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Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis May Just Turn into a Battle for Influence

Sri Lanka is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence and is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to default on its external debt in over two decades. While the financial crisis is underpinned by political mismanagement, low tourism during COVID-19, and affected exports and payments due to the Ukraine-Russia war, growing Chinese debt in recent years is also considered to be a major factor in the country’s financial downfall. More so, with China withholding desired and critical support at this time, more questions are being raised over China’s relationship with Sri Lanka. This has provided India and to an extent, the West, with the perfect opportunity to strengthen its ties with the country and in turn limit China’s political and economic influence in the region.

In April 2022, the Sri Lankan economy witnessed an absolute collapse owing to skyrocketing inflation, shortage of essential goods such as fuel, food, and medicines, and foreign debt to the tune of US$50 billion with just US$2 billion in foreign reserves. The financial turmoil further spiraled into a political crisis with the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fleeing the country amidst strong public outcry.

There is no one cause for the freefall of the economy. However, the situation is largely underpinned by unforeseen factors such as halt in tourism earnings due to the pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia war, which resulted in blocked payments from Russia for tea exports, along with deep-rooted issues such as political corruption, favoritism, and weak policies.

An example of weak governance could be the 2019 tax cuts and 2021 ban on imports of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which forced majority of farmers to go organic overnight. While the ban on pesticides import was aimed at saving US$400 million that were spent annually on import of fertilizers (in addition to reducing the adverse effect of pesticides on health and environment), the move backfired as the ban led to a substantial drop in crop production. As a result, Sri Lanka had to spend US$450 million on rice imports to cover up for the 20% drop in rice production levels. Moreover, it saw a decline in tea exports by 18% due to limited production. To offset this loss by farmers, the government had to spend several hundred million dollars as compensation and subsidies for farmers who lost their livelihoods. While the policy was removed after only five months for some sectors such as tea production, the damage was done causing a huge dent to the economy.

However, one of the key reasons for the country’s downfall is attributed to the government’s close alliance with China and to several economically unviable infrastructure projects that were green-lighted with China’s financial support and influence. Currently China is Sri Lanka’s biggest unilateral creditor.

Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis May Just Turn into a Battle for Influence by EOS Intelligence

Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis May Just Turn into a Battle for Influence by EOS Intelligence

The Rajpaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lankan politics for the last two decades, has been a close ally of China, and has favored investments from the country at the cost of relations with India and other nations that have for long warned Sri Lanka (and other Asian and African countries) about China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Over the last 15 years or so, Sri Lanka’s government has authorized several Chinese infrastructure projects including some that were considered economically unviable.

One such example is the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port that was built by China Harbor Engineering Company on a loan of about US$1.26 billion taken by Sri Lanka from China. The project, which was also touted to be commercially unviable from the very start by several experts and was cleared primarily because of close ties between China and the Rajpaksa family, was a commercial failure. In 2017, the port was handed over to the Chinese government for a 99-year lease due to default in loan payment. Similarly, the Hambantota airport is considered to be one of the emptiest airports in the world and has not been attracting traffic as anticipated, while the Nelum Kuluna towers (touted to be the tallest building in South Asia), stand empty. This has resulted in huge debt to the Chinese government from projects that failed to generate revenue for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka owes 10% of its total foreign debt to China alone.

Now in the midst of its worst financial crisis and ridden of the old political regime, Sri Lanka is realizing the burden of the foreign debt it has to China. Especially at the moment, when the support received from its once most valued partner has been lukewarm at best.

China has largely maintained silence on the current economic crisis faced by Sri Lanka as well as on the political turmoil and fall of the Rajapaksa clan. It has adopted a ‘wait and watch’ approach, which is being criticized globally. More so, China has only provided minimal relief support to the nation in crisis. To put it into perspective, China has provided only US$74 million of aid and has sent a large shipment of rice to Sri Lanka in response to the large-scale monetary assistance requested by the Rajapaksas, before their departure. Moreover, China has turned a deaf ear to Sri Lankan government’s plead for loan restructuring and is yet to consider the request for an additional financial aid of US$4 billion (which encompasses US$1 billion loan, US$1.5 billion credit line for Chinese imports and US$1.5 billion in bilateral currency swap). Furthermore, China has not cleared its stance on IMF’s relief package for Sri Lanka. While IMF is designing a relief package for Sri Lanka, it needs consent from all its creditors to write off some loans so that the relief sum is used for economic revival instead of just servicing foreign debt. While Sri Lanka is urging the IMF and China to work together, it is going to be a long round of negotiations.

