I have two interesting stories on Apple and the iPad to reflect on today.
First, ABC’s Nightline recently became the first Western journalists actually welcomed into an Apple assembly plant in China. The show recently aired a 15 minute feature on working conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China last week. Watch the video and then scroll down for what may be some additional surprising news about Apple’s operations in China.
Next, the story that has gone unreported lately is a University of California study titled “Capturing Value in Global Networks: Apple’s iPad and iPhone”. The study’s most interesting finding, in my opinion, is the tiny percentage of the total value of Apple’s iPhone and iPad that actually goes to the Chinese manufacturers of the products. The charts below, from the study, show how the value is divided among the various groups involved it their production and sales:
The chart shows a geographical breakdown of the retail price of an iPad. The main rewards go to American shareholders and workers. Apple’s profit amounts to about 30% of the sales price. Product design, software development and marketing are based in America. Add in the profits and wages of American suppliers, and distribution and retail costs, and America retains about half the total value of an iPad sold there. The next biggest gainers are South Korean firms like Samsung and LG, which provide the display and memory chips, whose profits account for 7% of an iPad’s value. The main financial benefit to China is wages paid to workers for assembling the product and for manufacturing some inputs—equivalent to only 2% of the retail price.
A student today asked why Apple doesn’t produce its products in the United States, where an economic downturn has left 14 million American out of work for the last three or four years. If iPads and iPhones were just made in America, jobs could be created, households would have more income to spend on Apples products, and both the country and the economy would benefit.
The data in the UC study indicates that in fact, more than half the value of an iPad or iPhone does end up in the hands of Americans. But Apple could never achieve the low costs and high profits that it does by assembling its products in the US. After watching the Nightline video above, it should be clear that the type of production involved in Apple factories’ is very low-skilled and labor-intensive. Using American labor, with its unions, minimum wages and 40 hour work weeks, would require Apple to employ such large numbers of workers and raise the company’s variable cost to such a level that the firm’s profits would be reduced significantly and its sales would fall dramatically. Apple would lose out to foreign producers of smart phones and tablet computers, such as LG, Samsung, Sony and others, which would continue assembling their goods with Chinese labor.
Ultimately, any gain to the low-skilled American workers (presuming Apple could even find enough to do the work of the 400,000 Chinese employed in the production of Apple products in China), would be offset by a loss of profits enjoyed by the millions of Americans who hold shares in Apple Computer and the thousands of American who are employed engineering and designing its products, as the firm’s sales would slip in the face of lower-cost competitors.
So this student’s question identifies an interesting paradox: America, with its large pool of unemployed workers, will never be attractive as a place to produce labor-intensive products such as phones and tablet computers, due to the vast wage differential between the US and China. And even if one firm did decide to produce its products in America, the gains to low-skilled workers who may find minimum wage work in the new assembly plants would be off-set by losses to the firms’ shareholders and the high-skilled workers whose jobs would be lost as sales decline due to the lower prices offered by lower-cost competitors.
The lesson here is two-fold: First, Apple and other American technology companies should continue using Chinese labor to assemble their products, and second, America is better off for it: lower costs mean cheaper products and higher sales, thus greater employment in the high-skilled sectors of the US economy, and more profits and returns on the investments of shareholders in American corporations. Americans are richer and enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the millions of Chinese working in factories assembling the goods we consume.
Keep in mind, this analysis did not even consider the effect on the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese workers (whose lives are much harder than the typical American) should companies like Apple shut down their Chinese manufacturing plants. That’s a whole other blog post!
The chart below shows how the value of the Swiss franc has changed against the Indian rupee over the last year and a half.
The Value of the Swiss Franc in terms of India Rupees – last 18 months
As can be seen, the franc, which is the currency in which I get paid here in Switzerland, has risen from only 40 rupees 18 months ago to as high as 63 rupees in August this year, and is currently at 57 rupees per Swiss franc. We’ll explore the underlying causes of this appreciation of the franc in a moment, but first let’s examine its effect on my dream of skiing in the Himalayas.
So just yesterday morning I did, at last, after six years of dreaming of this adventure, book a six day guided ski trip in the Indian Kashmir town of Gulmarg, which sits at an elevation of 2800 meters and has lift-accessed skiing up to 4,000 meters, making Gulmarg the second highest ski resort in the world. Okay, enough facts. The strong franc made this trip a reality for me for the following reason:
18 months ago, the 40,000 rupee price tag of this ski trip would have meant a cost of 1,000 swiss francs.
