Category Archives: China

The Manufacturing Rebound

By Lloyd Graff

I talk to a lot of folks in the machining trade every day, and the clear sense I am getting is that business is improving. The automotive segment is definitely firming. Auto related work has bounced back from the April, May, June, July doldrums. Demand has picked up, and car showrooms are extremely short of hot inventory. 

European and Japanese companies were also shut down, and the supply chains are strained. Guns and the medical sector are strengthening. 

We are seeing an uptick in the used machinery business. The auctioneers are surprised at how strong their sale prices are holding up. Inventory of late model Swiss-type and multi-axis CNC machines appears to be light.

On the macroeconomic front, the recent perverse behavior of stocks is being attributed by pundits to the surprising decrease in unemployment after PPP money ran out and extra layoff checks ended. Evidently some people did choose to return to work.

Small businesses, especially those travel-related and restaurants, have been severely hurt, but the wounded giant called the American Economy appears to be healing. The prospect of multiple viable vaccines being approved soon, while good for most people in business, is viewed by some speculators as negative for tech stocks like Apple and Amazon, which have continued to thrive despite the swooning economy. It appears that improving conditions are sell signs for the option trader gamblers. 

From my observation, the impending election does not seem like it will be a significant issue for the stock market, but it could be an issue small business people.

They should ask LeBron for advice. He seems to know all.

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Do politics and NBA basketball mix well? 

Maybe the better question is does China own the NBA? Or perhaps the real question is does LeBron James play for the Los Angeles Lakers or Nike?

The three questions are tied together. LeBron signed a contract in 2019 easily worth a billion dollars with Nike, becoming its most valued endorser, though Michael Jordan trails him very closely.

The NBA also signed a $1.5 billion dollar contract last year with Tencent, the Chinese mega company, granting it the exclusive rights to broadcast all of the NBA games it chooses to air in China. The games are mainly watched by young people on their cell phones as they ride public transportation to work in the morning. 

The NBA has built academies in China to teach and promote the basketball. When Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, had the audacity to tweet critically about communist China crushing the human rights demonstrations in Hong Kong, the Beijing Party leaders bristled. Then the NBA bosses cowered and tried to make nice.

LeBron, who probably sees himself as a potential president of the United States, and heir to Oprah and Martin Luther King Jr. in America, had a real dilemma. It was magnified when COVID-19 hit midway through the 2020 NBA season. The players were undecided about continuing to play, but LeBron had the NBA, Nike, China, and Black Lives Matter all looking at him to thread the needle. It was a time to prove himself to be politically skillful before he even stepped on the court again with Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers.

I watched LeBron play brilliantly Monday in the playoff series, ironically against Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets. Black Lives Matter signage was everywhere in the Orlando bubble, where all of the games are being played and broadcast on TNT and Disney’s ESPN. Player uniforms displayed social and political messages, and a huge VOTE sign was prominently displayed during all broadcasts. 

It is a fascinating mishmash of sports, business, politics, and LeBron, who is proving himself to be the Confucius of America in 2020.

Question: Is your business rebounding?

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Ep. 86 – Work is Coming Back from China, with Mike Micklewright

By Noah & Lloyd Graff

On today’s show, we’re talking about manufacturing returning to the United States from overseas. Our guest is Mike Micklewright, Director of the Kaizen Institute.

Mike says we may have finally reached a tipping point when manufacturers accept that it makes sense to produce goods again in North America.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast. Or listen on your phone on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Main Points

(2:15) Mike Micklewright explains that Kaizen is about transforming businesses to get rid of waste in their processes and building a culture of continuous improvement. He says this is accomplished by putting the right systems in place for leadership and communication.

(3:30) Lloyd Graff asks if the Kaizen Institute has its own waste. Mike says the institute needs to limit waste like all organizations and it has systems in place to try to operate by the principles it espouses.

(4:30) Mike defines on-shoring as bringing the industrial base and manufacturing base back to the closest proximity of the consumer.  

(4:50) Mike says that manufacturing goods overseas and shipping them to the consumer creates significant waste. He says companies that outsource to China don’t always look at the total cost of production. 

Mike Micklewright, Director of the Kaizen Institute

(6:45) Mike says that one challenge to bringing manufacturing back to the United States is that purchasing people are evaluated on a metric called Purchasing Price Variance (PPV). He says PPV signifies the actual price vs the standard price. He says the standard price sometimes means the price of an item the previous year, and purchasing people are trying to make the actual price lower than that. Making products overseas is one way to try to accomplish that goal. Mike says the purchasing people often do not look at the transportation costs or other logistics costs. He says they also fail to take into account risks such as labor strikes, natural disasters or pandemics.  

