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Is This Another Smoot-Hawley?

There are economists who say that NAFTA has caused the loss of countless jobs to the lower-cost environments in Mexico, and that these jobs will come back in a post-NAFTA trade environment. They argue that instead of doing nothing, the US should take every opportunity to raise all import tariffs, eliminate trade agreements, and close the borders to immigrants and trade. This, some say, will make America competitive, even though there is no gain in productivity or cost reduction in American manufacturing.

What they may be forgetting is that the US has gone down this pathway before with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised tariffs on about nine hundred products Historians blame Smoot-Hawley for triggering the Great Depression of the 1930s. They point out that Smoot-Hawley caused sharp increases in consumer prices, which led to consumers buying fewer products, which in turn led to low demand, lay-offs, high unemployment, and ultimately, the stock market crash.

For sure, NAFTA has its problems. The import/export paperwork required to track goods moving across the borders and the associated record-keeping can be onerous. Special rules for truckers from Mexico have taken a toll on American truckers, and the effects don’t end there. But overall, most economists think NAFTA has had a net positive effect on the US economy.

Trade Wars

Another concern is the likelihood of a trade war with Mexico and other countries. If tariffs are raised on imports to the United States, or if the proposed Border Adjustment Tax is imposed, our trading-partner countries are likely to raise tariffs on imports coming into their countries. Take fruits and vegetables for example. More than six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables were imported from Mexico in 2015-2016. Mexico provides 70% of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. Corn and soybeans from American farms move the other direction into Mexico. If a tariff is placed on fruits and vegetables from Mexico, and Mexico retaliates with a tariff of their own, American consumers will suffer from higher prices, and American farmers will find it harder to compete for business in Mexico.

Mexico and the United States trade much more than food products. In fact, industrial products are the largest sector for imports from Mexico. Manufacturing operations vary from Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS), Contract Manufacturing (CMs), Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEMs), and Maquiladoras.

What’s Next?

A radical change to tariffs on Mexican imports and a renegotiation of NAFTA or outright withdrawal from the treaty could cause much turbulence in the US economy. It could disrupt cross-border supply chains and transform import and export patterns with Mexico. It is unlikely to improve heartland and rustbelt manufacturing jobs that Trump has promised his voters he would bring back. In fact, the United States and Mexico have such tightly interconnected economies that increased tariffs and trade barriers would likely end up causing more job losses all along the US-Mexico border.

And the turbulence doesn’t stop there. Americans will likely end up paying more for everything coming from Mexico or manufactured in higher-cost American factories.  Buckle your seatbelts.

 

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I participated in the Women’s March on Washington last Saturday, January 21, 2017. I met my daughter and granddaughter from West Virginia and my grandniece from New Jersey, in Baltimore, the night before the march. This was an experience of a lifetime for all of us.

I left San Jose early Friday morning in route to Washington/Baltimore with a change of planes at DFW. As I was waiting to board at the gate at DFW, groups of women in pink hats started arriving and the mood and energy level changed. Aboard the plane to BWI, my entire row, the row across and the two rows behind me were people going to the Women’s March. Some women were accompanied by husbands, boyfriends and other men supporting the march. Many people (including men) were in pink knitted hats. Some people were giving out pink yarn bracelets. The excitement was mounting. People were energetic and chatty. Everyone had been to the Women’s March web site for information.

It used to be that demonstrations were spread by word of mouth. Take the Chinese students demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for example. A friend of mine was studying at Beijing University at the time. He heard from a friend who heard from a friend that students were gathering in the Square. There was no internet, cell phones or newspapers to encourage people to go. It was just people telling people. This is the way it was in the 60s and 70s, too. Just people telling people.

This time, word spread over the internet, on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and text messaging. The Women’s March had a web site established to sign up so they could get a head count and capture your information for future communications and donations.

Logos were designed and proliferated on banners, signs and t-shirts selling for upwards of $30 by some Chinese vendors. The buildup in the press and on-line was amazing and powerful.

On the morning of the march, we went to the BWI train station for the first MARC train to DC at 7am. I had purchased tickets the night before and thank goodness, because when we arrived at the train station, a little before 6am, there were already several hundred people waiting to buy tickets. We waited on the crowded platform, chatting with other groups from Florida, Texas, Kentucky and California. At 7am, the train came, but plowed right through the station without stopping. An announcer said that although there were only two stops before us, and there were five extra passenger cars on the train, the train was already full. He said that based on estimates, we would probably not get a train before noon. Disappointed, but not discouraged, we took an Uber into Washington instead, arriving in the city about 9am.

