What’s the “long-game” in the U.S.-China trade conflict?

The efforts to craft a new trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China have run into some pretty major roadblocks in recent weeks and months.

Things came to another inflection point this week when President Trump announced that new tariffs would be imposed on more Chinese goods imported into the United States. As of September 1, pretty much all categories of Chinese imports will now be subject to tariffs.

If we look at the impact the protracted impasse has had on markets, the repercussions are plain to see. One result we’ve seen is that China has dipped from making up the largest portion of trade with the United States to being in third place now, behind Mexico and Canada:

But what’s the long-term prognosis for a trade deal with China? Recent world (and USA) statistics point to softening of the economy, which could have negative consequences across the board.

When it comes to perspectives on economic and business matters involving China and the Pacific Rim, I like to check in with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for more than 20 years.  He has first-hand experience working in the Chinese market and is keenly aware of the issues of intellectual property protection, which is a major bone of contention between the United States and China and is one of the factors in the trade negotiations.  (Nelson runs a software company which has chosen to forego the Chinese market because of regulations requiring software firms that set up a joint ventures with Chinese companies to disclose their source code — something his firm will never do.)

I asked Nelson to share his thoughts about what he sees happening in the coming months.  Here are his observations:

Chinese President Xi has a lot on his plate right now. It isn’t just the U.S. trade war but also the Hong Kong disturbances, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S. sending warships through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and China’s domestic banking sector weakness, to name just some. Trump has also put President Xi in a tight spot by demanding (or getting) Xi’s assurances that China will buy more U.S. agricultural products and will enact legislation protecting foreign intellectual property.  

In spite of his very substantial power, I predict that Xi will have a very tough time ramming Trump’s conditions down the throats of his countrymen. 

I should mention that the biggest issue here is intellectual property protection. The draft agreement that China “almost” signed had assurances that IP protection laws will be enacted, but Xi apparently nixed that draft whereupon the Chinese government stated that no government can promise, when negotiating a treaty with a foreign country, to change its domestic laws.

Technically, they’re right. For example, President Trump can’t commit to changing U.S. laws because only the Congress can do that under the constitutional separation of powers. Similarly, on paper, only China’s National People’s Congress (the national legislature) can change Chinese laws, and President Xi is not a member of the National People’s Congress. (Of course, this explanation conveniently overlooks the fact that both the Presidency and the National People’s Congress are subservient to the Communist Party of China, and that Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but still it’s technically correct.)

In view of all this, the natural Chinese instinct is to wait … and in this case, wait until the 2020 U.S. election and see what happens. If Trump is defeated for re-election, then perhaps many of Xi’s problems will disappear magically. On the other hand, if Trump stays in office maybe the pain that Trump’s China trade policy is inflicting on U.S. businesses and consumers will force Trump to lighten up a bit.  

In other words, President Xi has much to gain and relatively little to lose by playing the waiting game for a while. 

As for U.S. tariffs, those are causing Chinese businesses to adapt their supply chains by routing them through other East and Southeast Asian countries which are not subject to the tariffs. For instance, instead of sending products straight to the U.S., Chinese manufacturers are sending products to Vietnam or Thailand where a tiny bit of additional work is done – just enough to qualify for a “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Thailand” label. (This adaptation partially explains Thailand’s large trade surplus which has made the Thai Baht one of the world’s best-performing currencies this year.)  

These maneuvers actually provide a safety valve for both Xi and Trump. For Xi, it cushions the reduction in demand for Chinese exports. At the same time it puts some additional pressure on Trump because this type of safety valve does not really exist for U.S. exporters trying to evade reciprocal Chinese tariffs.  But on the plus side for Trump, it tends to dampen the impact of higher tariffs pushing up U.S. producer and consumer prices.

If you ask me to bottom-line this, the trade problems look more like a protracted siege than an episode of brinksmanship.

How the siege is resolved depends on how strong Trump’s position will be after the 2020 election. If the Democrats continue with their leftward lurch, then Xi will eventually have to cave because Trump’s position will be strong (I’d say a 65% probability of re-election). But if the Democrats come to their senses and Trump continues shooting himself in the foot, then he’s in real danger of losing the election and Xi will come up the big winner (I’d give this a 35% probability as of today). 