On the other hand, India has been increasing its influence on its neighbor and has provided US$3.8 billion in monetary relief to Sri Lanka. In addition, it is willingly working with IMF to restructure loans to provide debt relief to the country in need. It is also collaborating with Japan to assist Sri Lanka during the crisis. Sri Lanka is of strategic importance to India as it connects several of its key trade routes to Africa and Europe. With China having close ties with Sri Lanka in the past, it had built a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean, which was threatening to India and led to a geopolitical rivalry between India and China.

This financial crisis comes as an opportunity to India to replace China as Sri Lanka’s preferred partner. In March 2022, the Indian government signed a deal with Sri Lanka to develop hybrid power projects in northern parts of the country after China suspended a similar project in December 2021, stating security reasons. Around the same time, India was awarded a US$12 million contract to build wind farms on three small islands in the Palk Strait (which lies between southern India and Sri Lanka) after the project was taken away from a Chinese firm. In March 2022, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) also signed an agreement with Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to jointly set up a solar power plant in Sampur, Sri Lanka.

Moreover, in July 2022, several investment proposals to strengthen the economic ties between India and Sri Lanka were discussed between officials from both countries. The key sectors that were identified for investments by India in Sri Lanka include renewable energy, hydrocarbon, ports and infrastructure, IT, and hospitality. The talks also encompassed the development of the Trincomalee Port on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast and a proposal to use Indian Rupee for transactions in Sri Lanka. In August 2022, the Sri Lanka government also gave an approval to Lanka’s Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC, a subsidiary of India’s Indian Oil Corporation) to open 50 new fuel stations in the country. While LIOC already operates 216 fuel stations in Sri Lanka, it plans to invest US$5.5 million in the proposed expansion. In a separate deal in December 2021, LIOC gained control of 75 oil tanks in a strategically significant storage facility near Trincomalee.

For China, on the other hand, this crisis presents a precarious situation. While it holds 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt, the perception is that China is one of the key reasons for Sri Lanka’s downfall. With China’s other BRI partners, such as Pakistan, heading towards a similar fate, it is important for China to understand the grip it has in deciding the fate of countries over which it holds such significant power. At the same time, it will not like to lose the control it holds over this region to India that would gladly step in to displace China as the preferred partner.

EOS Perspective

The Sri Lankan crisis and its management is being closely observed by several global economies. While China has been Sri Lanka’s prominent partner over the last decade and a half, a new regime in Sri Lanka, China’s tepid response, and India’s support may lead to a shift in allegiances in the region. However, it is still early to offer any definite comments. China still holds significant influence in the region. This can be seen in the recent events, when in August 2022, China docked its ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship, Yuan Wang 5, (also termed ‘spy’ ship) at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for six days, despite significant resistance and raised security concerns by India. Therefore, while India is trying to get closer with Sri Lanka, it is very difficult to match China’s control over the region. That being said, there is definitely an opening to improve both political and business relations with Sri Lanka for India. While politically Sri Lanka is of strong geopolitical significance, the country can also prove to be a valuable economic partner with regards to growing trade as well as large scale power and infrastructure projects in the long run.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Africa’s Mining Industry Gaining Momentum

Africa is home to 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, 8% of the world’s natural gas, and 12% of the world’s oil reserves. Despite being endowed with abundant resources, the continent accounts for only 5% of the global mining production. Mining in Africa was often overlooked because of the unstable political environment, opaque regulations, and poor enforcement capacity. Despite these challenges, investments in Africa’s mineral wealth have been steadily increasing in recent years. The massive swings in mineral demand due to the accelerated clean energy transition along with the rising geopolitical tensions have made countries across the globe diversify their sources of minerals and venture into highly challenged regions such as Africa.

Clean energy – A major force driving mineral extraction in Africa

The globally accelerating clean energy transition is set to unleash unprecedented mineral demand in the coming decades. Demand for minerals such as lithium, copper, cobalt, nickel, and zinc is expected to increase exponentially since they are required in the production of batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar photovoltaic plants, all of which are the cornerstone of clean energy development. Among all clean energy technologies, electric vehicle manufacturing and energy storage are likely to account for about half of the global mineral demand over the next two decades.

