The new coronavirus Covid-19 will end up being the final curtain on China’s nearly 30 year role as the world’s leading manufacturer.
“Using China as a hub…that model died this week, I think,” says Vladimir Signorelli, head of Bretton Woods Research, a macro investment research firm.
China’s economy is getting hit much harder by the coronavirus outbreak than markets currently recognize. Wall Street appeared to be the last to realize this last week. The S&P 500 fell over 8%, the worst performing market of all the big coronavirus infected nations. Even Italy, which has over a thousand cases now, did better last week than the U.S.
China On Hold
On January 23, Beijing ordered the extension of the Lunar New Year holiday, postponing a return to work. The coronavirus was spreading fast in the epicenter province of Hubei and the last thing China wanted was for that to be repeated elsewhere. Travel restrictions and quarantines of nearly 60 million people drove business activity to a standstill.
The most frightening aspect of this crisis is not the short-term economic damage it is causing, but the potential long-lasting disruption to supply chains, Shehzad H. Qazi, the managing director of China Beige Book, wrote in Barron’s on Friday.
Chinese auto manufacturers and chemical plants have reported more closures than other sectors, Qazi wrote. IT workers have not returned to most firms as of last week. Shipping and logistics companies have reported higher closure rates than the national average. “The ripple effects of this severe disruption will be felt through the global auto parts, electronics, and pharmaceutical supply chains for months to come,” he wrote.
That China is losing its prowess as the only game in town for whatever widget one wants to make was already under way. It was moving at a panda bear’s pace, though, and mostly because companies were doing what they always do – search the world with the lowest costs of production. Maybe that meant labor costs. Maybe it meant regulations of some kind or another. They were already doing that as China moves up the ladder in terms of wages and environmental regulations.
Under President Trump, that slow moving panda moved a little faster. Companies didn’t like the uncertainty of tariffs. They sourced elsewhere. Their China partners moved to Vietnam, Bangladesh and throughout southeast Asia.
Enter the mysterious coronavirus, believed to have come from a species of bat in Wuhan, and anyone who wanted to wait out Trump is now forced to reconsider their decade long dependence on China.
Retail pharmacies in parts of Europe reported that couldn’t get surgical masks because they’re all made in China. Can’t Albania make these things for you? Seems their labor costs are even lower than China’s, and they are closer.
The coronavirus is China’s swan song. There is no way it can be the low-cost, world manufacturer anymore. Those days are coming to an end. If Trump wins re-election, it will only speed up this process as companies will fear what happens if the phase two trade deal fails.
Picking a new country, or countries, is not easy. No country has the logistic set up like China has. Few big countries have the tax rates that China has. Brazil surely doesn’t. India does. But it has terrible logistics.
Then came the newly signed U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, signed by Trump into law last year. Mexico is the biggest beneficiary.