The Women’s March and Rally were supposed to start at 10am. It was quite obvious by 9am, that there were going to be way more people than had been anticipated. The official count was 500,000+ and several unofficial counts said 1.2 million. I’m going with a million – it certainly felt that way. There were people in pink hats everywhere, in every direction, on every street and in every driveway. People were sitting on ledges and leaning against buildings. We tried to move toward a jumbotron or the main platform but could not get anywhere close. We were shoulder to shoulder with no room to move in any direction.

At 10am the rally started, including speeches and performances from America Ferrara, Katie Perry, Madonna, Gloria Steinem, Amy Schumer, Alicia Keys, Michael Moore, Ashley Judd, Patricia Arquette, Gloria Allred, Angela Davis, Kamala Harris, Scarlett Johansson and others. We could hear, but could not see the speakers and performers.

After about two hours of speeches, the organizers announced that there were just too many people to march together and recommended the people in our area march forward down Independence Avenue, which we did. We were encouraged to leave our signs at the Trump Hotel or in front of the White House. It had been many hours since we left the hotel in the early morning, so we also waited in long lines for port-a-potties. We brought granola bars, nuts and water with us, thank goodness, because there was no way to get anywhere near to any restaurants.

We marched a couple of miles down Independence Ave. and toward the Capitol and chanted slogans with thousands of others. My favorite chant was “Show us what democracy looks like,” and the reply: “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE.”

At about 4 pm, we headed to the Metro to try to at least get away from the city. Again, it was jammed and after a few trains passed through the station, we managed to squeeze into a Bethesda train. This reminded me of trains in Japan, where you get pushed together by train officials until they can close the doors. We were all smashed together.

Officials who had organized the marches later reported 673 marches had taken place worldwide, with marches occurring on all seven continents, including Antarctica. In Washington D.C. alone, the protests were reported to be the largest political demonstrations since the anti–Vietnam War protests in the 60’s and 70’s, with both protests drawing similar numbers. The Women’s March crowds were peaceful, and no arrests were made in Washington, D.C. I heard on the news on Saturday night that officials also said this was one of the cleanest events ever. Apparently women tend to clean up after themselves.

This was the kind of event you remember you entire life. I am so glad I could go with my family, especially my 12-year-old granddaughter. There were many lessons to learn about our democracy.

 

 

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I met the most remarkable woman by chance at a holiday party.  Mrs. Zhao is a retired professor and researcher from UCLA. She was friendly and sociable and when I asked her what she did, she started to unravel her story for me.  Realizing that I am familiar with Chinese history and culture, she told me more than would normally be expected in polite conversation.

In the 1960s she was a Professor of Physics at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China. This was during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong shut down all the universities because they were considered elitist and not revolutionary. When her university was closed, she was sent to a farm to be educated in the ways of working farmers. She plowed fields for three years as she was being “re-educated.” All day long the workers had to shout “long live Chairman Mao” as they plowed.  At night she taught the farmers to read and write.

During these years she never protested or complained, because to do so meant sure retribution including being denied meals, beatings and the infamous “struggle sessions” where people were forced to confess their “crimes” against the revolution. This was a difficult time in China, particularly for the well educated people and those in traditional arts. These people were viewed as proponents of the “old ways” and counterrevolutionaries. She told me that her colleagues were beaten and starved for disagreeing with the communist party bosses.  Many people died in prison or from beatings after struggle sessions, if they did not confess.

When the University reopened, farmers were sent there together with the previous students. No matter their educational level or experience, everyone sat in classrooms together to learn from Mao’s Little Red Book.  No other books were available for any subject because the books had all been burned by the Red Guard.

In 1982, a former colleague invited her to come to America to continue her research in microwave physics. She came to UCLA, where she continued her research and teaching for 25 years.

I know other people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and they will say that the period of struggle and change was worth it for China to emerge as the power house it is today.  They will say that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong, and that he brought China through a metamorphosis and into its industrial age.  But Mrs. Zhao’s story and the way she told it to me touched a very emotional chord.