Lithium

The African continent hosts many of the global mineral reserves required for manufacturing electric vehicles and batteries. Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the top ten countries with the largest lithium reserves in the world. Lithium is a crucial component of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in smartphones and electric vehicles. In Zimbabwe, a mine named Bikita holds more than 11 million tons of lithium ore. Despite being bestowed with massive lithium reserves, the region is largely unexplored due to the lack of investment. However, as the lithium demand is on the rise, the government of Zimbabwe has been actively promoting the development of lithium mines to attract foreign investments. At the same time, an increasing interest in electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries is driving the lithium demand, pushing many global economies to invest in lithium mining. One such example is an investment from December 2021, when a Chinese-owned mineral production and processing company, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, acquired a 100% stake in the Zimbabwean Arcadia lithium mine.

Cobalt

Cobalt is another important metal, used in energy storage technologies and electric vehicle production. Most lithium-ion batteries depend on cobalt, which is a by-product of copper and nickel production. The Democratic Republic of the Congo supplies almost 70% of global cobalt, while Australia and the Philippines supply 4.2% and 3.3% of global cobalt, respectively. The growth of the electric vehicle industry has driven major cobalt producers to ramp up the output at multiple mine sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Graphite

Like lithium and cobalt, graphite is another significant mineral used in electric vehicle manufacturing. A lithium-ion battery needs 10 times more graphite than lithium. China produces around 82% of the global graphite, followed by Brazil at 7%. Due to the increasing demand, many countries with graphite reserves are launching their graphite mining projects. Mozambique is expected to increase its flake graphite 2021 production levels fivefold by 2030. The country has around 20% to 40% of total global graphite reserves.

Copper

Copper also holds a significant position in a range of minerals used in renewable energy technologies. It plays a vital role in grid infrastructure due to its efficiency, reliability, and conductivity. Around 60% of copper demand is driven by wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicle manufacturing. Increasing copper demand along with the rising global copper shortage has made many global producers expand their production and venture into new regions for mining. Consequently, Africa’s Zambia, one of the largest copper producers in the world, has attracted a significant number of investments recently. The country aims to take its annual copper production levels from 830,000 metric tons in 2020 to 3 million metric tons in the next ten years.

Africa also hosts many other mineral reserves such as platinum, manganese, nickel, and chromium, which are used in a variety of clean energy technologies. The continent is poised to take advantage of the growing demand for these minerals and has already started to attract significant foreign investments.

Africa’s Mining Industry Gaining Momentum by EOS Intelligence

High commodity prices and rising geopolitical tensions favor Africa’s mining

Africa has experienced a boom in mining since 2000 when the commodities super cycle (a phenomenon where commodities trade for higher prices for a long period) began. Along with the commodity boom, the African mining industry has grown substantially, attracting investments in exploration, acquiring new concessions, and opening new mines. The recently spiking prices of commodities such as aluminum, zinc, nickel, copper, gold, and coal are further fueling investments across the continent.

The Russian war on Ukraine further benefits Africa as many countries started to diversify their supply chains away from Russia. In March 2022, the USA and the UK imposed a ban on Russian oil imports. Europe also has plans to cut its Russian gas imports by two-thirds before the end of 2022. These could lead to supply shortages of oil and gas in many countries. Russia also supplies 7% of the world’s nickel, 10% of the world’s platinum, and 25-30% of the world’s palladium, which are critical to the globally accelerating clean energy transition. The US and European governments are looking closely at further sanctions against Russia which could disrupt these critical minerals supply. The situation has made many developed countries diversify and secure their sources of minerals. This will be a huge opportunity for Africa to promote its resources.

Massive African gold reserves attract global gold producers

Gold is often perceived as a safe haven asset and its demand is constantly rising, pushing major global gold producers to ramp up their production. Additionally, as many of the global gold reserves are depleting, mining companies find it imperative to explore new gold deposits across the world. Interestingly, the Birimian greenstone belt of West Africa hosts huge deposits of gold but remains highly underexplored. Many leading global gold producers started exploring the region due to the favorable mining regulations and mining codes implemented recently. Between 2009 and 2019, approximately 1,400 metric tons of gold reserves were discovered in West Africa, while about 1,000 metric tons and 680 metric tons were found in Canada and Ecuador, respectively. A total of US$470 million was invested in West Africa’s gold resource exploration in 2020. This was the third-largest global gold exploration expenditure in 2020, behind that of Australia and Canada.