(8:35) Mike says there is a ton of data available to present to top management of companies to try to make them see the waste caused by off-shoring. He says we need to utilize various tools available to present the data, otherwise they will just choose to ignore it and keep doing what they have been doing. He says the trade war has also helped pursued companies to bring work back.

(10:20) Mike says Covid-19 and other recent catastrophes have made companies consider risk factors more than ever before. He says Covid-19 demonstrated how reliant the United States is on imports from foreign countries for its livelihood.

(11:40) Mike says Japanese companies set a good example of how to be self-reliant. They want to keep their manufacturing close to their consumers. They also don’t want to borrow money from their governments or from foreign governments. 

(14:00) Mike says the US isn’t totally ready to bring a lot of manufacturing back. He says the US manufacturing base has shrunk and the country has less people with skills and interest in manufacturing. He says implementing robots in shops and new education programs are helping to deal with the workforce problem. 

(17:25) Mike says outsourcing to Mexico is less of a problem than outsourcing to China. He says it creates less waste because Mexico is closer and its culture is more similar to that of the US. However crossing borders has challenges as well as potential for political strife between countries. Mike says bringing back manufacturing from China and putting it in Mexico is called near-shoring, as opposed to on-shoring. He says near-shoring has been occurring more than on-shoring.

(20:15) Mike says he hasn’t seen a lot of waste costs for the manufacturing industry caused by Mexican drug cartels. But, he says their influence the Mexican government could increase risk of doing business there.

(22:30) Mike says wages in China have been rising for the last 20 years, and this has brought some work back to the US. He says Covid-19 and the trade war may have finally caused a tipping point for companies to bring work back to the US. Yet, still he admits he can’t name specific companies doing it. He says some information about this is confidential.

(23:00) Lloyd says we hear in the used machinery business that US companies are quoting against China, but still he seldom hears of much work actually coming back. Mike says we need to get salespeople to understand the concept of “total cost of ownership” so when they are asked to make a proposal they are not just presenting a price tag. 

(27:00) Mike says that even though we have not seen on-shoring yet on a large scale, the issue is hitting mainstream news rather than just business news, which could mean we are at a tipping point.

(29:00) Mike says that he just bought a 1992 Winnebago to take a two week trip. He says he bought it at a good price, but then he had to pay an inspector and it needed lot of repairs. He says his purchase was a demonstration of people’s natural inclination to look only at price, rather than look at total cost. 

Question: Is work coming back from China?

 

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Ep. 72 – Coronavirus and the Supply Chain with Daniel Hearsch

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we’re delving into a topic that’s been on many people’s minds these days, the coronavirus.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast

Our guest is automotive supply chain expert Dan Hearsch, Managing Director at AlixPartners. Dan is briefed daily by his associates in China about how people in manufacturing are dealing with the coronavirus. FYI, this interview was conducted one week ago on Feb. 26, 2020.

Main Points

(2:55) Dan gives his background working in the automotive industry for OEMs, as well as Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers. Today he is a consultant, focusing on supply chain and procurement projects.

(3:55) Dan says many people have been comparing the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, to SARS, the last serious epidemic in Asia back in 2003. He says the big difference between the SARS outbreak and the current one is that in 2003, China was roughly only 4% of global GDP, while today China has a much more significant role in the global supply chain and its own internal economy is much larger than it was 17 years ago.

(5:30) Dan says one of the hardest things about the coronavirus outbreak is knowing what the local response is going to be. He says that it seems like the quarantine policies in China, Korea, and Italy are the correct response.

(6:00) Dan says he’s briefed daily on the latest news in China from his associates in there. The news is based on what they are seeing from the Chinese government and what they are seeing in real time from the companies with whom they work.

Daniel Hearsch of AlixPartners

(6:55) Dan says he hears there is a decreased incidence of new coronavirus cases and the death numbers seems to be falling, which makes people hopeful that business will get better soon. He says the worst thing to do is to send people back to work too soon because they could get sick again and the quarantine process would have to start over.

(7:40) Dan says the Chinese New Year amplified the spread of the coronavirus because of all the people traveling back to their homes in the countryside. However, he said that from a business standpoint the Chinese New Year was helpful because people who buy goods from China were already planning for an eight day shut down. People had planned to have extra material already in transit on the water, but had not planned for further delays.

