China: The best of all possible models
In an efficient market, the private sector is better than governments at allocating investment funds. But China isn’t an efficient market, and India has relatively little investment funding.
By Jonathan R. Woetzel
Finding fault with China’s approach to economic development is easy: cyclical overcapacity, state-influenced resource allocation, and growing social inequalities are just a few of its shortcomings. But it’s hard to see how any other model could have given the economy such a powerful kick start.
The Chinese government manages the development of enterprises with a view to driving economic growth. You can be a small entrepreneur in China, but if you want to be big you will have to get money from a government-affiliated source at some point. Government officials essentially have the power to decide which companies grow.
In achieving the objective of growth, this policy has been tremendously successful. China has quickly built industries large enough to drive its economy. Take the auto industry, now an important contributor to the manufacturing sector. Only 20 years ago, China had no auto industry to speak of; there were a few manufacturers of trucks but none of passenger cars. To get started, the government decided that in a high-scale, high-tech industry, some foreign company – in this case, Volkswagen – had to come in and show local ones what to do. Because most local companies were state-owned 20 years ago, Volkswagen was hooked up with a state-owned company.
You might argue that this development model has thwarted entrepreneurship. But there weren’t any entrepreneurs in the industry at the time. There were no private companies that could partner with Volkswagen, let alone compete with it. The government simply said, “We want China to modernize. We want the Chinese economy to grow. We don’t have the companies we need to make that happen, so we’re prepared to do what it takes to create them.”
The capital-intensive auto plants built with foreign partners in China as a result of its development policy may have no particular productivity advantage over the plants they might have built at home. But all of the spending by the big car companies has paid off.
Moreover, local, privately owned automakers such as Chery Automotive and Geely Automotive are beginning to thrive. A generation of entrepreneurs has put to good advantage the skills and training that the foreigners provided, so that Chinese companies now put together cars of reasonable quality much more cheaply than foreign automakers can. At present, domestic players benefit from the price umbrella that the foreign ones provide. But these smaller fry are now making cars for $2,000, which means that any company that has high cost structures will eventually suffer. With lower tariffs on the way because of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and with new competitors proliferating, the automotive industry is heading into a classic price war that only the fittest will survive. This is precisely what happened in the consumer electronics industry, where competition led to the emergence of successful Chinese companies that operate globally. I think that in five or ten years’ time, at least a third of the Chinese auto industry will be completely private – nothing to do with the current state players. And this will all have started with the state saying, “We want to build a car industry.”
Looking at industry more broadly, inefficiencies and cyclicality have resulted from the fact that many funding decisions are driven at the local-government level. Local officials have GDP growth as a political-performance target, so many of them look for the biggest investments they can make to push along the regional economy. Like stock market investors pursuing the latest speculative fad, they have created a lemming effect, with lots of unsound investments, whether in aluminum smelters, residential real estate, or TV factories. The outcome tends to be waves of overcapacity as investments are made right up to – and sometimes way beyond – the point where it is patently obvious that the economics cannot justify them.
But remember that the essential mechanism of economic reform in China has been the encouragement of competition among provinces and municipalities. Until the 1980s there was no such thing in China as a national company. Everything was local. There was no single legal entity that operated more than five kilometers (about 3.1 miles) from its headquarters. With the removal of internal trade barriers, local entrepreneurs and their government backers invested to build scale and attack neighboring markets. Yes, this does lead to overcapacity and price wars. But over time – and relatively short periods of time, too – all that cyclicality also leads to shakeouts that the most competitive enterprises survive. These enterprises, thanks to their national scale and real competitive advantages, no longer depend on local-government funding and can now start to compete for the long term, both domestically and internationally.
That has certainly been the story in consumer electronics, where the top three players in personal computers control 50 percent of the domestic market, and in beer, where the top ten own 30 percent. It is starting to be the story in heavy industries, where companies such as China Qianjiang own 40 percent of the motorcycle market and Wanxiang dominates its niche in automotive components (see “Supplying auto parts to the world”). Interestingly, it is not the foreign companies but the locals that tend to be the winners of the consolidation wars. The beer industry is a case in point: most foreign brewers, unprepared for tough domestic competition and rapid consolidation, entered and exited in the 1990s.
The government is fixing the banks through tough higher reserve margins, branch-level changes, and more flexible risk-based pricing
Moreover, I don’t believe that foreign direct investment is linked to the development of China’s capital markets or to a reform of the banking system. Multinationals account for only 15 percent of fixed-asset investment, so they don’t drive the economy to a very great extent. China must rely on its own domestic financial resources to finance growth. As a result, the country’s capital markets are being developed. And the government is fixing the banks through tough higher reserve margins, branch-level changes in performance management and incentives, and more flexible risk-based pricing.
As for the oft-stated view that China is trying to create global state-owned champions, it is at least partly a myth. The government does want to develop strong Chinese companies, but it does not expect them to be state enterprises, which are inefficient by definition. Indeed, it is now telling them that if they want to grow, they will have to get listed on the stock market. The government’s policy for the first 20 years of its reform program was, “Let’s do what’s needed to establish markets.” Its policy for the next 20 years will be, “Let’s get out of those markets.” The global Chinese companies of tomorrow will be competitive, mostly listed, and entirely commercial in their aims and purposes.
