The Shifting Economics of Global Manufacturing

The Shifting Economics of Global Manufacturing

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The Shifting Economics of Global Manufacturing

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  • Four Diverging Paths

    Adecade of volatile changes in exchange rates and labor and energy costs has resulted in striking shifts in relative manufacturing-cost structures among the top 25 export economies. Manufacturing competitiveness—once concentrated in a few regions—is now truly global. There has also been a dramatic reordering of cost competitiveness among specific countries around the world.

    As we dug more deeply into these macroeconomic trends, we identified four common patterns that describe cost shifts occurring in the majority of the economies in our index. We grouped these economies into categories that we describe as under pressure,losing ground, holding steady, and rising global stars.

    Under Pressure

    Five countries that have traditionally been regarded as low-cost manufacturing bases have seen their competitive edge erode significantly from 2004 to 2014: Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. In several of these countries, average manufacturing costs are now estimated to be higher than those of the U.S. Brazil experienced the most dramatic swing: its average costs were around 3 percent lower than in the U.S. in 2004 and are estimated to be 23 percent higher in 2014. In 2004, average costs in Poland and Russia were estimated to be 6 percent and 13 percent cheaper, respectively, than in the U.S. Now they are both roughly at parity. Costs in the Czech Republic were around 3 percent lower than in the U.S. in 2004 but are now an estimated 7 percent higher than in the U.S. China’s estimated manufacturing-cost advantage over the U.S. has shrunk from 14 percent to just 4 percent over that period.

    The key factors driving these changes vary widely by economy. Skyrocketing labor and energy costs have eroded the competitiveness of China and Russia. A decade ago, for example, manufacturing wages adjusted for productivity averaged an estimated $4.35 an hour in China and $6.76 in Russia, compared with $17.54 in the U.S. Again, adjusted for productivity differences, labor costs have roughly tripled in both countries, to an estimated $12.47 an hour in China and $21.90 in Russia. Average productivity-adjusted manufacturing labor costs in the U.S. have risen by only 27 percent since 2004, to $22.32. The cost of industrial electricity increased by an estimated 66 percent in China and 78 percent in Russia, while the cost of natural gas soared by an estimated 138 percent in China and 202 percent in Russia from 2004 to 2014. (See Exhibit 6.)


    The erosion of Russia’s energy-cost advantage may seem surprising. Russia is a major exporter of natural gas and oil, and domestic manufacturers pay around 30 percent less for gas than industrial customers in the U.S. But Russian gas prices have risen sharply compared with those in the U.S. Why? The dramatic increase of the production of shale gas has caused U.S. prices to drop sharply. Russia still relies on conventional natural gas, which has become more expensive. So even though Russian manufacturers continue to enjoy the world’s lowest natural-gas costs for industrial manufacturers, the cost advantage over the U.S. has significantly narrowed. Russia’s manufacturing competitiveness is further weakened by factors that are not included in our cost index. In international indices, Russia ranks a low 92nd for ease of doing business, 95th for logistics performance, and 127th for the perception of corruption.

    Brazil has lost ground across all dimensions. It should be noted that despite being regarded as a major emerging market, Brazil was not a significantly cheaper manufacturing destination than the U.S.—once productivity was factored in—even a decade ago. However, the situation has become worse. Higher wages combined with very weak productivity growth accounted for more than three-quarters of a 26 percentage-point manufacturing-cost increase compared with the U.S. from 2004 to 2014.

    Brazilian factory wages have more than doubled in the past ten years. Higher incomes are typically a healthy sign of development. And the past decade was one of steady and stable economic growth that enabled millions of households to leap from poverty to the middle class. But rising wages were not offset by productivity gains. Indeed, total labor productivity improved by only 1 percent per year from 2004 to 2014—ranking Brazil 19th out of the 25 economies in our index on this dimension.

    Previous BCG research has shown that Brazil’s high wage growth and weak productivity gains can largely be attributed to a shortage of talent, underinvestment, inadequate infrastructure, and an excessively complex and costly institutional framework for business. (See Brazil: Confronting the Productivity Challenge, BCG report, January 2013.) A doubling of industrial-electricity costs and a nearly 60 percent leap in natural-gas costs have also hurt competitiveness. Because of these factors, Brazil is tied with Italy and Belgium as the fourth least-cost-competitive manufacturing economy in our index, ahead of only Australia, Switzerland, and France.

    Poland was the most cost-competitive economy in Europe a decade ago, and it remains well positioned compared with its neighbors. It has an estimated 20 percentage-point cost advantage over Germany, for example, although that has narrowed slightly from 23 points in 2004. But because of higher energy costs and rising wages, Poland has lost ground to some of the strongest global competitors. The country generated moderate productivity growth of approximately 38 percent from 2004 to 2014, but this benefit was largely offset by currency appreciation.