(9:40) Dan says the majority of factories in China that were down have opened up again. He sites a Chinese government survey of 982 enterprises that said 41% had resumed by February 14 and predicts over 80% should be back up and running this month. He says the biggest problems relate to transportation and workforce issues because a significant number of people are quarantined or have trouble traveling. His sources say that Chinese manufacturers in the survey are running at only 30-40% of their potential productivity. The Chinese government is comparing the current electricity usage in various industrial areas to past years to gage productivity. It found that the level of usage was about 57% that it was at this same time of year in 2018 and 2019.

(12:15) Dan says that the automotive sector has a very lean supply chain, meaning companies hold very little safety stock, which makes it vulnerable to the decrease in supplier productivity.

(16:40) Dan says that some North American manufacturing companies are going shorten their supply chains as China, Korea, and Italy can’t supply enough parts. He says this trend would lend itself to machining processes that are fast to set up. He says capacity shouldn’t be a big problem because the domestic automotive market has been down of late.

(18:50) Dan says China has both a supply and a demand problem because many of the domestic customers who buy parts are also closed. This differs from the United States that only has a supply problem because companies are still purchasing goods and consumers are still buying.

(20:40) Dan says that many of the large scale supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus are not new. He draws a comparison to the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, which exposed the problems that occur when companies have too many suppliers concentrated in one region and do not have enough relationships with backup suppliers.

(23:45) Noah asks if the pharmaceutical supply chain in China has similar issues as automotive. Dan says the problems are probably similar. He says the transportation issues could be significant as suppliers try to catch up on a backlog of shipments, though he predicts the production processes might not be as labor intensive as those of automotive.

(27:45) Dan says that the coronavirus is a common type of virus—the same type of virus as the common cold. He says the Covid-19 epidemic is quite contagious and has a high fatality rate of 2.5-3% compared to .05% for typical flu. He says limiting personal contact with other people and washing hands regularly is the best practice to protect oneself against the virus. He says that a lot of people make mistakes such as wearing the wrong type of protective masks and wearing a mask more than one time.

(31:20) Dan says if the United States has an outbreak the impact on its economy shouldn’t be as dramatic as China’s. A higher percentage of people have the ability to work remotely while quarantined because a smaller percentage work in factories. Still, he admits an outbreak will still significantly affect the domestic supply chain.

(33:30) Dan says out of China’s study of 982 surveyed Chinese companies 42% of those enterprises will run out of cash in the next three months and 10% will run out of cash in one month because they can’t cover their fixed costs. He says it is likely the Chinese government will act as a safety net, though he is not familiar with the bankruptcy laws there.

(36:40) Dan says the best case scenario is that the most problematic countries get the Covid-19 epidemic under control and it doesn’t become a global pandemic. He says it is possible that in 4 to 5 months most suppliers will be back up to speed in the problematic countries.

(38:25) Dan says the precautionary health measures by governments seem to be the correct plan to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. He says saving people’s lives is more important than keeping factories running, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also for long-term business success.

(39:30) Dan says it is vital for manufacturers to set up alternate suppliers as soon as possible to prepare for a pandemic or other supply chain setbacks.

Question: Have you noticed supply chain interruptions due to the coronavirus affecting your business?

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Trade War 7th Round

I keep trying to make sense out of the trade war with China. It isn’t easy. I use metaphors to describe the tariffs and the tit-for-tat jabbing of the two major powers. It is a bit like Ultimate Fighting Championship, but it is much more complicated. Donald Trump has an election battle coming up, and a booming economy is his biggest asset going into 2020. China’s Xi has no election, but he has Communist cronies who are not all fawning stooges.

Trump has immigration woes that he is trying to turn into a positive politically, but it isn’t working well.  Xi has Hong Kong mass demonstrations, which are now more than an annoyance to his regime. It is a problem that is a public relations horror and potentially could spark rebellion within China, despite its rigidly controlled press. Just like a million people leaving Central America desperately knocking on the door of a country built by immigrants is a problem without an easy solution here, the longing for freedom in Hong Kong ultimately overflowing into China is a problem that just won’t evaporate.

China under Xi wants to overwhelm the United States in every way other than a shooting war. Manipulating outdated trading norms developed by Kissinger and Clinton and maintained without a whimper by every administration since then out of convenience and laziness has served China beautifully as it has eviscerated American industry and workers in exchange for $5 t-shirts at Walmart and Target. The Obama Administration timidly objected to the Chinese trade bullying, but had no taste for a trade war which would have been rather uncomfortable and unpopular.

