Re-shoring. If the last decade or so has been characterised by off-shoring, then maybe we are set to enter a new era in which manufacturing returns to home markets, or, failing that, to countries much closer to home. Re-shoring: if it proves to be real, it may provide real, underlying strength to economic recovery. If it proves to be real, then real hope can be added to economic commentary; hope that this time recovery can last. And now we have evidence that it may indeed be happening, right now.

Sometimes predictions can become descriptions. You can forecast what the weather is going to be like. It is much easier and more credible, although perhaps less interesting, to describe what the weather is like. But Boston Consulting has moved from forecaster to describer in one very crucial area. A couple of years ago it made headlines for forecasting a new trend in manufacturing, as companies opt to make their products nearer to their home markets. Now it reckons it has evidence that this is actually happening.

Being one of the world’s largest consultancies, Boston Consulting’s surveys tend to be pretty meaningful. It asked executives at US companies with sales greater than $1 billion about their manufacturing plans. A year ago, 37 per cent said they “are planning to bring back production to the US from China or are actively considering it.” In its latest survey, the results of which were published this week, that ratio rose to 54 per cent.

So why, oh why? 43 per cent of respondents cited labour costs; 35 per cent proximity to customers; and 34 per cent product gave quality as their reason for considering re-shoring.

Michael Zinser, from the consultancy, said: “Companies are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of all the factors that must be considered when deciding where to manufacture…When you look at the total cost of production for many goods, the US appears increasingly attractive.”

The Boston Consulting survey probably provides the most compelling evidence to date that re-shoring is occurring, but it is far from being the only evidence.

Back in July a survey from YouGov on behalf of Business Birmingham revealed that one in three companies that currently use overseas suppliers are planning to source more products in the UK. John Lewis recently said that it plans to increase the volume of made in the UK products by 15 per cent between now and 2015.

This development is good news in more ways than one; it may even be very good news in quite a profound way, but more of that in a moment.

But what about China? This is surely not such an encouraging development for the economy behind the Great Wall. Well maybe it isn’t, but maybe it actually is. What China needs is for wages to rise, and for it to see more growth on the back of rising demand. Its economy is simply out of balance. No one is predicting the end of Chinese manufacturing, merely that it may lose some of its dominance. If this loss occurs because wages in China have risen, creating more demand, this is good news for China, its suppliers and the companies that sell to its consumers. Okay, changes are never smooth. There will be short-term headaches caused by re-shoring, but the overall impact will be positive rather than negative.

But there is another perhaps more important implication.

Over the last few decades we have seen growing inequality, and company profits taking up a higher proportion of GDP, while wages take up a lower proportion. Some think this is good thing, and accuse those who criticise of being guilty of the politics of envy. They miss the point. You may or may not think inequality is morally justified, but it is clear that from an economic point of view it is inefficient. For an economy to grow it needs demand to rise, and in the long run this can only occur if the fruits of growth trickle down into wage packets. It is perhaps no coincidence that the golden age of economic growth occurred in the 25 years after the end of World War II, an era which saw much more equality than we see today.

It is possible that re-shoring is symptomatic of changes in the balance of power across the markets. For years we have seen what the IMF calls the globalisation of labour: the reward to capital rose, the reward to labour fell. The underlying cause of this may have been the one-off effect of millions of Chinese workers joining the globalised economy. As this one-off effect begins to ebb, we may see the globalisation of labour work in reverse.

 

See also: Wages set to rise – in emerging markets

© Investment & Business News 2013