    Losing Ground

    Manufacturing costs in most of Western Europe were relatively high a decade ago, and cost competitiveness has weakened considerably in several countries. Average manufacturing costs in Belgium rose by an estimated 7 percent compared with those in the U.S. They rose by 8 percent in Sweden; 10 percent in France, Italy, and Switzerland; and 21 percent in Australia. (See Exhibit 7.)


    Rising energy costs, strong currencies, and weak productivity growth are the main culprits. Electricity costs have risen by an average of 59 percent in the six economies. Natural-­gas costs have soared by an estimated 94 percent since 2004 on average. Wages in those countries losing ground rose by approximately 10 percent more than they did in the U.S., while productivity growth lagged that of the U.S. by an estimated 10 percent. In Australia, for example, wages rose by 48 percent from 2004 to 2014, and labor productivity remained virtually flat. (See “Australia: Losing Ground.”)

    To get a sense of how dramatically productivity gains have lagged in some losing-ground countries, consider the following comparison. In South Korea, average output per manufacturing worker increased by nearly 56 percent from 2004 to 2014. In Italy, output per worker declined by more than 6 percent over that same period. Italy’s performance also is in stark contrast with that of neighboring Austria, where output per worker rose by around 24 percent since 2004. Even though Austria has the sixth-highest average factory wage of the 25 countries in our index, its relative cost competitiveness did not drop significantly over the past decade as productivity gains helped to offset other increases.

    Relatively inflexible labor markets also contribute to the high productivity-adjusted labor costs in most losing-ground countries. France, another laggard in productivity, illustrates some of the challenges. From 2004 to 2014, this economy’s growth in output per worker was approximately 14 percent lower than that of the U.S. Part of the reason is that France has the most rigid work rules of any major exporting economy in our index. For example, the official workday is seven hours, employers must pay for 30 days of annual leave for workers, and night work is highly restricted.

    Holding Steady

    Four countries in our group of 25—representing both developing and developed economies—managed to sustain their cost competitiveness from 2004 to 2014, despite higher global energy costs. They are India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and the UK. Overall costs in each nation changed by no more than 2 percent in either direction compared with the U.S.

    These four nations have significantly increased their cost competitiveness within their regions. The direct-manufacturing cost structures of the UK and the Netherlands, for example, have improved against each of the other ten European economies in our index as well as against Russia. Likewise, India and Indonesia have improved their cost competitiveness compared with each of the five other Asia-Pacific economies. As such, we refer to the UK, the Netherlands, India, and Indonesia as “regional rising stars.”

    The UK has emerged as the lowest-cost manufacturing economy of Western Europe, just ahead of Spain. The UK’s indexed competitiveness improved by an estimated 5 percentage points relative to Belgium, 6 points relative to Poland, 8 points relative to France, and 9 points relative to Switzerland. The UK’s flexible labor market, which makes it easier to adjust the size of the workforce when economic circumstances change, is a major competitive edge. (See “The UK: A Rising Regional Star.”) The UK, therefore, may be a more attractive proposition as a location for investment in new capacity.

    In the Netherlands, productivity-adjusted labor costs fell from 2004 to 2014 relative to the U.S. That is because manufacturing wages rose by only around 1.7 percent annually during that period, while productivity grew by an estimated 2 percent annually. Natural gas and electricity for industrial users cost approximately 10 to 30 percent less in the Netherlands than in most of its European neighbors.

    Manufacturing costs in India and Indonesia experienced more significant movement, rising in some dimensions but declining in others. Even though average manufacturing wages more than doubled in both countries over the past decade, these increases were offset by productivity gains and by currency devaluation. The Indian rupee declined by 26 percent against the U.S. dollar from 2004 to 2014, while the Indonesian rupiah fell by 20 percent. Energy costs increased relatively modestly. The price of natural gas rose by 5.2 percent annually from 2004 to 2014 in Indonesia and by 6.5 percent annually in India—substantially less than in other leading Asian manufacturing economies.

    Both India and Indonesia could take better advantage of their low labor and energy costs to significantly increase exports of manufactured goods if they could improve in other areas that currently hinder their competitiveness. Even though Indonesia has the lowest direct cost structure of the world’s top 25 exporting countries, it earned the number 59 spot in logistics performance, 114 in corruption perception, and a lowly 120 in ease of doing business. In addition, Indonesia needs to improve its local supply base to reduce its reliance on imported materials, parts, and machinery. India’s low-cost advantage is significantly offset by its low rankings on logistics performance (46), corruption perception (94), and ease of doing business (134). (See “India: Holding Steady.”)

