What is the Major Source of China’s Economic Competitiveness? Surprise, it’s Not Labor Prices


True of false? The basis of China’s global economic competitiveness is cheap labor? False. It’s cheap factory land.

No doubt,  until a few years ago, China’s low labor costs were a vital part of its economic growth story. That is no longer the case. Labor costs have risen sharply in the last five years. There are now many countries with a decided labor cost advantage over China. And yet China remains the “factory of the world”. For one thing, its workers have higher productivity than those earning lower wages in countries like Vietnam, India or Indonesia.

But, there is a more fundamental, and most often overlooked, reason for China’s global economic competitiveness. Factories, and other productive assets like mines or logistics centers, are built on land that is either free of close to it. The result is that in China land costs usually represent an inconsequential component of overall manufacturing and operating costs. This, in turn, gives China an inbuilt edge and, when added to the productivity of its workers, an insurmountable cost advantage over the rest of the world.

There is no good international data on the percentage of a company’s fixed costs that come from purchase or rental of land. But, it is certainly the case that in China, this percentage will be far lower than in any developed – and many developing – countries. This isn’t because land is cheap in China. It isn’t. The market price, in most areas, is often on par with land costs in the US. But, good businesses in China don’t pay market price. Often they pay nothing at all.

This has two useful aspects for the favored Chinese business. First, it means the cost of expanding operations is limited primarily to the cost of new capital equipment and factory construction. Second, the business given a plot of land is thus endowed with a valuable asset it can use as collateral to secure more funding from banks. Even better, if the business runs into trouble or later goes bust, the owner will be able to sell the land at market price and pocket a huge personal gain.

It can’t be overstated just how important this is to a business owner’s calculation of risk, and so the success of Chinese entrepreneurial companies. Owners know that if all goes bad, they still hold land acquired for little or nothing for that is worth millions of dollars.

All land in China belongs to the Chinese government. Every year, a fraction of it is released on a long-term lease (usually forty years or longer) for development into commercial or residential land. While there is no official central policy to make land available at low prices to successful businesses, in practice, this is the way the system works. Land is sold at deeply-discounted prices, or given outright, to businesses that are seeking to expand, often by building a new factory or office building.

Land in China, it goes without saying, is in very high demand. It’s a crowded country, and only 15% of the land is flat or fertile enough to be suitable for cultivation. This “good land” is also where most new factories get built.

There isn’t enough new land released every year to meet the enormous demand. This is true both for residential land, a key reason why housing prices are so high, and commercial land. For most businessmen, it’s impossible to get new land, at any price. A privileged group, however, not only gets land to expand, but gets it at artificially low prices. In China, land prices are elastic. Different levels of government have ways to transfer land to companies at prices equal to 5%-15% of its current market value.

Officially, the land allocation system in China is meant to work in a more market-oriented way, with new land for development being auctioned publicly, and selling prices controlled and verified by higher levels of government. In other words, the system is meant to discourage, if not prohibit, land being given to insiders at low prices. In practice, these rules are often more observed in the breach. Local governments have ways to control the outcome of land auctions and so guarantee that favored businesses get the land they want at attractive prices.

These below-market sales deprive the local government of revenue it might otherwise earn from a land deal done at closer to market prices. But, there is some economic logic at work. The sweetest of sweetheart land deals are generally offered to successful companies whose growth is being stifled by insufficient factory space. The new land, and the new factories that will be built there, will increase local employment and, down the road, tax revenues.

Note, the deeply-discounted land prices are available mainly to companies that are already successful, and straining at the leash to maintain growth and profits. Both private and state-owned companies are eligible. It’s a rare example of even-handed treatment by officials of state-owned and private companies.

Is corruption also a factor? Are cheap land deals really not all that cheap when various under-the-table payments are factored in? My personal experience, though limited, suggests such payoffs, if they happen,  are not compulsory.

I’ve played a walk-on part in several below-market land deals. My role is to meet with local officials, usually the mayor or party secretary,  to urge them to provide my client with the land needed for expansion. All local government officials in China are also motivated by, and rewarded for, having local companies go public. I stick to that point in my discussions with the local officials – my client needs land to grow and so reach the scale where the business can IPO.

In each case, the deal has gone forward, and clients have gotten the land they were seeking, at a price 5-15% of its then-market value. My client wins the trifecta: the business grows larger, unit costs remain low because of scale economies and the cheap land, and the balance sheet is strengthened by a valuable asset purchased on the cheap.

