Informative article from the New York Times. In 2 parts cannot post more than 10,000 characters
Chinese Auto Parts Enter the Global Market
By KEITH BRADSHER
Published: June 7, 2007
JINZHOU, China — Zhao Qingjie’s favorite book, he says, is a Chinese translation of Lee A. Iacocca’s autobiography.
Mr. Zhao, who runs one of the largest manufacturers of automotive starters and alternators in China, has long been interested in the United States. That should make his counterparts in the auto parts industry elsewhere very nervous.
“Entering the U.S. market is one of our key strategies,” said Mr. Zhao, whose company, Wonder Auto Technology, has obtained a Wall Street stock listing and is preparing to start exporting.
China’s auto parts exports have increased more than sixfold in the last five years, nearly topping $1 billion in April and emerging as one of the fastest-growing categories of Chinese industrial products sold overseas. More than half of these auto parts go to the United States; most of the rest to Europe and Japan.
The rise of Chinese auto parts exports is part of a much broader shift. China is moving up from basic goods like textiles, toys and shoes and toward higher-value industrial goods that pay better wages — but also compete more directly with products from countries like Mexico and even from advanced industrialized countries like the United States.
Still, while China has room for considerable growth in auto parts exports to the United States, it is not competitive overseas in bulky products like car seats that are uneconomical to ship or need to be manufactured close to a car factory for quality-control reasons. And China’s rising labor costs and strengthening currency are making automakers leery of becoming too dependent on China for parts that can be shipped.
The latest wave of auto parts exports is led by domestic Chinese auto parts manufacturers like Wonder Auto that are rapidly gaining strength and starting to enter markets around the globe.
Domestic manufacturers like Wonder and the Wanxiang Group are relying on the same inexpensive Chinese assembly-line labor as multinationals like Delphi Automotive Systems and Visteon. But they can undercut the global giants in part by hiring talented but cheaper Chinese engineers and headquarters staff as well.
Soaring output at auto assembly plants in China is generating enormous demand for auto parts and creating the economies of large-scale production previously possible only in North America, Europe and Japan. And with at least a half-dozen Chinese automakers planning to start exporting in the next few years, Chinese auto parts will soon be going overseas not just in crates, but as part of fully assembled cars.
Multinational automakers set virtually the same quality standards for their operations all over the world. They are working closely with Chinese parts companies to help them meet these standards; once they do, they are allowed to submit bids for supplying factories elsewhere.
“They get put on the global list and then can quote for anything worldwide,” said Nick Reilly, the president of Asian and Pacific operations for General Motors.
Chinese auto parts have surged in the American market as imports have declined from Japan, Canada and Malaysia and have stagnated from Mexico and the European Union.
China is strongest in electrical and electronic components and in cast-metal parts that require environmentally hazardous casting and a lot of manual labor for machining.
Feeling the pinch are small auto parts manufacturers and their employees in the United States, heavily concentrated in Ohio and mainly supplying larger auto parts companies instead of shipping directly to the big automakers.
While overall American industrial production is on the upswing, the troubles of the auto parts industry could become an issue in next year’s presidential elections.
Ohio elected a new Democratic senator in November, Sherrod Brown, who favors a more aggressive American trade and currency policy, including the filing of legal cases with the World Trade Organization challenging China’s currency, labor and environmental policies.
“It’s not a fair competition because over and over again in terms of currency and labor standards, China doesn’t play by the same rules as we do in the United States,” Senator Brown said.
China is rapidly grabbing orders for replacement parts sold to repair garages. The Wanxiang Group of China is already building up its distribution in the United States by buying Neapco, a steering shaft company in Pottstown, Pa., and striking a deal with Ford in April to buy its prop shaft business.
Many of these imports from China are simply replacing goods from other countries. New starters and alternators, for example, are no longer made in the United States, as production has moved to Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia and now China.
But used starters and alternators are still remanufactured in the United States, reusing the costly copper wiring in each device and selling them in the $1.5 billion market for replacement starters and alternators. Companies in this business, like Motorcar Parts of America with its headquarters and main factory in Torrance, Calif., have been struggling to compete with imports of all-new starters and alternators.
Mr. Zhao of Wonder Auto calculates that it costs him $4 million to set up an assembly line here in Jinzhou with mostly manual labor, employing 20 workers.
The combined wages of 20 workers here come to only $40,000 a year at the current exchange rate of 7.65 yuan to the dollar. That is in the range of annual base pay for one unionized auto parts worker in the United States and comparable to two nonunion American auto parts workers. Mr. Zhao recently explored and rejected the idea of opening a factory in the United States, after calculating that it would cost $10 million to set up a heavily automated line that would employ three workers.
Total benefits for 20 workers come to an additional $20,000 a year, Mr. Zhao said.
The company’s wages of $170 a month remain respectable by the standards of this gritty refinery city of 800,000 in northeastern China. A small apartment without modern amenities like a refrigerator or air-conditioning rents for as little as $40 a month, while even a large meal at the restaurant of the city’s best hotel costs less than $3.
Jobs at Wonder Auto are much sought after and turnover is almost zero, said Sun Shaohua, 30, who strips copper wires for alternators, the devices that take mechanical energy from the engine and turn it into electricity to recharge the battery.
“Many people come, but nobody ever leaves,” he said.
Mr. Zhao said he was already in discussions with General Motors and Volkswagen about supplying their operations, first in China and then overseas. For now, Mr. Zhao mainly supplies domestic Chinese carmakers, notably Brilliance China Automotive, which has a high-roofed factory in Shenyang, a three-hour drive to the northeast, where workers in tan shirts and trousers labor at a modern assembly line.
While China’s auto parts industry is growing rapidly, automakers are nervous about buying all of their parts from China. They cite three important costs that are becoming increasingly unpredictable for any manufacturer doing business in China: labor costs, raw material costs and the exchange rate of the yuan against the dollar.
Industrial wages are still low in China compared with wages in other car manufacturing countries. But Chinese wages have been soaring by 10 to 30 percent a year for the last several years, auto executives said. Skilled workers at car factories in high-income coastal areas can earn nearly twice as much as workers here in northeastern China, a rust belt of aging industrial complexes built with Soviet help in the 1950s.
But even as China’s labor cost advantage is narrowing, it is simultaneously creating a new advantage: lower material costs.
As recently as four years ago, severe shortages within China of industrial commodities like high-quality steel resulted in high prices. Now the opposite is true: China has invested so much in new steel mills and other factories that it has become the world’s largest steel maker and faces an increasing glut.
The biggest question mark hanging over China’s exports lies in the currency exchange rate — a problem that Japanese auto executives in particular know well after dealing with the yen-dollar exchange rate.
China has allowed the yuan to appreciate only by 6 percent against the dollar in the nearly two years since breaking its fixed peg to the dollar. Chinese officials have repeatedly warned of their reluctance to accept faster appreciation.
But Chinese foreign exchange reserves have ballooned to $1.2 trillion from $316 billion in the last four years as Beijing has bought dollars on an enormous scale to prop up demand for the American currency and prevent it from falling faster against the yuan.
The question is how much longer Beijing can keep up these purchases, which require adroit handling to prevent them from causing inflation in China. Atsuyoshi Hyogo, who runs Honda’s China operations, said that China had slightly lower costs than its Japanese counterparts at currently prevailing exchange rates, but he added that the Chinese currency should be much stronger than it was now.
For all the uncertainty, Wonder Auto and other Chinese parts makers are growing quickly. Wonder’s sales rose 45.8 percent in the first quarter, to $21.6 million; profits nearly doubled, to $2.7 million.