China manufacturing

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.


Under New Management — Chinese Corporate Management Is Changing Fast

Gold splash censer from China First Capital blog post

“Five years ago, all I had to worry about was producing enough to earn a small profit. Now I spend time dealing with employment issues, environmental regulations, tax policies, trying to increase market share and staying ahead of competitors. The pressure is much worse. ”

Welcome to the suddenly changed and increasingly pressured world of Chinese corporate management. 

This comment comes from the boss of a large, integrated chemical factory in Shandong. He and I were talking recently. He is still a relatively young guy of around 40. But, in his 15 year career as first an engineer, then a manager and finally as factory boss, he has seen the purpose, methods, scope, goals and responsibilities of Chinese management change from top to bottom. 

Like much else in China, company management has undergone a lifetime’s worth of change in a matter of a few years. It’s a byproduct of larger forces at work in China’s economy – the withdrawal of direct state planning and control, the ascendancy of the private sector, China’s entry to the WTO and the opening of China’s markets to imports, the rise of a vibrant consumer market. All of these have made planning and decision-making far more intricate and the stakes far higher for Chinese corporate managers, both in state-owned and private companies. 

In the case of my friend in Shandong, he is working for a company majority owned by the state. In theory, that should make his management tasks far easier. In most cases, the Chinese government – whether at national, provincial or local level – is a very lenient shareholder. In fact, they would appear to the ideal owner for any manager who is looking for easy ride. 

In China as elsewhere, when the state is the owner, no one is really in charge. The Chinese government is not looking for dividends. Most profits stay inside the company.  

Here’s the paradox that Chinese managers all live with: as undemanding as the Chinese government is as a shareholder, they are increasingly demanding as a regulator and law-maker. That is a big reason why corporate management has gotten so much more complex in China. In a short space of time, China has gone from a more laissez-faire stance to one with strict environmental, tax and labor laws that rival those of the US and Western Europe. 

True, these tougher regulations are not yet universally applied or enforced. But, any Chinese manager who chooses to act in total disregard of these rules will eventually find himself in deep, deep trouble. Take labor laws. China continues to introduce new forms of workplace protection that give important new rights to hired staff and restrict the prerogatives of management. Any Chinese with a complaint over pay or conditions can complain directly to the Laodong Ju, or Labor Bureau, a quasi-state body that enforces labor laws. 

The process is not without its hiccups. Management can still intimidate and threaten workers who seek redress. But, the system does work. 

Example: a friend of mine worked for several years as a salesperson for an electronics company based in Shenzhen. She was paid part in commission. She did her job well. For months, then years, the boss held back the commission payments, claiming cash flow problems. This is old style China management: don’t pay, offer excuses. This boss assumed he could continue indefinitely with this trickery, in part because the general view is that female workers in China are more easily cowed or mollified. 

Instead, my friend quit without warning,  went right to the Labor Bureau, which made one call to her ex-boss. No investigation. Just a phone call and a stern warning from the Labor Bureau. My friend got her money – about $20,000 in total – within a week. The boss will now have a much harder time doing what he’s always done – pad his own take-home by cheating workers out of what they are entitled to. Tyrannizing workers is no longer a workable HR strategy for a Chinese management team. 

New environmental rules are, if anything,  even more disruptive of old lax ways of managing business in China. Managers who choose to improve margins by ignoring pollution standards are risking an early unpaid retirement. Example: a client of ours is the leading environmentally-friendly paper manufacturer in Shandong. Two years ago, he had 29 competitors in Shandong. Today, he has only three. 

The other 26 were shut down, virtually overnight, for violating environmental standards. The managers at those factories, most of which were around for many years, now likely understand better than most how much the craft of management has changed in China.  

Elsewhere in Shandong, my friend the chemical company boss, is now making another decision that was unimaginable when he began his career: he is working on a plan for a management buyout of the factory. The business is now 65%-owned by a large local coal mine, which in turn, is owned by the provincial government. 

The buy-out plan is still in its early stages. To succeed, he’ll need to persuade several levels of government – no one is quite sure how many – and also take over some significant liabilities, including debts of about $15mn.  It’s not clear if the current management will need to put up cash to buy the government’s controlling stake, or if, as preferred, they can pay in installments, using cash from the business. 

Servicing debt and having most of one’s wealth tied up in illiquid shares of one’s company are other adaptations now being learned by Chinese management. Each year, their working lives grow harder, more pressured and, for the more talented and nimble ones, far more financially rewarding.  Stride-for-stride with the modernization of China’s economy, Chinese corporate managers have gotten better faster than anywhere else, ever.