Maintaining Perspective on China’s Rising Labor Costs, Currency Moves

I don’t disagree with the basic facts presented in John Boudreau’s article at the San Jose Mercury News’ SiliconValley.com website, but I think the piece overstates the degree and significance of recent developments in China.

Boudreau correctly notes that labor costs are rising in the coastal region where most of China’s electronics and technology products are manufactured. At some point, those rising costs will result in decreased margins for product vendors or in higher prices for consumers and businesses that buy products from those vendors.

It’s also true that contract manufacturers operating in China’s main manufacturing hub will begin or have begun exploring alternative arrangements. Options include setting up factories further inland, in China’s less-developed interior, or shifting some types of manufacturing to automated facilities in Taiwan or to other low-wage countries, such as Thailand or Vietnam.

But those moves will not happen overnight. We should recognize that, even though the cost of Chinese labor is increasing, it’s still low. What’s more, China offers other advantages — such as a ready supply chain and access to plentiful raw materials (such as rare-earth metals essential to the manufacture of many kinds of technology hardware). Additionally, China still has that low-cost interior mentioned above, where there’s more than enough labor available to provide a helping hand.

Let’s also consider the appreciation of the Chinese yuan, also known as the renminbi. China’s authorities are allowing the currency to appreciate relative to the dollar, but the yuan won’t be allowed to skyrocket. China is not a so-called “invisible hand” market-based economy; its government retains firm control over the trading range of the country’s currency. Don’t expect a dramatic rise in the near-term valuation of the renminbi to the dollar. It’s not going to happen. Instead, advances and declines will be  controlled, incremental, and measured.

Finally, there’s the question of whether, and to what degree, increased Chinese wages might result in more consumer spending on imports from the U.S. and other countries. The assumption is that Chinese workers who assemble and  build Apple iPhones and iPads — not to mention HP and Dell PCs — now will be able to buy them, too.

To a degree that might happen, but bear in mind that China wants to move up the technology industry’s value chain. China won’t be happy functioning merely as foundry and consumer market for Western brands. China’s long-term objective is to architect and develop major technology companies of its own, Lenovo and Huawei being notable examples.

Those familiar with the term “indigenous innovation” know that Chinese companies will receive government support and encouragement as they increasingly compete against major Western companies across China’s technology landscape. We in the West need to exercise caution in assuming that China’s consumer market will function similarly to its counterparts in market-based economies. Not only does China’s government actively assist domestic companies — often through direct or indirect state control — but many Chinese consumers will actively and purposefully purchase goods and services from Chinese companies instead of those offered by Western companies.

What we’re seeing in these developments — the rising labor costs, the gradually unpegging of the yuan to the dollar, the country’s desire to ascend the technology value chain — are signs of a growing, maturing economic and industrial powerhouse. I don’t think they should be construed as symptoms of Chinese volatility or weakness.

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