In all respects, this system of commercial land acquisition is unique to China. It is also a key component in the country’s economic policy, though it never has been proclaimed as such. The government at all levels is keen to keep GDP growing smartly. This process of rewarding good companies with cheap land for growth plays a key part in this, everywhere across China. China’s government (at national, provincial and local levels) is not hurting for cash, unlike for example America’s. Tax revenues are growing by upwards of 30% a year. So, maximizing the value of land released for development is not a fiscal priority.

Who loses? There are likely incidences where peasants are thrown off land with little or no compensation to make way for new commercial district. But, that way of doing things is becoming less common in China.

Mainly, of course, the losers are the international competitors of Chinese companies getting cheap land to expand. It’s hard enough to stay in business these days when facing competition from China. It verges on hopeless when the Chinese companies can build output and lower unit prices because of land they get for free or close to it.

Good News About China’s Food Price Inflation: Chinese Peasants’ Time of Unprecedented Plenty

Bamboo painting from China First Capital blog post

Food prices in China, as everyone inside and outside the country now knows, are rising fast, in some cases by over 30% during 2010. The Chinese government puts some of the blame on speculators who are said to be buying large quantities of fresh food, holding it off the market and then profiting from price increases. There seems to be some evidence of this.

There’s no short-term fix for these price increases. The Chinese government has released for sale some of its food stocks. It is also urging peasants, and local cadres who govern rural China, to make sure more food is grown next year to increase supplies. The peasants probably won’t need any such encouragement.

The increases this year in food prices have done more, in a shorter time, to lift income levels for many of China’s 600 million peasants than any other single measure taken over the last 30 years.

There has never been a  better time, in China’s long agrarian history, to be a peasant. Fundamentally, food price inflation in China represents a colossal transfer of wealth from China’s more affluent urban areas to the rural hinterland where half of China’s population still lives.

If this lasts, it will narrow the gap in living standards and income levels between China’s cities and countryside. This is one of the overarching goals of the Chinese government. And yet, no one is applauding.

Instead, the Chinese central government has reacted with some alarm to the recent price increases. It knows that higher food prices are putting the squeeze on city-dwellers, including, of course, those in the capital Beijing and other major cities. In China, communist power originally took hold in the countryside, and a lot of party doctrine still speaks about its roots among the peasantry. But, political power today is firmly rooted in urban areas.  China’s political, economic and cultural elite all live in major cities, as do most of their friends and family. So, price rises effect this group directly.

When apples, the staple autumn fruit in most of China,  almost double in price, as they have this year, political leaders will soon hear about it. The fact that China’s apple farmers now have a lot more money in their pockets is not necessarily part of the political calculus.

Yet, it is undeniable that the fastest and most effective way to raise peasant living standards and real incomes is higher farm prices that don’t fuel overall inflation. There are signs that’s now the case, that the only area of significant double-digit inflation is in food prices. If so, this is unquestionably the best time in Chinese history to be tilling the land.

How long will this last? Of course, commonly, a spike in food prices leads to overall price levels rising as well. This can erode, or even wipe out,  the rise in income for farmers from higher food prices. Also, today’s high prices will certainly lead to more land being cultivated next year, as farmers chase the fat profits from today’s prices.

I was just in Jiangsu Province, in central China, and it seemed like most of the farmland is under plastic cover this winter, allowing peasants to keep growing and selling vegetables. Supply goes up, price comes down. Eventually.

How high are food prices at present? Looking around my local covered market, prices in the stalls for many fruits and vegetables are now as higher or higher than prices commonly seen in the US. Looking just at autumn fruit, apples are about $1 a pound; navel oranges around 60 cents; clementines about $1 a pound; bananas are 50 cents a pound. Meat prices have risen sharply.

Pork remains comparatively cheap at about $2 a pound, but chicken is quite a bit higher here. Garlic and ginger, the two fundamental staples of all Chinese cooking, are both at all-time highs of around $1 a pound.

So far, in my experience, higher food prices haven’t yet fed through to higher prices at restaurants, noodle shops or even the outdoor steamer wagon where I buy corn-on-the-cob and potatoes as snacks. This means restaurant margins must be hurting. One notable exception, McDonalds in China. They recently announced price increases to counter effect of rising raw material costs.  With about 900 restaurants in China, all in larger cities, McDonalds feeds a lot of people.

