tech areas in which Li & Fung specialises, the firm handles an estimated 4% of China’s exports to America and a sizeable chunk of its exports to Europe, too. It has operations in several East Asian countries, where it diligently searches for cheap, reliable suppliers of everything from handbags to bar stools. So when Mr Rockowitz says the era of low-cost Asian production is drawing to a close, people listen.
He argues that Asian manufacturing has gone through a number of phases, each lasting about 30 years. When China was isolated under Mao Zedong, companies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea grew expert at making things. When China reopened in the late 1970s, after Mao’s death, these experienced Asian operators converged on southern China. With almost free access to land and labour, plus an efficient port and logistics hub in nearby Hong Kong, they started to make things ever more cheaply and sell them to the whole world.
For the next 30 years manufacturers in China helped to keep global inflation in check. But that era is now over, says Mr Rockowitz. Chinese wages are rising fast. A wave of new demand, especially from China itself, is feeding a surge in commodity prices. Manufacturers can find some relief by moving production to new areas, such as western China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. But none of these new places will curb inflation the way southern China once did, he predicts. All rely on the same increasingly expensive pool of commodities. Many have rising wages or poor logistics. None can provide the scale and efficiency that was created when manufacturers converged on southern China.