Pugnacious Donald Trump was looking for a fight. He seems to thrive on nonphysical, non-shooting warfare. Advisors convinced him that it was a winnable war if he played it right. Tariffs were his weapon of choice.

Tariffs probably hurt China a bit more than they hurt the United States because we buy a lot more from them than they buy from us, and if the farmers take a fist to the jaw, Trump and Congress can cushion the hurt with subsides. If t-shirts bump up $0.50, Walmart can eat a little bit and the richer American workers can absorb their annoyance with fatter paychecks. China can manipulate its currency to cheapen its goods and the Fed can manipulate interest rates to make mortgages cheaper.

This is why, after two years of trade war, the American economy is still quite good and China’s economy is still growing.

The mavens in the press here have exaggerated the impact of the tariffs, and some are trying to talk the country into a recession for political purposes. It is having an effect: capital spending is slowing, and big business bureaucrats are becoming fearful because they tend to be sheep. Machine tool sales are weakening. Japanese production of machine tools is soft.

Was Trump right in picking this fight with China? Short-term, politically, it was dumb. Since most politicians only think in terms of the next election, it was a stupid aberrant move in their eyes. He hurts his base in rural America. Any gain for American industry is far away and foggy.

Barack Obama saw the same things as Donald Trump, but was afraid of confrontation. Trump relishes confrontation, but appears to lack a coherent strategy. The Chinese want to outlast Trump and may succeed, but Xi may be in trouble at home amongst his enemies because Trump has not folded yet. Hong Kong is potentially very dangerous for the regime with the Chinese home economy softening, and China’s ambitious plans for a Belt and Road initiative to aid developing countries seeming to have faltered.

Trump’s Huawei gambit has given Xi a black eye, but the company evidently has some attractive 5G products at good prices, which will allow it to weather the storm.

Put it all together and the two fighters have fought a draw through six or seven rounds of a 15-round bout. China has not given in on intellectual property theft, and America keeps jabbing them with tariffs.

I do not see a knockout or surrender in the foreseeable future. The stock market will be a yo-yo. Big business will play defense. Growth in both countries will gasp a little, but keep on going.

Is the battle worth the trouble? The Chinese certainly think so. Do we?

Question: Where were you on September 11, 2001?

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Trade Wars

By Lloyd Graff

Today is the last day of the Major League Baseball trading season.  I am a nutty baseball fan, Chicago Cubs variety, who follows such folly with a fanatic’s intensity.

Maybe it’s the machinery dealer in me, but I love the trading.  Every team is looking for that player who with change of scenery turns into a butterfly from a caterpillar.  Other times non-contending teams will trade a star at the end of his contract for a potential star at the beginning of his career.  The classic case of this was in 2016 when the Cubs traded their best young minor league player, Gleyber Torres, for the services of Aroldis Chapman, the hardest throwing relief pitcher in the game who was at the tail end of his contract.  Chapman, who could throw 105 mph, helped the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.  Gleyber Torres was an All-Star this year for the Yankees.  Chapman left the Cubs after 2016 and re-signed with the Yankees.

These “deadline deals” can be transformative for a team.  The Cubs made a great deal with the Texas Rangers in 2012 trading Ryan Dempster, a once great relief pitcher, and a decent catcher, Geovany Soto, for pitcher Kyle Hendricks, then a minor league pitcher out of Dartmouth who had a fastball that could not break the proverbial “pane of glass.”  In a little less than a year Hendricks had become one of the best pitchers in the game, and Dempster had retired.

As I was preparing to write this piece I had a heretical thought for a baseball fan.  Does the act of trading a player make him a kind of high-priced slave?  The player usually has no say on where he might be sent.  He has to uproot himself and maybe his family on a moment’s notice.  He immediately has to acquaint himself with an entirely new group of teammates, some of whom may be hostile because he threatens their position.

The NBA players are pushing back on the notion of easily trading players.  Star players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis can almost call their own landing places and influence whom they would like to play with.  In football the Le’Veon Bell holdout at Pittsburgh is a precedent for important players to command more leverage in their employment, though the NFL seems to be very hardline in resistance.

I don’t know exactly how things will play out, but the players are destined to get a say.

Question: What are the best or worst sports trades in history for you?

 

 

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The Hole in China’s Apple

A tiny gecko can literally climb up sheer glass.

A team of robotics geeks in Denmark thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could mimic the gecko in a robot’s gripper? Wouldn’t that be a great product?

They accomplished just that and started a company in Odense, Denmark to sell their gecko gripper, called OnRobot.