Today, due to the strong franc, the 40,000 rupee price tag means this trip is only costing me 700 swiss francs.
Due to the strengthening of the franc, and the weakening of the rupee, my Himalayan ski odyssey is now costing me 30% less than it would have 18 months ago… so… I’m doing it! YEAH!
The Swiss currency has appreciated by 42.5% in the last 18 months against the India rupee. WHY?! What could be going on in the world that accounts for this massive swing in exchange rates? There are a few causes worth mentioning here, which have to do with factors within Switzerland and India, but also external factors beyond the control of either country. Here are some of the major ones:
The franc has risen against most world currencies, not just the rupee, due, ironically, to economic uncertainty in the rest of Europe. Since Switzerland has its own currency, and a strong economy, whereas all of its European neighbors have a common currency (the euro), and struggling economies, investments in Swiss assets (primarily savings accounts and government debt) have become increasingly attractive. This has caused demand for francs to rise, causing its value to increase against most currencies.
The debt crisis in the rest of Europe, most notably in Greece and Italy, reduces certainty among investors in these European governments’ ability to repay their debt, creating further demand for investment in Switzerland, causing the franc to rise.
In addition, the “slowing growth” rate in India sends the signal that the country’s central bank may lower interest rates to try and stimulate GDP. However, the expectations of lower interest rates in the future make international investors look elsewhere for investments with relatively higher returns.
Next, weaker growth prospects make investments in Indian assets (such as corporate stocks or bonds) less attractive to international investors, since they expect demand for Indian output to slow in the future, thus demand for rupees declines now.
Finally, the decline in the rupee’s value itself is fueling a further increase in the value of the franc. Not all currency exchanges are for the purpose of purchasing a nation’s goods or its assets. Much currency trading is among forex brokers who buy and sell currencies to hold as assets themselves. The weakening of the rupee may be fueling speculation about the future value of the rupee, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as forex investors will continue to swap rupees for other currencies, including the Swiss franc.
All this adds up to one thing for me: A 30% discount on my ski vacation to India! Of course, for the Indian economy, a weaker rupee might be just what is needed to boost future economic growth. As the rupee falls and the Swiss franc and the US dollar gain value, not only will ski vacations to India become more attractive to foreigners, but so will other exports from the South Asian nation. That 3% trade deficit that has contributed to the rupee’s decline may begin to move towards the positive if foreigners like me begin taking more trips to and buying more goods from Indian firms.
The weaker rupee could, in the long-run, increase total demand for India’s output, which would improve employment and growth prospects on the sub-continent. Furthermore, if India’s growth rate picks up due to increased net exports, the Indian central bank may be able to raise interest rates a bit, reducing the incentive for investors to flee the rupee and put their money in countries with higher returns.
Through this process of self-balancing, in time the weaker rupee will probably lead to an improvement in India’s economic situation and eventually the rupee will begin to strengthen against the currencies of India’s trading partners. But for now, I’m going to enjoy my week of guided skiing in the Himalayas, and thank the forex traders and currency speculators for allowing me to take this dream vacation for such a bargain price!
American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…
China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:
Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.
When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.
When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).
Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.
By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.
China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.
The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.
The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.
However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.
Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?
The table below shows the trade balances for the nations from which my year two IB Economics student come. They are ranked in order from the country whose trade deficit makes up the largest percentage of its GDP to the country whose trade surplus makes up the largest percentage of its GDP. The blue bars represent the value of the deficit or surplus of each nation. As can be seen, Zimbabwe’s trade deficit is very small in dollar terms, but since its economy is also very small this deficit makes up a large percentage of its total GDP. Click on the image to visit an interactive version of the chart on which you can study the data more closely. Then answer the questions that follow. Discussion Questions:
Identify and define the four components of an nation’s current account balance.
According to the data, which three countries are the most import dependent? Which three countries are the most export dependent? Which country has the most balance trade in goods and services? Which has the most imbalanced trade?
If your country is one of deficit countries above, answer the following two questions:
Assuming its currencies’ exchange rates is floating, explain how persistent current account deficits will affect a country’s exchange rate over time?