Wages are also rising very steeply in urban China, as is household wealth for anyone who owns property. This seems to be allowing most urban Chinese to absorb higher food costs without much of a fuss.

In other words, just about everyone across this country of 1.4 billion is doing much better, year by year. For now, the 600 million peasants are doing best of all. Viewed across the breadth of China’s long history, no less than across the last 30 years of unparalleled economic progress, this is a singularly welcome development.


The Middle Kingdom’s Mighty Middle Class

Ming Jiajing from China First Capital blog post

China recently overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. China’s population, of course,  is ten times larger than Japan’s. So, per capita, China is still one-tenth as affluent as its Asian neighbor.

A far more important, if little noticed, economic trend is that China’s middle class is now far larger than Japan’s. Indeed, the Chinese middle class will soon surpass, if it hasn’t already,  America’s, and so become the largest middle class country in the world.

There is no standard definition of “middle class”. So, measuring the number of people falling within this category is an imprecise science. It generally refers to people whose household income allows them to enjoy all the comforts of life well-above pure subsistence: these include vacations, air-conditioned homes, the full assortment of labor-saving home appliances, personal transport, and sufficient savings to cope with shorter-term economic problems like unemployment or a health emergency.

In China, by my estimate, there are at least 250-300 million people who now fall into this category. This is an economic achievement of almost unimaginable scale. Thirty years ago, there was no “middle class” in China, and but for a tiny group of top or well-connected party officials, virtually no one in the country of 1.4 billion could be described as living above basic subsistence.

Today, China has more internet and mobile phone users than anywhere on the planet. It is the world’s largest market for new cars. Housing prices across the country, in most of the major cities, are at or above the average levels in the US.

These housing prices are a big reason for the swift rise in the middle class in China. With few exceptions, anyone who owns a home in a Chinese city can now be considered middle class. That’s because most urban housing now is worth at least $50,000-$70,000. In major cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen, housing prices are now among the highest in the world, and so just about every property-owner is sitting on an asset worth well in excess of $100,000.

Most Chinese either own their homes outright, or have mortgages that represent less than 50% of the home’s current value. Even in more rural parts of China, there are tens of millions of home-owners who have equity of at least $20,000 in their home.

Unlike in the US, Chinese can’t easily tap into the wealth locked up in their homes by taking out second mortgages. But, the wealth effects are still very real in China. People know how much their home is worth, have confidence the price will likely continue to appreciate. So, spending habits can reflect this.

In fact, most Chinese have a better idea of the current value of their homes than anyone in the US or Europe. That’s because property is sold based on price per-square-meter, and everyone in China seems to know that current value of the square meters they own. The Chinese government has been trying for the last sixth months, with limited success, to moderate the fast rise in property prices across the country.  Most housing has appreciated by at least 15% this year.

Housing is the main bedrock of middle class status in China. But, salaries are also rising sharply across the board in the professional class (as well as those working in factories), putting more cash in people’s pockets. The stock market has also become a major additional source and store of wealth.

It’s a common characteristic of the middle class everywhere to feel a little dissatisfied, and a little anxious about one’s economic future and ability to remain among the more better-off. This is very noticeable in China as well. Many of China’s middle class don’t consider themselves that comfortable.

The pace of social and economic change is so swift, and prices for many middle-class staples like cars, foreign vacations and housing are so high,  that people don’t have a real sense of “having made it’.  They also fret about their retirement, about saving enough to put their kids through the best schools, about job security. In other words, they’re very much like the middle class in the US.

Middle class spending is the single most important source of economic activity in the US. This isn’t yet true of China, but each year, it will become more important. This reality should be at the top of the agenda for boardroom planning at companies in China and much of the rest of the world. China’s middle class will become a market not only larger in size, but in purchasing power, than America’s.

China’s very rich (it now has more billionaires than any other country except the US) and poor tend to be the focus on most of the reporting by the world’s financial press. They are generally blind to the most significant development of all, the emergence over the last ten years of an enormous middle class in China. Without a doubt, more Chinese join the middle class each year than in the US, Europe and Japan combined.

Remember, many of the most successful global businesses in the US over the last 50 years – Ford, McDonalds, Disney, Coca-Cola, P&G, Wal-Mart to name just a few – got that way by focusing originally on selling to America’s middle class. China’s middle class is fast becoming an even richer target.

Anyone selling services or products for the middle class ought to find a way to do so in China. Quickly.