So there you have it: the prognosis from someone who is “on the ground” in East Asia.  What are your thoughts?  Are you in broad agreement or do you see things differently?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Evidently, America isn’t in IKEA’s manufacturing future …

Going, going, gone …

Over the past several years, the political mantra has been that jobs are now coming back to the United States – particularly manufacturing ones.

That may well be. But this past week we’ve learned that IKEA plans to close its last remaining U.S. production facility.  The iconic home furnishings company has announced that it will be closing its manufacturing plant in Danville, Virginia by the end of the year.

The Danville plant makes wood-based furniture and furnishings for IKEA’s retail store outlets in the United States and Canada.

The reason for the plant closure, as it turns out, is a bit ironic. According to IKEA, high raw materials costs in North America are triggering the move, because those costs are actually significantly lower in Europe than they are here.  Even accounting for other input costs like labor that are higher in Europe, shifting production to Europe will keep product prices lower for U.S. retailers, IKEA claims.

So much for the notion that imports from Europe are overpriced compared to domestically produced ones!

The Danville plant isn’t even that old, either. Far from being some multi-story inefficient dinosaur left over from a half-century ago, the manufacturing facility opened only in 2008, making it only about a decade old.  At its peak the plant employed around 400 people.

IKEA made staff cuts or around 20% earlier in the year, before following up with this latest announcement that will wipe out 300 more jobs in a community that can scarcely withstand such large economic shocks.

With the closure of Danville, IKEA will still have more than 40 production plants operating around the world. It employs around 20,000 workers in those plants (out of a total workforce of ~160,000, most of which are employed in the company’s vast retail and distribution business activities).

So, it doesn’t appear that IKEA will be exiting the manufacturing sector anytime soon.  It’s just that … those manufacturing activities no longer include the United States.

As a certain well-known U.S. political leader might say, “Sad!”

The wider implications of the “deliver it to my door” mentality.

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the impact of online retail on bricks-and-mortar sectors like shopping centers.  More than a few of them have started looking like Potemkin Villages. Some forecasts predict that the number of indoor shopping malls in America will contract by as much as one-third in the coming years.

On the other hand, the changing dynamics of e-tailing are having the opposite effect when it comes to shipping logistics … because not only are consumers shopping online in record numbers, they’re also taking advantage of delivery options that are bringing merchandise directly to them in 24 or 48 hours – even same-day deliveries in some cases.

What this means is that the efficiencies in procurement, inventory and distribution that drove many distribution centers to be built in outlying locations aren’t exactly working in today’s “deliver it to me and deliver it to me now” mindset.

[This is why we’re hearing about solutions such as drone deliveries – but that’s still a ways in the future and could eventually begin to cause congestion in a new realm – up in the air.]

In the meantime, more delivery vehicles than ever are competing with commuter traffic on already-congested highways during peak time periods. A shortage of qualified truckers is spurring development of driverless trucking, while the delivery system as a whole is running at full capacity (if not full efficiency).

Of particular concern is the so-called “last mile” delivery aspect in urban environments. It isn’t merely the issue of traffic congestion.  It’s also city planning codes (outdated), parking restrictions (made even more difficult thanks to the current fad in “progressive” cities of adding bike lanes while removing on-street stopping and parking), and load limitations (adding even more challenges and complexity).

But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some interesting developments happening to address the challenges. The use of data analytics is growing exponentially, with route maps, GPS data, and real-time expected-versus-actual travel time updates allowing for transport rerouting to happen “in the moment.”

Other novel solutions, such as smart lockers that receive multiple shipments in a central location, plus the use of mobile warehouses within urban areas enabling less reliance on the big remote distribution centers, are emerging.

Burgeoning ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are contributing to more congestion in urban areas – just think how many more ride-sharing vehicles are on the road today compared to taxi cabs in the past. But in rural or remote areas the opposite issue is in play – difficult accessibility.  This is where drone deliveries are a welcome development — including during in the wake of natural disaster occurrences where traditional transportation methods might be impossible — or at the very least highly dangerous.

What are your thoughts about the friction between “convenience and congestion”?  Will technology help us smooth out the rough edges — or are we in for even more frustrations?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Have KPIs become a crutch for businesses?

Relying on Key Performance Indicators has become the norm in many business operations. And why not?  Properly defined and managed, KPIs help businesses focus on the right priorities and chart progress towards their goals.