Investments in Africa’s mining

Countries such as Australia, China, Canada, the UK, and the USA have invested heavily in Africa’s mineral extraction over the years. Emerging economies such as India, Russia, and Brazil also have sizeable investments in Africa’s mining, creating more competition for resources. Among all the countries that have invested, China has demonstrated a significant presence across the continent. The rise of industrialization in China has driven increased demand for mineral exploration and extraction in Africa over the past decades. China’s investment in exploring African mineral resources multiplied to a remarkable extent between 2005 and 2015. In 2021, China’s total outbound foreign direct investment (FDI) was US$145.2 billion, of which a quarter was dedicated to African mining.

Many of the mining projects in Africa are funded by international stock exchanges. For instance, in 2015, Deloitte analyzed the funds of 29 major mining projects which were in development across the continent. The Toronto Stock Exchange funded 28% of these projects, followed by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange funding 17%, and the National Stock Exchange of India funding 10% of the projects.

A 2019 report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers states that, in 2018, total mining deals in Africa amounted to US$48 billion. Out of this, West Africa received the largest share of investment worth US$16.2 billion for its oil, gas, and gold reserves, followed by Southern Africa, which received US$14.7 billion worth of investment for its gold, platinum, nickel, and cobalt. East Africa and Central Africa received the least amount of mining investment.

Challenges

Asia constitutes approximately 60% of the world’s total mining production, followed by North America (14%). Africa, despite being endowed with abundant mineral reserves, constitutes only 5% of the global mining production. The continent has failed to achieve real mining expansion due to many challenges prevailing in the continent. One of the prime challenges is the poor infrastructure (rail and port) that causes trade blockages. High levels of political instability, unstable regulations, and corruption are other significant challenges hindering mining across Africa. Other challenges impacting the African mining industry include poor geological data management, illegal mining, lack of mineral processing facilities, unreliable power supply, and weak local markets.

EOS Perspective

With the world’s increasing appetite for clean energy, Africa has a chance to establish itself as a key player in the mining industry. Significant investments in extraction and exploration are required to get the most out of the continent’s resources, and this is happening to a certain extent. Most significantly, the countries involved must build a robust value chain to promote industrialization and boost their economies, instead of just supplying raw materials. Governments should consider fostering joint ventures and partnerships with foreign companies to bridge the technical skill gaps that prevail in the continent. The industry itself must ensure that it shares the mining benefits with the people, thereby improving their welfare.

The African countries must also address challenges such as poor infrastructure to participate effectively in the value chain. Many projects are already underway to boost the transport infrastructure. China has built significant inroads in Africa under its Belt and Road Initiative. Deloitte estimates approximately US$50 billion would be invested in over 830 infrastructure projects between 2003 and 2030.

Along with infrastructure development, strong governance, and a stable and reliable regulatory environment are critical to attracting foreign investments. Several governments across Africa are revising mining codes and regulations and providing tax incentives to stimulate manufacturing. The mining industry is at a critical stage where it needs to satisfy an increased demand for minerals while also curbing the environmental impact of mining operations. This process seems to be complex, but it also provides many opportunities. For instance, mining companies can utilize the adoption of renewable, energy-efficient systems for power generation. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation, and big data could be adopted to mitigate rising costs.

There is still a long way for the region to achieve the desired mining growth and economic development, with multiple challenges across the entire value chain. However, with stronger governance, more stable regulations, and considerable foreign investments, Africa could position itself as one of the largest mining economies in the world. The opportunity for Africa is huge, but it needs to be utilized properly.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

China’s BRI Hits a Road Bump as Global Economies Partner to Challenge It

In 2013, China launched its infamous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has gone about developing several infrastructure projects across developing and underdeveloped countries across the globe. However, BRI has faced significant criticism as it brought heavy debt for several countries that are unable to pay the loans. Moreover, it is believed that China exercises significant political influence on these countries, thereby building a sort of dominance across the globe. To counter this, several developed economies have come together to launch alternative projects and partnerships that facilitate the development of infrastructure across developing/underdeveloped countries without exerting significant financial and political bindings on them. However, the main aim of these deals seems to be to keep a check on China’s growing might across the Asian and African continent.


Read our previous related Perspectives: OBOR – What’s in Store for Multinational Companies? and China’s Investments in Africa Pave Way for Its Dominance


China’s BRI program has signed and undertaken several projects since its inception in 2013. As per a 2020 database by Refinitiv (a global provider of market data and infrastructure), the BRI has signed agreements with about 100 countries on projects ranging from railways, ports, highways, to other infrastructure projects and has about 2,600 projects under its belt with an estimated value of US$3.7 billion. This highlights the vast reach and influence of China under this project and its growing financial and political power across the globe.