Odense, home of Universal Robots, is the robotics incubator of the world. Poetically enough, it is also where Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales. The gecko gripper concept grew from a research paper written at Stanford University in Palo Alto, which was picked up by NASA as having the potential for retrieving satellites in space. The folks in Odense saw its potential.

Would this have happened in Shanghai?

Recently, things have become quite ugly for China after 30 years of almost unimaginable growth. The Chinese leadership, starting with Deng Xiaoping, has been almost maniacal in pushing growth in China.  With shrewd planning, an industrious and hungry population, heavy borrowing, and a knack for stealing and copying the hard-won knowledge of their competitors in the United State and Europe, they have continued their ascent.

Shanghai is not Palo Alto, California, or Odense, Denmark. Companies like Huawei and ZTE have become electronics giants in recent years by developing copycat products based on intellectual property theft and industrial espionage while playing footsie with bad actors like Iran. This has been abetted by the Chinese government, which has afforded them immense lending resources as part of China’s extraordinary rush to catch up to the United States and ultimately surpass America in almost every way possible.

The Chinese leaders did not have time for the kind of entrepreneurial organic growth of a Universal Robots or OnRobot. They wanted to leapfrog the agonizing trial and error and market flops that little startups have. So Huawei and ZTE and countless other firms stole their way to the top.

They did not have to try that hard to do it. Many large firms virtually handed the Chinese their intellectual property in exchange for market opportunity. Apple’s current falling earnings are a direct result of weakening iPhone sales in China as their competitors are making nice copies for half the price. The only edge Apple has left is their high-class brand, but that apple is now more than half eaten.

Apple was not naïve about China. Its gamble was that they would make billions of dollars in China before the intellectual property theft really bit, and then they would use that money to fund research which would net the next generation of killer phones or some other monster product.

The Chinese leadership’s gamble was that the American leadership would make the same short-range gamble as Apple. In exchange for gaining lucrative markets for America’s relatively cheap commodities, the U.S. would allow intellectual property theft without retribution and the looting of the American and Western European industrial complexes by subsidized ones in China. For example, the Chinese steel industry has grown to be by far the world’s biggest, and yet it is hopelessly inefficient, as the government has run it as a make-work project for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum have hurt American companies who use the materials, many of whom are our customers, as well as the Chinese. The Huawei case in which the founder’s daughter is the mouse who was caught in the trap in Vancouver, Canada, is as clear a signal as America can send to China — that things finally are changing.  It is starting to get uncomfortable for both the U.S. and China as the stalemate continues to bite.

Both countries have a huge amount at stake in the trade talks going on right now in Washington.  Shanghai is not Palo Alto.  It is not Odense. What is being exposed to the world at this moment is that despite the enormous growth in China over the last 30 years and its overarching ambition to surpass America in every way, it is weak at its core. It can be seen as similar to Japan in 1990.  Many futurists saw Japan surpassing the U.S. at that point, but despite America’s missteps, like the Iraq War, it did not happen.

China does not innovate. It mostly copies and steals intellectual property.  Its education system does not produce risk takers.  Nonconformists often end up in jail. I believe the top leaders in China understand this is a profound weakness, but it is extremely hard to address it because doing so would undermine the soft foundation of the country — economically, socially, and politically.

I think Donald Trump, the New York real estate developer and gut puncher, gets this. The amiable Bushes, Clinton, and Obama seemingly did not understand China’s basic weakness and refused to play the strong hand that they had.

The big question ahead of us is will Trump play his strong hand too aggressively and screw up the world economy, or will he find a path to a compromise? The Fed’s recent pullback on interest rate hikes was its statement that they are worried that the whole poker table might collapse.

Question: What copycat or knockoff products have you purchased?

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Ep. 3 – Part 2 of Miles Free Interview

By Noah Graff

Miles Free, Director of Research and Technology at the Precision Machined Products Association, opines on electric cars, economic patriotism and how American machine shops have evolved to thrive in today’s economy.

Question: Are tariffs aimed at China economic patriotism or a tool for the enemy?

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.

Honda Assembly Plant in Liberty OH   (Dayton Daily News)

 

 

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Manufacturing in Thailand – the “Detroit of the East”

Emily Halgrimson, Today’s Machining World’s Managing Editor, was invited to join 11 other journalists from the U.S. and Canada (six in the automotive sector and six in the food industry sector) by the government of Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI) on a four-day media tour to promote Thailand’s industry around Bangkok and the Southeastern seaboard.

