Category Archives: China

Thoughts on the Chinese economy

The Chinese version of the ISM PMI® has ticked up from negative to positive territory, according to reports such as this one on

A preliminary June Purchasing Managers’ Index from HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics was at 50.8, up from 49.4 in May. An index above 50 signifies expectations of growth, and Chinese leaders are giving themselves credit for stimulating the economy without resorting to drastic measures.

A survey of analysts by Reuters came to a similar conclusion about the growth of the Chinese economy. More reporting of a stronger Chinese economy comes from the South China Morning Post.

We do a significant amount of work in China and the business environment there is unique, but it has matured since the days when U.S. automakers, for instance, were almost demanding that suppliers source from there. Large Chinese companies are not just focused on exports, but meeting growing domestic demand. They are adapting more sophisticated sourcing strategies of their own, and even investing in manufacturing plants in the United States, as described in this article in The Detroit News.

The strength of China’s economy and the rapid change in sophisticated sourcing is evident in  increasing  demand for development programs, certification programs and alignment with key universities in China.

The maturation of Chinese companies does tend to reduce their cost-competitiveness, but it also introduces elements of stability that mitigate some risks from sourcing at a great distance. Economic indicators that show slow, steady growth are also good signs of stability.



Conversation starters

Keep looking forward, don’t forget the basics, and what goes around comes around.  Those three messages were at the heart of three conversations I have had with magazine and web editors recently.

After I spoke at the first Drug, Chemical & Associated Technologies Association (DCAT) “Sharp Sourcing” event, Rob Wright, editor in chief of Life Sciences Leader took note of this video that I shared about the technology outlook for 2020. It underscores the need for procurement organizations to look for innovations from suppliers – especially in supply chain transparency, sustainability, and value that positions your organization for success. Identifying key suppliers and building strategic relationships are essential. Here’s the link to the blog post.

U.S. manufacturing is the phenomenon that is coming back around. I had a good conversation about that with Rachel Leisemann Immel, Associate Editor, IMPO. As the cost of labor in China has risen, the issues of distance, lag times, transportation costs and other risks are bringing manufacturing investments back to the U.S. I say “investments,” not “jobs” because the work that is coming back generally involves a good degree of automation, and fewer workers. Our discussion covered a lot of ground. You can find it here.

Finally, no matter what you are buying it’s always smart to know whatever you can about your suppliers’ costs. It’s a pretty basic part of procurement, but it can easily get sidelined when you get into strategic negotiations or are buying parts that are difficult to find. We covered those basics with Bridget McCrea at Digi-Key Corporation, which is in the electronic parts business.

For Moto X, Customer Choice Trumps Cost of Sourcing

The Motorola X, AKA Moto X smartphone is the first mobile device designed under the Google-owned version of Motorola Mobility, and it’s expected to be available to consumers in the next few weeks.  The phone is going to be assembled in Ft. Worth, Texas, and that has supply chain significance because it will be a 2,200-employee case of re-shoring.
In a podcast interview with Chris Versace, Mark Randall, Motorola Mobility’s senior vice president of Supply Chain and Operations says the sourcing decision was essentially driven by a marketing decision, not cost. In the hyper-competitive smartphone market, Randall said Motorola wanted to give consumers the ability to customize their phones as they ordered online and still receive them within a few days. He said the only way they could reasonably do that was to build them in the U.S. for American purchasers.
By choosing various color combinations for buttons and the case, as well as memory, Randall said there could be as many as 2,000 variations of the phone.
Motorola’s decision to re-shore is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows how tightly integrated sourcing and sales can be. It’s an example of mass-produced combined with made-to-order. Second, it raises great questions about managing the supply of the various colored buttons and cases to meet an aggressive order-to-delivery timeline.
Third, the cost differential between assembly in the U.S. and assembly offshore had to be small because the premium Motorola can charge for offering customization cannot be that large. The smartphone market is too competitive.
And finally, this is a “build regionally” decision, not a “build in the U.S.A.” decision. To offer the same speed from order to delivery to consumers in Asia or South America, Motorola will assemble Moto Xs in China and Brazil.

Can U.S. Supply Chains Afford To Be Ethical?

News reports of rebel advances in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are stark reminders that the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act regarding conflict minerals, as awkward as they might be, do address real life and death situations.  As much as we all might want the violence to end, if the conflict is actually escalating it begs two questions:
1. If the pressure of the Dodd-Frank provisions isn’t enough to reduce violence, is it worth the cost of implementing them? The rules haven’t been in place long enough to measure possible impacts, but perhaps it’s already too late.
2. If companies in China or other countries are sourcing from DRC without limitations and therefore at lower costs, have we made U.S. companies less competitive? Can we afford to do that in a competitive world economy?

I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but I think they are important enough to consider. Beyond the specific situation in Africa, can U.S. supply chains afford to be ethical when they have to compete against foreign companies with much lower standards? Especially when critical raw materials are in short supply or are difficult to source.
Although the voices of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often annoying, is this a possible useful role for them — to act as country-neutral watchdogs for generally accepted ethical or sustainable standards? Or are the pressures for growth and limits on media so great in countries such as China that they will negate the effectiveness of any whistle-blowing by NGOs?

Sourcing from China without saying, “We’re Sorry.”