While China came out of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution stronger, the effects are still apparent today. People in China are reluctant to talk about the government and its policies. China’s education system is rigid and structured around a fixed curriculum.  Students are not taught or encouraged to think critically. A back-door culture has developed where things get done behind the scenes or through the “back door” and where priorities are set according to who you know and what influence you have. As a result, creativity and innovation have suffered over the past 30 or 40 years, which has resulted in a copy-cat business environment.  Only now, with talented engineers, scientists and business people being trained in China’s top universities and in America and Europe, the historical and exceptional creativity and inventiveness of the Chinese is being renewed. The Chinese have a long history of invention and now it is blooming again.

There are lessons we must learn from history in China, America and other countries.  We must do all possible to protect our education systems for all Americans at all levels.  We must not allow the elites or political parties in power to dismiss or reduce funding to our schools.  We must defend the objectivity and teaching of the sciences.  We must be vigilant in maintaining high standards for STEM education. We must support and defend teachers and researchers.  These people are building our future through our children and grandchildren.

Hoverboards are very popular holiday gifts this year, but the stories about the boards that explode are all over the news.  Many retailers including Amazon.com and Target stopped selling them, and several commercial airlines banned them aboard their aircraft.

So what happened in the manufacture of these items to make them so dangerous? In the reported incidents, the lithium ion batteries in the hoverboards caught fire while charging or just riding them. The reasons for the combustion process is well-known when a battery is defective. The problems with these batteries were identified in laptops and cell phones a few years ago.  What isn’t so transparent are the sourcing and manufacturing processes for the boards being produced in China.

Hoverboards are new, exciting and popular products and this combination creates a frenzy of manufacturing opportunity for Chinese manufacturers. Because of the popularity and the potential for high volumes and high profits, knock-off brands proliferate very fast in the extremely competitive changed to avoid patent infringement laws. The raw  materials sourcing for knock-offs may come from completely different suppliers. Cheaper knock-off products means cutting corners in the factory to keep production costs low.

US safety standards are not all in place yet for these new products. US Customs may be allowing imports to enter the US based on safety standards for similar products, following the current requirements for imports. Some manufacturers may have obtained UL certificates on certain component parts, but not for the hoverboard as a whole. Raw materials such as the actual batteries may be knock-offs, too. You cannot trust the  well-known top brands either. The high demand is likely to cause sourcing from multiple Chinese factories with limited experience and untested component suppliers. No Chinese agency is overseeing the quality of exports from China.

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Montgomery County Fire and Rescue

It’s common to evaluate potential supplier and supply chain partner’s financial position before placing an order or signing a contract. In fact, most purchasing departments these days, require obtaining supplier key financial data as a standard part of the procurement process. This financial data is then evaluated by the company finance or accounting department and the risk associated with the supplier or supply chain partner is determined. If the supplier is a publically traded US company, that’s easy to do as these companies must comply with SEC rules on financial reporting. But you should be leery of accepting information provided by Chinese suppliers at face value.

China’s largest banks typically only lend to the largest corporations, leaving small and medium sized suppliers to obtain loans from friends and relatives or from a “shadow bank.” Shadow banks are private lending companies that are not regulated by the Chinese government. These shadow banks lend money at a much higher rate of interest, squeezing the small suppliers’ already-thin profit margins. So if you are buying from a Chinese supplier, you should ask and verify where their working capital comes from. You just might find that some suppliers cannot make their loan payments and will simply shut their doors and disappear, leaving you scrambling to find another manufacturer. Finding working capital in China is risky business.

Enter: The Bank of Foxconn. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer and maker of iPhones, iPads and many brands of laptops, has ventured into the lending world. To protect its suppliers from the pitfalls of shadow banking in China, Foxconn is now making business loans. That makes Foxconn the banker for the world’s electronics supply chain. And Foxconn isn’t the only company to provide banking services in China. Baidu (the “Google” of China), Alibaba (the “Amazon” of China) and Tencent ( WeChat and mobile games) all have lending banks, too. Lending to small and medium businesses provides higher returns to Foxconn than they can make on their contract manufacturing business. It also provides an opportunity for suppliers to borrow at a lower rate than from shadow banks. Foxconn reportedly has obtained licenses from Chinese local governments to provide loans, factoring, financial guarantees and equipment leasing.Foxconn

When evaluating suppliers, be sure to ask where their funding comes from, and don’t be surprised if the answer is the Bank of Foxconn.