Saturday, January 14th 10 a.m. – Left Chicago’s O’Hare International for Thailand on American Airlines. It’s not comforting to fly a bankrupt airline’s 757 over the Pacific. The distance is a drawback to North Americans doing business in Southeast Asia – 15 hours to Shanghai and another six to Thailand is a haul. I was pleased to find PBS’s excellent series, Downton Abbey, on the inflight entertainment, but slept most of the way thanks to Benadryl.

Sunday 10:30 p.m. – Arrived at the airport in Bangkok, and while waiting for the other journalists to arrive, ate some of my favorite Thai food of the trip – deep-fried pork with a red coconut curry sauce and Tom Yum soup. Made a vow to eat only Thai food for the duration  –  was not a problem. Transferred to our five-star hotel, Novotel, and were welcomed with plates of Thai deserts, wine and palm-to-palm bows by all.

Some of the journalists after a tour of Western Digital’s hard drive production facility

Monday 8 a.m. – Totally jet-lagged. We visited Western Digital’s (WD) plant in a recently flooded industrial estate near Bangkok and were met by John Coyne, President and CEO. Forty-five percent of the world’s hard drives are produced in Thailand, and WD, worth $10 billion, is the largest company. Their plant was under 1.9 meters of water only weeks before our visit. Divers come in for the most valuable equipment and moved it to a kind distributor’s facility 100 km away so they could decontaminate and repair it while the floodwaters lingered. WD employs 38,000 Thais, most who make under $10/day. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the modern clean plant was a total surprise. It contrasted heavily with outside the industrial parks, where the country’s poverty is more obvious. Western Digital’s projections for 2011 were $176 million; because of the flood they reached $119 million. No word yet on the cost of the cleanup.

The journalists preparing to enter the Board of Investment’s (BOI) Fair

Monday 11 a.m. – Headed across town to the Thailand Board of Investment’s (BOI) Fair. This was interesting. When Westerners hear the word “fair” we think animals and Ferris wheels. In Thailand, a fair is a showcase of the country’s industry direct to the consumer. The fair happens only once every 10 years and was a huge deal. The King of Thailand – whose authority and respect are reminiscent of Kim Jong-ll – is a “green nut,” and the green theme is seen country-wide. The “Royal Pavilion” showcased a “green themed” 3-D film, complete with a tree growing up from the middle of the room, and the finale – a real rain shower (watch your camera). Huge exhibits in the outdoor park included Toyota, the most popular carmaker in Thailand; Chevy, which had its own 3-D show about the evolution of the American-born automobile; and CP, a huge frozen food conglomerate born in Thailand who’s big in Costco. The show also had a beer garden (hint-hint IMTS organizers) and a joyous sort of “look what we have in Thailand” feel to it. The people of Thailand are proud of what they’ve done in attracting these international companies over the last 20-30 years, but seem cognizant of environmental mistakes the U.S. and China have made during their development, and are making an effort to not repeat them.

Tony Blair speaking at the CEO Forum Bangkok

Tuesday 8:30 a.m. – Attended the BOI CEO Forum. Guest speaker: Tony Blair. A very inspiring and encouraging speech. Interestingly, he noted strongly that America would not be where it is without its open immigration policies. Mr. Blair encouraged Thailand to create this immigration-friendly atmosphere now, and noted that Thailand has “enormous potential” – its people, geography, and relative stability. He emphasized that Thailand’s job was to let the world know that it’s “open for business.”

 

 

Tuesday 3:30 p.m. – Left Bangkok for Pattaya, a tourist city next to the Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate (ESIE) and checked into our spa hotel on the beach – filled with Russian vacationers. Two Thais told me that the Russians are disliked, they are stereotyped as being cheap.

Dinner on the beach in Pattaya

Development in the industrial estate was shocking, in a good way. The government invested millions in infrastructure to attract international companies interested in supplying the Eastern Hemisphere. Roads, electricity and water supply are new, modern and reliable. Ate a fresh seafood dinner at a beach restaurant while the sun disappeared over the ocean and the beer and conversation flowed. Beautiful.

Wednesday 9 a.m. – Visited American Axle & Manufacturing’s  (AAM) Rayong Manufacturing Facility in the Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate. AAM opened its Thailand operation in 2008. 2010 sales were $2.3 billion. They produce mostly axle systems, but also drivelines, drivetrain and chassis, and other metal-formed products for automotive. The plant is 124,000 square feet and is located in one of Thailand’s many “free zones,” (tax-free). They currently exclusively supply GM’s Thailand operation, but plan on doubling the size of their plant, as they will be supplying Volvo soon. The Auto Alliance Thailand (AAT) manufacturing facility, a joint venture with Mazda, which wouldn’t welcome us for a tour, produces the Ford Fiesta and lightweight trucks for that particular half of the world. I was told that Thailand can’t compete with China’s steel prices, so asked what Thailand’s advantage is over China and India. I was told that it’s Thailand’s supplier base. When GM orders a part, AAM must deliver within 70 minutes.