Ultimately, you have to ask whether the inefficiencies of the Chinese approach outweigh what it has achieved for the economy overall. The answer, I think, is no. The government still controls most of the country’s financial resources and has been reasonably good at allocating them – that’s why the economy has grown so fast. Compared with the private sector in an efficient market, the government is no doubt worse at allocating funds. But China is not an efficient market, and the Indian model – essentially one with relatively little investment funding, whether by the government or the private sector – could not have achieved as much growth for the Chinese economy as the approach China’s government actually took. The Indian model might not be adequate for India’s economy either: the country’s family-owned businesses and other private investors may be good at deciding what makes a sound investment for them, but they have not spent enough money to drive the kind of growth seen in China. It would not surprise me at all to see investment in India rise dramatically as foreign and domestic investors alike begin to recognize its potential going forward.
Sector by sector
The strength of the Chinese and Indian economies will actually be decided at the industry level.
By Diana Farrell
The answer to the question, “Which is the better approach to economic development?” is not to be found at the national level. You have to look at what’s going on in individual industries. And when you do, you find that supportive government policies that encourage competition drive good performance. Both China and India have some sluggish, inefficient industries that are heavily regulated and lack competitive dynamism. But both countries also have successful industries that thrive unfettered by poor regulation.
The McKinsey Global Institute has long argued that the key to high economic growth is productivity and that the main barrier to productivity gains is the raft of microlevel government regulations that hinder competition. This idea is well illustrated in the case of India.
At the high end of India’s productivity spectrum is the information technology, software, and business-process-outsourcing sector. It’s a big success story, having created hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars’ worth of exports. As a new sector – and one whose potential the government, in my view, failed to recognize early on – it has avoided stifling regulation. IT, software, and outsourcing companies are exempt from the labor regulations that govern working hours and overtime in other sectors, and they have been allowed to receive foreign direct investment, which is prohibited in retailing, for example. Without this foreign money, it is debatable whether the sector could have taken off. By 2002 it already accounted for 15 percent of all foreign direct investment in India.
In the middle of the spectrum is the auto industry, which has seen dramatic change since the government began to liberalize it in the 1980s. By 1992 most of the barriers to foreign investment had been lifted, and this made it possible for output and labor productivity to soar. Prices have fallen and, even as the industry has consolidated, employment levels have held steady thanks to robust demand. Nonetheless, with tariffs on finished cars still relatively high, automakers remain sheltered from global competition and the sector is less efficient than it could be.
At the low end of the spectrum is the consumer electronics sector, which, despite the lifting of foreign-investment restrictions in the early 1990s, is still burdened by tariffs, taxes, and regulations. As a result, Indian consumer electronics goods can’t compete internationally and prices for local consumers are unnecessarily high. The performance of India’s food-retailing industry is even worse. Partly as a result of a total ban on foreign investment, labor productivity is just 6 percent of US levels.
Now look at China, which also has some reasonably liberalized and highly competitive industries, including consumer electronics, in which labor productivity is double that of its Indian counterpart. Over the past 20 years, the industry has become globally competitive through a combination of foreign direct investment and intense competition among domestic companies. It is also remarkable for the relatively liberal approach the government has taken to regulation – probably because of a failure to see its growth potential. Today China makes $60 billion worth of consumer electronics goods a year.
The performance of China’s auto industry – which was considered a strategic one and remains tightly regulated because of the government’s desire to bring in technology and investment – is less clear-cut. The market has been opened up to foreign automakers, consumer demand has grown enormously, and prices have dropped. Yet the sector shows how government intervention can thwart the potential of foreign direct investment. Foreign automakers can invest only in joint ventures, they have to buy components from local suppliers, and tariffs shield the market from imports. Competition is beginning to increase as private companies grow stronger. But for the time being, the productivity of foreign joint ventures in China is low compared with that of plants in Japan or the United States – astounding given China’s low labor costs.
Since there are such big differences in the performance of different sectors within the same country, it makes sense to compare the performance of India and China at the sector rather than the national level. In IT and business-process outsourcing, India is so far ahead of the game that China can’t do anything during the next 10 or 15 years that would bring it close to catching up. In consumer electronics, however, China dominates, and India won’t provide serious competition during the next 10 years.
The auto sector is a toss-up. India’s competitive forces have driven an enormous amount of innovation in the sector. Low-cost labor has been used instead of expensive automation, and local engineering talent has developed innovative new products such as the Scorpio – a sport utility vehicle that sells for a fraction of the price of an equivalent car in the United States. In China, large amounts of foreign direct investment have built a big industry, but regulation has so far limited its competitive potential.
It is far from clear which economy will emerge as the stronger one. The foundations of robust, sustainable economic growth must be built at the industry level, on the back of high productivity, which is achieved when governments ensure a level playing field through sound regulation and remove the barriers that stifle competition. Both China and India still have ample opportunity to help their industries and economies thrive.
This article was originally published in The McKinsey Quarterly, October 2005, and can be found on the publication’s Web site, www.mckinseyquarterly.com. Copyright (c) 2005 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.