2013-01-23 05.43.24I just finished a consulting project for a major international brand that wants to enter the eCommerce market in Russia.  Although not new to eCommerce, my client was looking for a more in depth review of the possibilities and capabilities.

Among the many challenges with logistics in Russia, some are unique requirements that don’t exist in other places.  For example, when customers order fashion items over the Internet or via a call center, they expect overnight delivery to locations in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  But this overnight delivery also includes a specific appointment time and a fashion consultant who delivers the goods to the customer’s door and then waits while the items are tried on.  I suspect they also provide feedback….”That makes you look fat”  etc…

Russian customers are among the most demanding anywhere in the world.  But there are other factors at work here, too.  In order to deal with significant petty theft, packages would never be left on someone’s doorstep. They must be delivered and signed for in person.  Credit cards are not widely used via the Internet or over the phone in Russia, so the majority of transactions are done COD.  Russian Post is often slow and unacceptable for customers of eCommerce. Call centers are expected to follow up with every customer to assure satisfaction with their purchase.

The logistics challenges in the Russian market are significant.  The overall supply chain has to be flexible enough to accommodate creative solutions to inventory stocking levels, security, customs clearance and currency exchange.  Returns are very high because customers will often order multiple sizes and reject the unwanted merchandise which then must be returned to the fulfilment center and restocked expeditiously.

To address these issues in Russia, some eCommerce companies have developed fully integrated end-to-end eCommerce businesses including: web store development, web site and shopping cart management, call centers, fulfillment centers, delivery services and fashion consultants. Necessity is the mother of invention.

eCommerce can be a challenge in any country, particularly the Third World where delivery capabilities are underdeveloped. But there is no stopping the double-digit growth of on-line shopping around the world.  The unique requirements of B2C business are yet another avenue for which Supply Chain professionals must gain competence

RESHORINGFor the past 15 years or so, I have been helping companies offshore their manufacturing.  There have been, and continue to be, pretty significant cost savings in low-cost labor markets.  But with the waning US economy, it’s time we wake up and put some Yankee ingenuity into bringing some manufacturing back. We think it is possible to bring 15-20% of offshore manufacturing back to the US.

I am not saying we can or should bring it all back.  There are still global cost advantages to low-cost labor markets.  And China represents the largest single target market in the world to sell goods to.  Companies should continue to  manufacture in China to serve the Chinese market.

The U.S. manufacturing sector has added 430,000 jobs since 2010; a small trickle of what we need to recover, but still a move in the right direction. Companies that are reshoring include some of the nation’s largest manufacturers: Apple, General Electric, Ford, Caterpillar and NCR.  A 2012 study concluded that reshoring could add 2 million to 3 million jobs and an estimated $100 billion in annual output to a range of industries by the year 2015.

But bringing manufacturing back isn’t as easy as you may think.  There are a host of considerations and analyses that companies must do to determine the costs and feasibility of reshoring. Several of the important factors in the original offshoring decisions have dramatically changed. Consider these 5 factors as the initial steps in determining your need to rebalance global manufacturing and reshore some activities back to the US.

1)      Cost Increases, Taxes

2)      Innovation and Automation

3)      Market Access and Localization

4)      Skills

5)      Political Environment and Public Sentiment

We are helping clients evaluate the possibilities now.  For more information go to www.BlueSilkConsulting.com/Reshoring

I am in China again this week and it seems everyone wants to know about the US elections.  They watched the Presidential debates and the election news with great interest and a kind of wondrous amazement.  “We heard what your politicians believe and what they will do,” one executive told me.  “In China, we have no idea what the policies of the leaders will be.”

I hadn’t really considered the difference in politics this way.  Americans have access, information and a fundamental understanding of what the leadership is planning.  Chinese people have none of this.  Most people have no clue about what is in the new Chinese 5-year plan, or how the new Communist Party Chief Xi will lead the country.

With the US elections now over and Obama reelected, the new President Xi assuming the leadership of China and Putin in Russia, we should all be wondering what will change in the world.   These three super-powers will surely bring dynamic change in the world order.

The Chinese Communist Party began its leadership transition as the 18th National Congress opened in early November.  This transition in leadership happens only once every 10 years. The new President Xi will be charged with executing the new Chinese 5-year Plan, developed earlier this year.  This plan includes a heavy emphasis on the environment, and from what I have observed in China, whatever the government decides to do, gets done.