    The indices consulted are the Transparency International 2013 Corruption Perception Index, the 2013 Economic Intelligence Unit Overall Business Environment Ranking, and the World Bank Logistics Performance Index.
    Rising Global Stars

    The manufacturing cost competitiveness of the U.S. and Mexico improved substantially over the past decade compared with all the other economies in our index. For these two rising global stars, productivity-adjusted wages and currency rates have remained stable or improved relative to the other countries. Both nations also have very competitive energy costs. (See Exhibit 8.)


    Mexico has regained its status as a leading low-cost manufacturing base. The country enjoyed a surge of manufacturing investment and booming exports to the U.S. following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. But a significant share of factory work went to China after that country entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. The pendulum is now starting to swing back.

    The biggest factor is the cost of labor adjusted for productivity. In 2000, Mexican manufacturing labor was roughly twice as expensive as Chinese manufacturing labor. Since 2004, however, Chinese wages have nearly quintupled, and Mexican wages have risen by only 67 percent—less than 50 percent in dollar terms. And despite the fact that China has had higher productivity growth, the average Mexican productivity-adjusted labor costs are now estimated to be 13 percent lower than those of China. Add attractive electricity and natural-gas costs, and Mexico’s total costs are estimated to be 5 percent below those of China, 9 percent below those of the U.S., 10 percent below those of Poland, 11 percent below those of South Korea, and a full 25 percent below those of Brazil. (See “Mexico: A Rising Global Star.”)

    The manufacturing-cost gap between the U.S. and other highly developed economies widened significantly from 2004 to 2014. Average U.S. costs are now estimated to be 9 percentage points lower than those of the UK, 11 points lower than in Japan, 21 points lower than in Germany, and 24 points lower than in France. Of the large developed-economy exporters, only South Korea—at roughly 2 percent higher costs—is close. Indeed, as discussed in previous BCG research, the U.S. has emerged as the lowest-cost manufacturing location of the developed world. (See Behind the American Export Surge: The U.S. as One of the Developed World’s Lowest-Cost Manufacturers, BCG Focus, August 2013.) At the same time, the U.S. has achieved approximate cost parity with low-cost countries in Eastern Europe. The cost gap with China has shrunk dramatically and, if the trend of the last ten years continues, will disappear before the end of the decade.

    Labor is one key to the growing U.S. competitive advantage. The U.S. has one of the developed world’s most flexible labor markets, ranking as the most favorable economy in terms of labor regulation among the top 25 manufacturing exporters. The U.S. also has by far the highest worker productivity among the world’s 25 biggest manufactured-goods exporters. Adjusted for productivity, U.S. labor costs are an estimated 20 to 54 percent lower than those of Western Europe and Japan for many products.

    The big U.S. energy-cost advantage is a recent development. While industrial prices for natural gas have risen around the world, they have fallen in the U.S. by around 50 percent since 2005, when large-scale recovery from underground shale deposits began in earnest. Natural gas currently costs more than three times as much in China, France, and Germany than in the U.S.—and nearly four times as much in Japan. In addition to being an important feedstock for industries such as chemicals, low-priced shale gas has also helped keep electricity prices in the U.S. below those of most other major exporters. That translates into a sizable cost advantage for energy-intensive industries such as steel and glass. Natural gas accounts for only 2 percent of average U.S. manufacturing costs, and electricity represents just 1 percent. But in most other major goods-exporting countries, natural gas accounts for 5 to 8 percent of manufacturing costs and electricity for 2 to 5 percent. (See “Nearly Every Manufacturer in the U.S. Will Benefit from Low-Cost Natural Gas,” BCG press release, February 13, 2014.)

    Because of its vast reserves, U.S. prices are expected to remain within a range of $4 to $5 per thousand cubic feet for several decades. What’s more, because it will take time before other nations are able to begin large-scale recovery of shale gas or before the U.S. can export domestic supplies, the cost advantage will remain largely exclusive to North America for at least five to ten years.

    Several leading manufacturing export economies didn’t fit into our four categories because shifts in their cost structures didn’t follow one of the distinct patterns. (See Exhibit 9.) While Germany and Japan lost ground relative to economies such as the UK, the U.S., and the Netherlands, for example, they held steady or gained ground relative to China, Brazil, and many European economies. For South Korea and Taiwan, cost positions deteriorated compared with the U.S., India, and Indonesia, but these two economies gained significant ground on other emerging markets, such as China, Russia, Thailand, Poland, and the Czech Republic—and they gained a lot of ground relative to Brazil, Australia, and France. Although Canada lost 11 percentage points in cost competitiveness relative to the U.S. since 2004, it didn’t meet our criteria as a losing-ground economy because it has also benefited from declining natural-gas costs.