But even well-designed KPIs have their limitations. By their nature, they’re not greatly insightful (they’re indicators, after all).  The problem is that very often, KPIs are used as if they are.

One of the attractions of focusing on KPIs is their simplicity. Managers love boiling things down to concise, action-oriented statements and phrases.  We hear it all the time from senior leadership.  “Give us the bottom-line finding,” they emphasize.

“Business by bullet-point,” if you will.

But here’s the thing: Because of their distilled simplicity, KPIs can lure many a businessperson into overestimating the insights that they’re able to provide.

KPIs do provide a jumping-off point, but the underlying “why” is often still conjecture or a hypothesis. It takes discipline to look for deeper insights and corroborating evidence to really understand what KPIs are saying to us.

Addressing this issue, Shiv Gupta, data analytics specialist par excellence and head of Quantum Sight, has noted:

“Anyone who has worked on developing KPIs knows that it is a game of balance and compromise based on business objectives. The need for actionable information battles with the desire for simple metrics.”

Database marketer Stephen Yu of Willow Data Strategy makes another great point when he writes:

“We all have seen many “death by KPI” [situations] when organizations look at things the wrong way. When someone is lost while driving, [to] keep looking at the dashboard of the car won’t get the driver out of trouble. In a time like that, one must turn on a navigator.  Different solutions call for different analytics, and popular KPIs – no matter how insightful they may have been – often do not lead to solutions.”

What have been your experiences in working with KPIs in your business? How have they helped … or not?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

“By any means necessary”: China’s Huawei Technologies flies close to the sun in its quest commandeer proprietary technology.

Not all-smiles at the moment … Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In China, it’s difficult to discern where private industry ends and the government begins. At some level, we’ve been aware of that conundrum for decades.

Still … opportunities for doing business in the world’s largest country have been a tempting siren call for American companies. And over the past 15+ years, conducting that business has seemed like the “right and proper” thing to do — what with China joining the G-8+5 economic powers along with incessant cheerleading by the U.S. Department of Commerce, abetted by proactive endeavors of other quasi-governmental groups promoting the interests of American commerce across the globe.

But it’s 2019 and circumstances have changed. It began with a change in political administrations in the United States several years ago, following which a great deal more credence has been given to the undercurrent of unease businesspeople have felt about the manner in which supposedly proprietary engineering and manufacturing technologies have suddenly popped up in China as if by magic, pulling the rug out from under American producers.

Nearly three years into the new presidential administration, we’re seeing evidence of this “new skepticism” begin to play out in concrete ways. One of the most eye-catching developments – and a stunning fall from grace – is Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. (world headquarters: Shenzhen, China), one of the world’s largest makers of cellphones and high-end telecom equipment.

As recounted by NPR’s Weekend Edition reporter Emily Feng a few days ago, Huawei stands accused of some of the most blatant forms of technology-stealing.  Recently, the Trump administration banned all American companies from using Huawei equipment in its 5G infrastructure and is planning to implement even more punitive measures that will effectively prevent U.S. companies from doing any business at all with Huawei.

Banning of Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure isn’t directly related to the theft of intellectual property belonging to Huawei’s prospective U.S. suppliers.  Rather, it’s a response to the perceived threat that the Chinese government will use Huawei equipment installed in U.S. 5G mobile networks to surreptitiously conduct espionage for military, political or economic purposes far into the future.

In other words, as one of the world’s largest telecom players, Huawei is perceived as a direct threat to non-Chinese interests not just on one front, but two: the demand side and the supply side.  The demand-side threat is why the Trump administration has banned Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure, and it has also publicly warned the U.K. government to implement a similar ban.

As for the supply side, the Weekend Edition report recounts the intellectual property theft experience of U.S.-based AKHAN Semiconductor when it started working with Huawei. AKHAN has developed and perfected an ingenious form of diamond-coated glass – a rugged engineered surface perfectly suited for smartphone screens.

Huawei expressed interest in purchasing the engineered glass for use in its own products. Nothing wrong with that … but Huawei used product samples provided by AKHAN under strict usage-and-return guidelines to reverse-engineer the technology, in direct contravention of those explicit conditions – and in violation of U.S. export control laws as well.

AKHAN discovered the deception because its product samples had been broken into pieces via laser cutting, and only a portion of them were returned to AKHAN upon demand.

