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China’s growth conundrum

Business, China, Company Strategy, Economics, Environment
By John Richardson on 08-Aug-2008

I couldn’t let today pass without including a picture of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing where the opening ceremony is about to take place.

The purpose of this redefined blog is not to look at the short term, though. For expert commentaey on the effects of the Olympics and other macroeconomic factors on the world’s chemicals industry over the next 12-18 months, see Paul Hodges’ Chemicals & The Economy blog.

Instead I am going to be looking at what chemical companies have to worry about beyond the next 18 months.

In the case of China, the debate is whether the country can remain the main driver of the world economy and the chemicals industry.

The government is clearly dedicated to rebalancing the economy away from export-led growth towards higher domestic consumption.

The China Economic Quarterly believes the government will be successful – leading to lower but more sustainable GDP growth of 9% per year over the long term.

They accept inflation will be higher than in the past, but argue that it can be contained at around 5% per year.

Jurgen Hambrecht, chairman and chief executive officer of BASF, also believes in the long term strength of China – but also a major location for export-based manufacturing.

In the same BASF Segment Day Chemicals event I wrote about yesterday, he was asked whether China would remain a location for export-based low-cost manufacturing. The question related to rising transport, labour and oil costs.

Hambrecht said that increased transportation costs were a global problem and that the effect of recent cuts in subsidies to oil-product prices had yet to become entirely clear. But he pointed out that as car ownership was low in China, the cuts might not be that big a deal. A great deal of the country’s energy needs are also met by coal.

Manufacturing investment was already drifting to the west, he added, and he cited Sichuan as a “great location”.

Labour costs in the west are a great deal lower, but logistics costs could be an awful lot higher to get goods to western markets.

And the bigger issue that Hambrecht and the CEQ did not address is that China might not have enough natural resources to sustain growth anywhere close to levels we have become used to.

Take the water crisis as an example and this link through to the economatters blog.

I could have included thousands of similar links, but here’s one more – to good or bad old Wikepedia, depending on your view.