The new global supply chain means pain for many and opportunities for a few

08/13/2010 8:30 am EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor,

Foxconn International Holdings, the publicly traded subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision Industry, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer, is moving its iPhone production to Zhengzhou in China’s Henan Provence. The company is also moving its iPad production to Taiyuan in Shanxi Province and its PC production to Wuhan in Hubei Province.

The company’s existing production base in Shenzhen will be turned over to research and development.

Certainly a rash of recent suicides at Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory added to the urgency but these moves are all part of a long-term strategy at Foxconn—and at other manufacturing companies in industries from high technology to textiles—to move production from the coastal cities of southern China to the less-developed areas of central and northern China in order to cut labor costs.

The Foxconn move is just the tip of a global iceberg. Chinese companies are moving inland to cut costs  because their customers are looking to cut their costs by eliminating inefficient, high cost suppliers and to squeeze suppliers on prices, and to move production when they can from “high-cost” countries such as China to lower cost labor markets such as Vietnam or Bangladesh.

What we’re seeing is a huge restructuring in the global supply chain aimed at reducing costs—again. The predictable result will be—again—to eliminate high-cost, low-value added producers.

The under-appreciated result—and here’s the opportunity for investors—will be a vast increase in the complexity of an already terribly complex global supply chain. The beneficiaries of that increase will be a handful of companies that are positioned to execute the new complexities of sourcing, coordination, logistics, and transportation that this iteration of the global supply chain presents.

In this post I’m going to outline some of the dimensions of this next generation in the global supply chain and then give you the names of a three companies that are in a position to take advantage of this development.

The reason for all this change is simple: Cost. There’s actually a worker shortage in the coastal areas that have long formed the basis of China’s world factory. And that’s led to a bidding war for workers that has led to huge increases in the wages manufacturers have to pay their workers. On March 18, for example, coastal Guangdong, China’s biggest exporting province, announced a 20% increase in the provincial minimum wage. That increase brought wages in Guangdong back to parity with those in provincial rival Jiangsu, which had raised its minimum wage by 13% the previous month. (The shortage of workers is a result of more migrant workers from the inland provinces staying closer to home because national programs to bring more jobs to the inland provinces are producing new jobs.) The increase brought the average monthly pay—after adding in bonuses based on output—to a little less than $300 at current exchange rates.

Chinese manufacturers don’t really have much choice but to try to cut costs somehow. They can’t eat the extra wages themselves—many Chinese companies are brutally unprofitable with margins of 3% or less. And they can’t pass the costs onto their customers because those customers have grown accustomed to annual price decreases over the last decade. (Remember that one of Alan Greenspan’s explanations for why inflation was so low during the boom in the 1990s was the constant price decreases from the result of companies moving to China’s world factory.)

Those customers are taking steps of their own to make sure that prices to them keep on falling.

For example, Wal-Mart (WMT) has launched a huge supply chain overhaul designed to increase the percentage of goods it buys directly from manufacturers. In other words Wal-Mart plans to cut its costs by cutting out as many middlemen as it can. The company has said that the effort will emphasize the $100 billion in sales (out of $400 billion) that Wal-Mart gets from its own private label goods that are manufactured by someone else to be sold under a Wal-Mart in-house label such as Faded Glory. Right now Wal-Mart buys only about 20% of those private label goods directly from manufacturers.

The company estimates that it can save from $4 billion to $12 billion by shifting the way it buys its private label goods.

The company also thinks it can find cost savings by even further globalizing the way that it buys goods. Instead of its current practice of buying for each national market separately, Wal-Mart is creating four global merchandising centers. For example a center in Mexico City will handle merchandising for emerging markets. The company plans to extend this strategy to global sourcing of fruits and vegetables too.

As a result companies in coastal China will find themselves not just in competition on price with companies in inland China but with companies in low-cost economies around the world.

In textiles, for example, a company in coastal China, where wages range from $117 to $147 a month will find itself in competition with companies in Bangladesh paying $60 a month. Of  course, not everything is equal. The infrastructure to get goods from factory to buyer is better in coastal China than in inland China and better in inland China than in Bangladesh. Literary is higher in China too.

But you can see where the cost pressures are trending, right?

The drive to wring more costs out of the supply chain is disaster for inefficient producers or for reasonably efficient producers who can’t find a way to compete with the rock bottom wages in some developing economies. Remember how much fun the last round of globalization was? Well, this is likely to be just as painful--only this time the pain will be felt in Akron and Osaka and Guangdong.

But there will be a few winners as well. Of course, that’s true in specific industries where companies who can deliver on low costs will be able to pick up new business.  But it’s also true for those companies that will implement the new supply chain.

For example, Li & Fung (LFUGY), a Hong Kong company that handles sourcing in China for Wal-Mart among other global companies, has expanded its own reach to include sourcing from Bangladesh and other low-cost economies. The company reported that in 2009 its business in Bangladesh grew by 20% while business in China declined by 5%.

Not every logistics company combines global sourcing with warehouses and other logistic services. But a company that does is in a position to pick up market share from this next level of complexity in the global supply chain.

I’d also flag a company such as Expeditors International (EXPD) as another winner in this restructuring of the supply chain. The company is in the business of designing cost-efficient ways to get goods from here to there and provides services such as vendor consolidation and distribution management that lie at the heart of any company’s plans to actually wring savings out of its supply chain.

A third stock I’d add to this list is Lan Airlines (LFL). The company has a big air freight network linking South America and the United States through Miami. If you’re going to buy from low-cost economies, you’ve got to have a way to get the goods to your customers.

Li & Fung is a member of Jim’s Watch List ( ) and Lan Airlines is a member of my Jubak Picks 50 Portfolio ( )
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