According to the official statistics, the U.S. had a $295 billion trade deficit with China last year. That sounds pretty horrible, but here are a few related thoughts to chew on. Economist magazine estimated the total cost to Apple of creating an iPad was about $275. Since it’s assembled in China and sold by the millions here, it may account for as much as $4 billion of that trade deficit.  But Economist said, “wait a minute” because the design, engineering, and marketing costs are all based in the U.S., and major components such as chips, displays and memory are made in Japan and Korea. The actual value added by the final Chinese manufacturing is closer to $10, not $275. That’s a huge difference.
Because Apple has U.S. suppliers and a U.S. distribution system, Economist estimates about half of the value of each iPad stays here, generating about $4.1 B in U.S. economic activity from an estimated 15 million units sold.
A similar analysis comes from three authors of an article in the Journal of International Commerce and Economics. They looked at the supply chain for iPods (remember those?) and estimated the product was generating just under 14,000 U.S.-based jobs in design, engineering, management, distribution and retail. The product was also generating about 27,000 overseas jobs, so no big surprise there. However, when the researchers looked at the value of the work, they estimated that about $750 million in earnings were going to U.S.-based workers, and less than half — about $320 million were going abroad.
In short, sourcing from China is sometimes a good business decision — and when it is, you don’t need to apologize for it.

The China “Equation” Isn’t One

Here’s an interesting analysis of sourcing from China from an interesting point of view — the real estate investors who own manufacturing facilities across the United States.
National Real Estate Investor – Made in America Again

The authors refer to a study by AlixPartners that projected the gap in manufacturing costs between the two countries will essentially close in another three years — based on wage inflation, exchange rates and freight costs. That same study also pointed out that between 2005 and 2008 the cost gap had shrunk from 22% to 5.5% between the two countries.
The speed at which China is “catching up” is also catching many analysts by surprise, but it also points out that the China “equation” is not really an equation. An equation represents a balance, whereas the situation in China is very dynamic. Sourcing from China has never been simple; it has always required careful analysis of costs and risks, and one of those risks has always been the fluidity of the situation. Right now, for instance, the Communist Party has been shaken by the purge of a senior official and potential criminal charges against his wife even as it is poised to make a huge transition of power to new leaders. It’s impossible to predict what impact that will have as it plays out.
At the same time, as we consult with companies operating in China we are finding many of their employees are excellent students of supply management. They are enthusiastically embracing best practices, and it’s clear they are not just focusing on exports to other countries, but creating supply chains to serve China’s own huge and growing appetite for consumer and business products. Will this drive new efficiencies and innovations that U.S. companies will want to purchase? Or will it fuel demand that will put upwards pressure on prices?
China is so big, and changing so fast that the answer is most likely, “yes.” To both.

Halftime in China

We have all heard that it’s halftime in America — and that we are going to come roaring out of the locker room for the rest of the game. That may be true, but here’s a heads up — business leaders in other parts of the world are giving themselves the same pep talk and expecting similar results.
I’m saying that because I’ve seen it first hand in training sessions for Chinese supply management professionals. We are working with employees of several billion-dollar global companies — some based in China and others that have Chinese operations. They are generally Chinese nationals, have good English skills, and are excellent students. They are attentive, ask questions, and apply what they have learned after our seminars.
I don’t want to sound like I’m stereotyping, but anyone who has ever visited the Beijing Pearl Market has seen how haggling over prices and quality is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. However, no one should look at the lively interactions between buyers and sellers there and think that Chinese procurement in general is focused just on transactions.
The organizations we are working with want to know best practices in supply management. They want to use the best tools and the latest strategies for bringing value from their supplier base. Because Chinese companies have operated in a protected domestic environment, their knowledge of global markets may have gaps, but the participants in our seminars are eager to fill them as quickly as possible.
This post is not supposed to be a warning. In a global economy Chinese companies may be your partners as well as your competitors. But it is an observation that they are not not expecting to do well only because they have access to cheap labor and a protective government. They are sharpening their skills in every area of business — and supply management is a high priority.

The New “China Syndrome”

The original meaning of the term “China Syndrome” described how the fuel in a nuclear reactor might overheat and melt down, creating a disaster by burning through the reactor’s layers of protection. A new meaning for China Syndrome might describe how an overheating, or possible meltdown of the Chinese economy could create disastrous volatility in commodity demand and prices.
The Wall Street Journal has a good capsule summary of three scenarios over the next decade. Here’s the link, if you have access:

As China Goes, So Go Commodities – The Wall Street Journal

Under any scenario except a complete collapse of China’s hard charging economic growth, there is almost certain price pressures on energy sources as well as certain grains over the next ten years, and continuing pressure on construction materials as long as China keeps building infrastructure at an astonishing pace.

Over the long-term, successful supply chain strategies will not only need strategies for containing costs, but a continuing focus on innovations that provide alternatives to traditional materials, reduce waste or use recycled products.

Asian Supply Managers Eager for New Skills

In the two years since we launched the ISM-ADR School for Supply Management, we have seen remarkable demand for professional development from global companies doing business in Asia.
I’m very pleased to announce that we will be significantly expanding our presence there with a new partnership we have created with Procurement and Sourcing Institute of Asia and TransProcure Corporation (PASIA/TransProcure), both based in Manila, Philippines. Like ISM and ADR, these two organizations recognized the value of collaboration and have been working together for some time. Creating a new consortium of four organizations will ensure that any company operating in Asia will have access to consistent, high quality professional development resources. We are excited to be helping improve the skills of supply managers in this fast-growing region of the world.

Read the full release on Business Wire.


The buck stops … where?

We might all take a lesson from Apple Computer’s dilemma at a factory in China that assembles its slick touch screens for iPads and iPhones. The factory might be far away, and governed by far different worker safety rules, but that didn’t keep Apple off the front page of a recent New York Times with this headline:

Workers Sickened at Apple Supplier in China

If it’s not obvious already, if you work at a company that sells goods to consumers — you can expect to be held accountable for the activities of your entire supply chain — as well as the disposal of your products after use.
Of course, this example also points out one of the risks of deep strategic relationships. If the Chinese company, Wintek had been selling to many U.S. technology companies, Apple might have escaped the headline. But Apple has created a supplier network that it treats as extensions of itself — and as a result, must accept some responsibility when things go wrong.