Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The return of manufacturing

David Ignatius of The Washington Post sees a pretty happy future for our economy. It has to do with energy independence, as I posted recently, and also a new future for manufacturing
Energy security would be one building block of a new prosperity. 
The other would be the revival of American manufacturing and other industries. This would be driven in part by the low cost of electricity in the U.S., which West forecasts will be relatively flat through the rest of this decade, and one-half to one-third that of economic competitors such as Spain, France or Germany. 
The coming U.S. manufacturing recovery is the subject of several studies by the Boston Consulting Group. I’ll focus here on the most recent one, “U.S. Manufacturing Nears the Tipping Point,” which appeared in March. 
What’s happening, according to BCG, is a “reshoring” back to America of manufacturing that previously migrated offshore, especially to China. The BCG analysts estimate that by 2015, China’s cost advantage will have shrunk to the point that many manufacturers will prefer to open new plants in the U.S. In the vast manufacturing region surrounding Shanghai, total compensation packages will be about 25 percent of those for comparable workers in low-cost U.S. manufacturing states. But given higher American productivity, effective labor costs will be about 60 percent of those in America – not low enough to compensate U.S. manufacturers for the risks and volatility of operating in China.
In about five years, argue the BCG economists, the cost-risk balance will reach an inflection point in seven key industries where manufacturers had been moving to China: computers and electronics, appliances and electrical equipment, machinery, furniture, fabricated metals, plastics and rubber, and transportation goods. 
The industries together amounted to a nearly $2 trillion market in the U.S. in 2010, with China producing about $200 billion of that total. 
As manufacturers in these “tipping point” industries move back to America, BCG estimates, the U.S. economy will add $80 billion to $120 billion in annual output, and 2 million to 3 million new jobs, in direct manufacturing and spinoff employment. To complete this rosy picture, the analysts forecast that in about five years, U.S. exports will increase by at least $65 billion annually. 
Hold on, Dr. Pangloss. Those are just economists’ estimates. What do real manufacturers say? Well, BCG has some new numbers on that, too. In late April, the consulting firm released a survey of executives at 106 U.S.-based companies with annual sales of over $1 billion. Thirty-seven percent of them said they were planning to reshore manufacturing operations or “actively considering” the move. Among larger companies with sales over $10 billion, the positive response rose to 48 percent.
So much for decline and a gloomy future.

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