Monday, June 15, 2009

Where Is China Heading?

Mark Leonard's book “What Does China Think?” presents a number of China's modern beliefs and challenges.  Mr. Leonard discusses China's current struggles and the new priorities the Chinese State has determined are essential to address contemporary problems.

It is interesting, for the first time in China’s history, the State's 11th five-year plan does not list economic growth as the top focus. The plan includes mantras, such as: “put people first”…“respecting the natural environment”… and introduces a model which resembles some Scandinavian attempts in Social Welfare to address existing concerns.

The Book suggests China’s most pressing problems are:
1. The rise in protests,
2. The gap between rich and poor,
3. The near bankruptcy of the rural economy,
4. The lack of domestic consumption,
5. The pervasive corruption of the political elite,
6. The environment.
Official records cite 87,000 protest demonstrations in 2005, which is a ten times the amount of such displays since 1993.  It is most likely, the actual number of organized public protestations is much higher.

Mr. Leonard maintains the theory, modern China hopes to develop into an “Asymmetric Superpower”.  This conception believes the USA has an unhealthy obsession with military production, and this is the United States' greatest weakness, blinding policy-makers to the wider picture of military strategy.  Mr. Leonard's offering suggests the current Leadership of China, must include the use of economic, legal, and political tools as well, which is referenced: “non-military warfare”.  This modern version of China's “Economic Warfare” includes investing billions of dollars in “Special Economic Zones” within foreign Nations.

However, today China invests billions to improve it's military might, as Chinese Leaders correctly believe economic power without a strong Military, in context to the rest of the World, will reduce China as an overall power.  They prefer to obtain a Military Force which will become equal to the United States.
“China is attractive to other nations because of its economic power but this attractiveness will not last. It will need to change its political system to become a ‘Hyper-Power’ equal to the USA”.
But for China to achieve this status, the State will need to eliminate its incongruous and obsessive policy on a number of issues, it has mistakenly elevated to threats to its survival: Taiwanese and Tibetan freedom, the relationship with the Dalai Lama, the rise of Falun Gong, and various radical Muslim Enclaves.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The GM & Chrysler Bankruptcies

“The General Motors Corp. Chapter 11 bankruptcy marks the humbling of an American icon that once dominated the global car industry and sets up a high-stakes gamble for USA taxpayers.”

Reportedly both General Motors and Chrysler will exit from Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Court in 60 to 90 days. This sounds like wishful thinking and may involve some public relations imagery. To “correctly” restructure a significantly less complex and smaller manufacturing company, would require at least one year. The rush may produce more problems for all involved.

Regardless, one of GM’s and Chrysler’s most significant problems is that hourly labor costs are reportedly $20 to $30 per hour higher than their USA based Japanese competitors. It doesn’t appear that this most fundamental weakness has been addressed in a serious manner.

Most of the Japanese competitors have non-union hourly labor in their USA manufacturing operations. As such, their labor costs will not significantly increase over time. In addition, for the past few years, the Japanese Automakers have made higher capital investments to improve productivity. The cash strapped Big Three have not been able to match its competition.

Recent GM and Chrysler plant closings and operational restructurings have reduced their overall costs by billions of dollars, as well as their hourly headcounts by the thousands. However, the overall impact is misleading. The hourly cost for direct labor employees has not been reduced. And will continue to prove to be a vivid Achilles’ heel for the legendary USA manufacturers.

While the total of manufactured GM and Chrysler automobiles have declined significantly, the actual cost of each automobile continues to be higher than its Japanese competition. The Automakers will continue to prove unable to compete with this inherit weakness. Besides overt Labor commitments, another higher cost factor to consider is unabsorbed manufacturing overhead, since production is lower in existing plants. This is not a healthy sign.

However, the most important factor remains, has the UAW agreed to reduce the total cost for hourly direct labor employees?

Regretfully, there is no evidence of a reduction in hourly labor rates...

It is doubtful any labor cost concession will be meaningful if this is true:
"The fear at the UAW was that ownership in GM could eventually be worth very little.”

Thus, as it stands, GM and Chrysler will continue to lose money and will probably be forced to return to bankruptcy protection. We will have to wait to see what structure the FIAT buyout of Chrysler will produce. But, if there is a next time for GM in bankruptcy, it may have to execute liquidation under the Chapter 7 bankruptcy code. That is, if the US Government, which now owns 70% of the company, will allow it.

In addition, salaried headcounts appear too high. While this can be dealt with outside of the bankruptcy process, GM and Chrysler should analyze their salaried organizations and adopt Toyota’s performance target of 10% improvements in salaried productivity every year.

Regardless, neither company should exit from bankruptcy protection until the operations are restructured to allow a competitive, best cost manufacturing operation to emerge. We shall see, both GM and Chrysler face enormous challenges for survival.

Have two of the Big Three suffered such a loss in reputation over the years, their brands are too damaged beyond repair for today’s marketplace?

No, quality management can turn anything around with the right strategy, capital, cost structure, and culture. But it requires the tools needed to compete. Anything is possible.