• Strategy
  • The Economist

The Collapse of Manufacturing

The financial crisis has created an industrial crisis. What should governments do about it?

$0.00, not counting fuel and handling: that is the cheapest quote right now if you want to ship a container from southern China to Europe. Back in the summer of 2007 the shipper would have charged $1,400. Half-empty freighters are just one sign of a worldwide collapse in manufacturing. In Germany December’s machine-tool orders were 40 percent lower than a year earlier. Half of China’s 9,000 or so toy exporters have gone bust. Taiwan’s shipments of notebook computers fell by a third in the month of January. The number of cars being assembled in America was 60 percent below January 2008.

The destructive global power of the financial crisis became clear last year. The immensity of the manufacturing crisis is still sinking in, largely because it is seen in national terms-indeed, often nationalistic ones. In fact manufacturing is also caught up in a global whirlwind.

Industrial production fell in the latest three months by 3.6 percent and 4.4 percent respectively in America and Britain (equivalent to annual declines of 13.8 percent and 16.4 percent). Some locals blame that on Wall Street and the City. But the collapse is much worse in countries more dependent on manufacturing exports, which have come to rely on consumers in debtor countries. Germany’s industrial production in the fourth quarter fell by 6.8 percent; Taiwan’s by 21.7 percent; Japan’s by 12 percent-which helps to explain why GDP is falling even faster there than it did in the early 1990s (see article). Industrial production is volatile, but the world has not seen a contraction like this since the first oil shock in the 1970s-and even that was not so widespread. Industry is collapsing in eastern Europe, as it is in Brazil, Malaysia and Turkey. Thousands of factories in southern China are now abandoned. Their workers went home to the countryside for the new year in January. Millions never came back (see article).

Factories floored

Having bailed out the financial system, governments are now being called on to save industry, too. Next to scheming bankers, factory workers look positively deserving. Manufacturing is still a big employer and it tends to be a very visible one, concentrated in places like Detroit, Stuttgart and Guangzhou. The failure of a famous manufacturer like General Motors (GM) would be a severe blow to people’s faith in their own prospects when a lack of confidence is already dragging down the economy. So surely it is right to give industry special support?

Despite manufacturing’s woes, the answer is no. There are no painless choices, but industrial aid suffers from two big drawbacks. One is that government programmes, which are slow to design and amend, are too cumbersome to deal with the varied, constantly changing difficulties of the world’s manufacturing industries. Part of the problem has been a drying-up of trade finance. Nobody knows how long that will last. Another part has come as firms have run down their inventories (in China some of these were stockpiles amassed before the Beijing Olympics). The inventory effect should be temporary, but, again, nobody knows how big or lasting it will be.

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