When confronted about the matter, Huawei’s company officials in America admitted flat-out that the missing pieces had been sent to China.  AKHAN enlisted the help of the FBI, and in the ensuing months was able to build a sufficient case that resulted in a raid on Huawei’s U.S. offices in San Diego.

The supply side and demand side threats are two fronts — but are related.  One of the biggest reasons why Huawei kit has been selected, or is being considered, for deployment on 5G mobile networks worldwide is due to its low cost. The Chinese government, so the thinking goes, “seduces” telecom operators into buying the Huawei kit by undercutting all competitors, thereby gaining access to countless espionage opportunities. To maintain its financial footing Huawei must keep its costs as low as it can, and one way is to avoid R&D expenses by stealing intellectual property from would-be suppliers.

AKHAN is just the latest – if arguably the most dramatic – example of Huawei’s pattern of technology “dirty tricks” — others being a suit brought by Motorola against Huawei for stealing trade secrets (settled out of court), and T-Mobile’s suit for copying a phone-testing robot which resulted in Huawei paying millions of dollars in damages.

The particularly alarming – and noxious – part of the Huawei saga is that many of its employees in the United States (nearly all of them Chinese) weren’t so keen on participating in the capers, but found that their concerns and warnings went unheeded back home.

In other words – the directive was to get the technology and the trade secrets, come what may.

This kind of behavior is one borne from something that’s far bigger than a single company … it’s a directive that’s coming from “China, Inc.”  Translation: The Chinese government.

The actions of the Trump administration regarding trade policy and protecting intellectual property can seem boorish, awkward and even clumsy at times. But in another sense, it’s a breath of fresh air after decades of the well-groomed, oh-so-proper “experts” who thought they were the smartest people in the room — but were being taken to the cleaners again and again.

What are your thoughts about “yesterday, today and the future” of trade, industrial espionage and technology transfer vis a vis China? Are we in a new era of tougher controls and tougher standards, or is this going to be only a momentary setback in China’s insatiable desire to become the world’s most important economy?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

Boeing: Late to the reputation recovery party? Or not showing up at all?

Debris field from the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash (March 10, 2019).

It’s been exactly two months since the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 Boeing plane that killed all 157 passengers and crew on board. But as far as Boeing’s PR response is concerned, it might as well never ever happened.

Of course, sticking one’s corporate head in the sand doesn’t make problems go away — and in the case of Boeing, clearly the markets have been listening.

Since the crash, Boeing stock has lost more than $27 billion in market value — or nearly 15% — from its top value of $446 per share.

The problem is, the Ethiopian incident has laid bare stories of whistle blowers and ongoing maintenance issues regarding Boeing planes. But the company seems content to let these stories just hang out there, suspended in the air.

With no focused corporate response of any real coherence, it’s casting even greater doubt in the minds of the air traveling public about the quality and viability of the 737 planes — and Boeing aircraft in general.

Even if just 20% or 25% of the air traveling public ends up having bigger doubts, that would have (and is having) a big impact on the share price of Boeing stock.

And so the cycle of mistrust and reputational damage continues.  What has Boeing actually done in the past few months to reverse the significant market value decline of the company? Whatever the company may or may not be undertaking isn’t having much of an impact on the “narrative” that’s taken shape about Boeing being a company that doesn’t “sweat the small stuff” with proper focus.

For an enterprise of the size and visibility of Boeing, being reactive isn’t a winning PR strategy. Waiting for the next shoe to drop before you develop and launch your response narrative doesn’t cut it, either.

Far from flying below radar, Boeing’s “non-response response” is actually saying something loud and clear. But in its case, “loud and clear” doesn’t seem to be ending up anyplace particularly good for the Boeing brand and the company’s

What are your thoughts about the way Boeing has handled the recent news about its mode 737 aircraft? What do you think could have done better?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

Astonishingly tone-deaf and factually questionable: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains … in the west. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” (Former Vice President Joe Biden, May 1, 2019)

In recent months, we’ve been hearing a wide range of views about China’s economic and political aspirations and their potential implications for the United States.

Some of the opinions being expressed seem to be polar opposites — such as President Donald Trump’s pronouncements that the United States has been “ripped off” by China for decades.  Contrast this with former Vice President Joe Biden’s dismissive contention that China represents no competition for the United States at all.