In the US we have had the privilege of watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, listened to endless TV advertising and news reports.  We have a pretty good idea about the President’s agenda.  But how that agenda will interact with Xi’s and Putin’s is a big unknown.

I spend most of my time working on global supply chain consulting engagements.  But from time to time, I also do Expert Witness work for legal cases involving supply chain issues.  At the moment, I am working on a legal case involving agri-business across Malaysia and Indonesia.

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Arriving after midnight last night, I couldn’t help feeling a little creepy as we sped from the airport to town in a rickety old taxi.  The third world flew by the windows.  The ancient driver was going 140km/hr until I begged him to slow down. What if we broke down or had an accident?  Were there headhunters lurking? The $50 “best hotel in Sabah” turned out to be rather scruffy around the edges and even the bottled water looked suspicious.  But in the morning, things looked better. Our driver arrived with cold water and a 4-wheel drive Jeep to take us the 50 miles to the plantation, over rutted dirt roads. Finally, we arrived at the estate plantation, a bit rattled from the very bumpy ride.

As remote as this plantation is, in the hot and humid jungles of Borneo, it strikes me that the supply chain issues faced by this company are not that different from any other company large or small, rural or in a metro area.  Here, in the wilds, the managers are worried about planning and forecasting, raw materials such as fertilizer and seeds, labor and transportation.  Harvested product needs to be processed within 48 hours; shipped to the processing plant via rag top trucks.  Then, processed product must get to market to meet customer demand.   The managers worry about IT systems to capture production data and pay the workers.  They do analysis for continuous process improvement.

The plantation workers live in plantation housing and their bare-foot children attend plantation schools.  The people are poor, but very friendly.  Hopefully, the year-round harvest is good, and too much of it won’t be eaten by tree rats or monkeys.  Even rain can ruin the workday.

This is indeed the third world, but they must deal with first world global supply chains and technology. It is gratifying to know that the topics we master as supply chain professionals are truly universal.  The skills we learn apply across industries and continents and cultures.  The differences are fewer than we might expect.

It was an interesting adventure and about as far away from my Silicon Valley home as one could possibly get. At least at home, I don’t have to deal with monkeys…at least not that often.

I recently had the opportunity to travel from the US to Europe to Asia and rode in taxis in all three places.  I was reminded that while a taxi ride may seem mundane, the differences are quite significant. 

 

Take London, for example.  The famous shiny black cabs are the pride of the city: neat, clean and the drivers are professionals who are required to take a test of their knowledge of London before they are allowed to drive a cab. 

 

You will experience the complete opposite in a place like Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people, where you risk your life when you go for a wild taxi ride…that is IF the taxi driver knows where you want to go and is willing to take you there, after you argue over the destination and the price. It’s the Wild, Wild West of China, where traffic laws and standard driving rules are still in the early development stages.  When the ride is over, you’ll breathe a polluted, but grateful sigh of relief that you survived.

 

In Germany, the taxis are likely to be Mercedes Benz, which feels a little less threatening as the drivers go at break-neck speed to your destination.  Everyone in Germany will tell you that speed is safe. What is it about the Germans and their love of speed?

 

Then there is Seoul, Korea.  A taxi driver will simply refuse to take you anywhere he doesn’t want to go.  And knowing the secret between black cabs (those drivers speak English) and the silver cab (good luck trying to communicate) is important to a successful journey.

 

Un-huh…then there is New York City: taxi drivers in stinky cabs honk at one another, people, cars, and trucks for seemingly no reason at all, all day long and all night long.  On one journey in NYC, when I argued with the driver that my building was across the street in Times Square and I expected him to take me all the way there and not drop me in the middle of the chaos, he yelled at me, “get out of the cab, lady and walk!”

 

And San Francisco, where a drive through the steep hills at 0-60mph for every block, will take years off your life. The drivers are quite friendly and often chatty there, while they risk your life.

 

And then, there is Beijing.  If you don’t ask for the driver to turn on the meter, you will get charged 5-10 times more for the fare than you should.  On a recent trip from the Beijing airport to the Hilton Beijing, I asked for a meter cab.  The driver took me to a side street across from the Hilton, instead of the entrance, and unloaded my bags.  The fare was 58 RMB.  I handed the driver 100 RMB and asked for change and a receipt.  He got in his taxi and drove off with my 100.  I should have known better.