Journalists after a tour at the Thai Summit Group

Wednesday 11 a.m. – I was very interested to tour our first Thai-owned company, the Thai Summit Group, which started in 1977 and makes auto parts for major auto companies. The stamping and injection molding facility makes mainly front and rear bumpers for Mazda and Ford. The plant was impressive and had six 3,000-ton presses and can produce 800,000 bumpers and 6,000 chassis per year. Annual sales are about $10 million. There was a large difference in the atmosphere of the plants from the Western owned companies and this completely Thai run company. They have a basketball court just outside of the main office and President, Mr. Shigeo Sakaki, commented that the workforce there is young and has lots of energy, so they need to have activities for them. It was much more relaxed than Western Digital and American Axle. Young people roamed the grounds like on a college campus. It was nice. They’re obviously making money, but it felt like it would be a nice place to work.

A night out in Pattaya

Wednesday 2:30 p.m. – Visited Celestica Thailand, Celestica’s largest location in terms of revenue. They employ 5,630 people and are five minutes from the large port on the Eastern Seaboard and one hour from the airport. They mainly make networking equipment, high-end storage and servers and teleconference equipment (Web cams, phones, digital photo albums, etc.). They see their future in optical device assemblies for the Internet. The Senior Vice President, Mr. Duangtaweesub, was impressive. Thai born, he had studied 30 years ago in Washington State. He started the company, which was bought by Celestica a few years later. He has been running Celestica’s Asia operation ever since.

Thursday 9 a.m. – We were scheduled to visit Magna Automotive and Asia Precision Co. Ltd. in the Amata Industrial Estate, but Magna canceled because they couldn’t get permission from the U.S. office to let us in. Asia Precision was fascinating. It employs about 800 workers (mostly women, Mr. Karoonkornsakul, the CEO noted, because they’re patient, are very good with detail, and there’s little heavy lifting needed) and has over 400 CNC machines, almost all Japanese. They make parts for automotive and camera and their 2011 sales were $30 million, with $40 million expected in 2012. Most of their business comes from the East, but they are a key supplier for Emerson in the U.S., who has asked them to consider building a plant in Mexico, which they are researching now. They are also considering expanding into Indonesia, which the CEO commented would be “the next Thailand,” with production projections of 2 million autos in 2012.

Asia Precision hires mostly women because they are “patient, detail oriented, and the parts are light”

When the automotive crisis hit in 2008/9 they began making rollers for printers. In response to their foreign clients’ needs, they are trying to expand into medical and aerospace, and are facing many of the same hurdles American companies face: the need for skilled employees and regulatory know-how.

Thailand’s Buddhist culture was obvious at Asia Precision. They have weekly company-wide meetings followed by meditation and a singing of their national anthem, and are heavily involved in giving back to their community through projects. They also had the first recycling center we saw, the proceeds of which are donated to the poor. Most of the employees, who are typically age 20-25, are recruited from villages in the north, and once a year they return home for the holidays. They are also very into exercise and health, recently holding a company marathon to raise money for flood victims. The atmosphere of the company was relaxing and the CEO mentioned they have very little employee conflict. It was refreshing to see a company that makes money but has quality of life at the forefront.

A training room at the Thai-German Institute

Thursday 3 p.m. – Visited the Thai-German Institute, a government training program for industry. This was interesting – I kept wondering why the U.S. isn’t doing something similar, it seemed so obvious. This organization started in 1992 with German funds with the goal of providing high-tech workers to industry. It is now run by Thailand’s Minister of Industry and trains 2000-3000 young people per year, mostly in mold and die technology, but also in automation and machining. It provides workers to the industrial estates in the south, who pay a fee for each worker they hire. Recruiters from training programs like these go to the north in search of competent, bright, high school graduates whom they lure to the south with the promise of decent salaries, subsidized lodgings, and per diems for the duration of training. Then they find them jobs. It appears to be a very win-win system that’s working for Thailand.

Question: Would you consider moving your business or finding suppliers overseas to save money?

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Why is my business so good if the economy is so bad?