Several days ago, the political commentator Dick Morris published an op-ed piece in the Western Journal in which he seems to be nearly 100% “all-in” with the alarmists.

The column is titled Trump Is Waging (and Winning) a Peaceful World War III Against China.  My curiosity aroused, I decided to get in touch with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for the past 20+ years. Being an American “on the ground” in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia gives Nelson an interesting perspective from which to be a “reality check” on the views we’re hearing locally.

I sent Nelson a link to the Morris op-ed and asked for his reaction. Here is what he communicated back to me: 

I think Dick Morris is correct to contend that the Chinese government’s long-term vision is bigger than just accumulating more wealth and power. In fact, I wrote about this topic in the book I co-authored with Janson Yap, when describing China’s “Belt and Road” initiatives as a geographic positioning threat to Singapore.

 I wrote:  

“As a land-based strategy, the SREB [Silk Road Economic Belt] promises greater long-term rewards for China than the MSR [Maritime Silk Road]; these would echo the impact of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, which marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the U.S. to becoming one of the preeminent economic empires of all time.”

 The context here is, if you look back through history, the world’s most dominant economic empires were either terrestrial or maritime — but not both — until the U.S. came along. As I further wrote in the book:

“After gaining control over both strategic land and maritime trade routes with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, America became the first land-based and maritime economic empire in history; its dominance has spanned over a century, from 1916 to the present. Uncoincidentally, the American economic empire began when the Panama Canal was completed, but the Panama Canal has arguably contributed far less to America’s GDP than the country’s investments in transcontinental rail and road transportation infrastructure.” 

In short, I am absolutely sure China’s government aspires to overtake the U.S. as the world’s dominant terrestrial and maritime economic empire, and to hold that position for at least a century if not longer. But this would not be the first time in history that China has held such a position. 

For the historical context, refer to: http://fortune.com/2014/10/05/most-powerful-economic-empires-of-all-time/. There you will see that the U.S. produced half the world’s economic output in circa 1950. China’s Song Dynasty was the world’s preeminent economic empire in circa 1200 AD, producing 25% to 30% of global output. Only the U.S. and the Roman Empire have ever matched or exceeded that marker. 

I can tell you from my considerable experience on the ground in China that the strategic vision of its leaders is grounded in much more than just backward-looking grievance and necessity. Although the 19th Century Opium Wars (which were fought during the Qing Dynasty against the British Empire, and occurred during the period of the British Empire’s economic ascendancy) are often trotted out in China’s government-controlled English language dailies, the Chinese people I know have little or no knowledge of the Opium Wars or the colonial victimization China allegedly suffered a century and a half ago.  

But they are acutely aware, and genuinely proud, of China’s emergence as a leading economic powerhouse; and this is how the Chinese government maintains its legitimacy.   

China’s ambitions, in other words, have much more to do with reinstating its former glory (the Song Dynasty economic empire) than with righting wrongs (dominance by colonial powers), and are fundamental props for maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. 

This view renders many of Dick Morris’ comments unnecessarily hyperbolic; for example “[China’s] goal is to reduce the rest of the world to colonial or dominion status, controlled politically, socially, intellectually, and economically by China. In turn, China is run by a handful of men in Beijing who need not pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern or the nations they dominate.”  

No, China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant economic empire but, just as the Americans before them, they don’t have to exert the same degree of control over the rest of the world as they do within their own territory to achieve this goal.  

And no, they require constant support from the Chinese population to achieve this goal, even though they run an authoritarian state. Why else would they devote so many resources to the “Great Chinese Firewall” if there is no need to “pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern”? 

Yes, Trump’s trade war with China is important but his motive is to reverse the flow of jobs and capital out of the U.S. to China, which is not the same thing as launching an “economic World War III.” At a more practical and mundane level, it’s to fulfil a pile of campaign promises which Trump made when he was running for President, and to secure the loyalty of his base. 

_______________________________

So there you have it: the perspectives of someone “on the scene” in the Far East — holding a view that is more nuanced than the hyperbole of the alarmists, but also clear-eyed and miles apart from the head-in-the-sand naiveté of other politicians like Joe Biden.

Let’s also hope for a more meaningful and reality-based discourse on the topic of China in the coming months and years.