CBS news announced in January that Austin, Texas, leads the U.S. in job growth and CNN has it in its list of the 10 fastest growing cities

I attended the Precision Machined Products Association’s annual meeting in Austin over the weekend. The question I heard often was, “Why is my business so good if the economy is so bad?” Unfortunately the speakers hardly addressed this topic, so I will try to explain it.

1) Structural changes in the world economy now favor American manufacturing. A lot of businesses have gone away in the last 10 years. They’ve closed, moved to China, downsized, gone bust, or merged—and not much has started up in the last decade and a half. Manufacturing was downsizing in the ’90s but it was masked because of the Internet and telecom boom.

2) Automotive is coming back, but we mistakenly think of automotive as just GM, Ford and Chrysler—American vendors are doing a lot of work with Toyota, Honda, and Mercedes, too. High yen and Euro values relative to the past make America a low cost producer.

3) Relentless productivity advances in manufacturing makes for better margins. The press mistakes “restructuring” and cutting people as indicative of bad business. It may be the reason for continued good business. Head count and profits no longer rise together and even the Wall Street Journal misses it.

4) Contrary to popular opinion we are starting to get better young people to join manufacturing. Old people always think the younger generation is shiftless and inept, but I think that the notion that you cannot recruit capable new people is obsolete in this labor climate. Nonexistent desk jobs no longer look appealing next to $80,000 machinist jobs with benefits.

5) China is struggling to compete—wages are rising 15-20 percent per year, the workforce turns over constantly, there is a shortage of skills, and high-energy costs. The realization of what it really costs to make things in China with the travel, logistics, and quality issues has made outsourcing to China less attractive for American firms.

6) Innovation. If you look at big companies like Apple, Cummins and Amazon.com you see that America still has game. Add the brilliance of our farmers and the revolution in oil and gas production with horizontal drilling and you see a core economy that is thriving and world class, but one does not necessarily hire unemployed 56-year-old bankers.

All of this does not mean that Europe is not a mess and that retired Chicago teachers are going to get the pensions that were promised them for the next 50 years. The world economy is in the throes of a nasty restructuring not that different than what American manufacturing has gone through for the last 15 years. I like our odds. I wouldn’t bet on the French though.

Question: Do you feel optimistic about 2012?

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Is China the Next Enron

By Lloyd Graff

James Chanos

James Chanos

Jim Chanos is famous for identifying the Enron scam, shorting the company’s stock and making a fortune. He runs a hedge fund named Kynikos Associates, which means cynic in Greek. He specializes in spotting emperors without clothes and is currently betting big that the Empire of China is a naked power.

He compares China to Miami and Dubai of recent memory. The common thread is runaway condominium and office construction, huge real estate inflation and a shortage of able buyers. He says that today, all over China, high-rise buildings are rising, fueled by aggressive bank lending to developers. They are building 1,100 square foot shell apartments without floors, and selling them—or attempting to sell them, for around $150,000. The problem is that even though half are going empty, they are still building. With middle class dual earner couples earning an average of $3,500 a year, buying a $150,000 apartment would be the equivalent of an American couple making $40,000 a year buying an $800,000 home. We saw how that worked out in 2007.

Chanos sees the phenomenal growth numbers in China being fueled primarily by real estate speculation and construction. In his view it is unsustainable. State and local governments are being funded by real estate development, so they have an interest in seeing it accelerate. They will suffer mightily when the bubble bursts.

Chanos feels the problem in China is that the central planners set a growth goal, say nine percent, and then tell the underlings to make sure it happens. The easiest way to do it, other than fudge the numbers (which they may do), is to let the builders build with easy money.

What happens if Chanos is right and the giant cranes go away like they did in Dubai and Miami? He feels that the raw materials companies who are supplying the steel, copper and cement will suffer immediately. Copper at $3.60 a pound could plummet, as well as iron ore and scrap prices. Crane companies will get killed. He feels that the Chinese currency, which everybody including the Obama administration is hoping will rise when it is no longer pegged—will fall. Incidentally, Gary Schilling, the noted bearish economist who predicted the American stock market collapse (not the rebound, however) also feels the Yuan will fall in value when it is allowed to float.

Jim Chanos is a very smart guy. He sees the Chinese bubble bursting later this year or in 2011. The Chinese have enormous reserves in dollars to soften the blow and may tighten credit dramatically soon to try to avert a property crash. China bashers may be happy to see the country suffer and revel in lower raw material prices, but with an interconnected world, be careful what you hope for.

Question: Do you hope China collapses?

Lux Hills community in China

Lux Hills community in China

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