China’s BRI – looked as a debt trap

Over the years, BRI initiative has been criticized for being a debt-trap for developing and underdeveloped nations, by imposing heavy debt through expansive projects over the host countries, the non-payment of which may lead to significant economic and political burden on them. While the USA, the EU, India, and Japan have been some of the most vocal critics of the BRI program, several participating countries now voice a similar message as they have enveloped in high debt under these projects.

In one such example, the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port was built under the BRI scheme by China Harbor Engineering Company on a loan of nearly US$1.26 billion taken by Sri Lanka from China. The project was questioned for its commercial viability from the very beginning, however, given China’s close relationship with the Sri Lankan government, the project pushed through. As expected, the project was commercially unsuccessful, which along with unfavorable re-payment plan resulted in default by Sri Lanka. Thus, in 2017, the Chinese government eventually took charge of the port and its neighboring 15,000 acres region under a 99-year lease. This transfer has given China an intelligence, commercial, and strategic foothold in a critical water route.

In a similar case, Montenegro is also facing a difficult time repaying its debt to China for a highway project under BRI. In 2014, Montenegro contracted with China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) for the construction of a highway to offer a better connection between Montenegro and Serbia. However, the feasibility of the project was questionable. The Montenegro government took a loan of US$1.59 billion (85% of the first phase of the project) from China Exim Bank at a 2% interest rate over the next 20 years. However, the project, which is being undertaken by Chinese companies and workers using Chinese materials, has faced unplanned difficulties in completion, has put significant financial pressure on the Montenegro government. This is likely to further degrade the country’s economy, delay its integration with the EU, and leave it vulnerable to Chinese political influence. While the EU has refused to finance the loan altogether, it is offering special grants and preferential loans to the country from the European Investment Bank to facilitate the completion of the highway.

Moreover, as per a 2018 report by Center for Global Development, eight BRI recipient countries – Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – were at a high risk of debt distress due to BRI loans. These countries are likely to face rising debt-to-GDP ratios of more than 50%, of which at least 40% of external debt owed to China in association to BRI related projects.

Owing to the growing concern over increasing Chinese investment debt, several countries are now looking to reduce their exposure to Chinese investments and financing. In 2018, the Myanmar government, in an attempt to avoid falling deep into China’s debt-trap and becoming over-reliant on the country, scaled down China-Myanmar Kyaukpyu port project size from US$7.5 billion to US$1.3 billion.

Similarly, in 2018, the Malaysian government cancelled three BRI projects – the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and two gas pipelines, the Multi-Product Pipeline (MPP), and Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) as these projects significantly inclined towards increasing the Malaysian debt to China to complete these projects.

China’s long-term ally, Pakistan, also opted out from China’s BRI in 2019, exposing some serious flaws with the project. In 2015, the two countries unveiled a US$62 billion flagship project under BRI, called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While it was started with an ambition to improve Pakistan’s infrastructure (especially with regards to energy), this deal resulted in severe debt woes for Pakistan as the nation started to face a balance-of-payment crisis. This in turn resulted in Pakistan turning to International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a three-year US$6.3 billion bailout package. Pakistani officials have even claimed that the CPEC project is equally (if not more) beneficial for China in terms of gaining a strategic advantage over India and by extension the USA. Thus, given its partial failure and increasing financial pressure on Pakistan, many ongoing projects under CPEC have been stalled or being rebooted in a slimmed-down manner.

Similarly, more recently, in April 2021, Australia scrapped off its deal it had with China under BRI, stating the deal to be over ambitious and inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy.

Developed nations come together to offer alternatives

Given the push against BRI, several developed nations have come out with alternative infrastructure plans, either individually or in partnership with each other. The key purpose of this is to not only offer more viable options to developing and underdeveloped nations but also to keep a check on China’s growing global influence.

In one such move, in May 2015, Japan launched a ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ (PQI) plan, which came out as a direct competitor to China’s BRI. The PQI Japan (in collaboration with Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other organizations and countries) aimed at providing nearly US$110 billion for ‘quality infrastructure investment in Asia from 2016 to 2020. Although, on one side, this initiative is intended to secure new markets for Japanese businesses and strength export competitiveness to further bolster its economic growth, on the other side, politically PQI is a keen measure to counter China’s influence over its neighboring countries.

Just like Japan, India has also been a staunch critic of China’s BRI as it feels that the latter uses the BRI to expand its unilateral power in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, to counter it, India, formed an alliance with Japan in November 2016, called ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ (AAGC).

The alliance aims at improving infrastructure and digital connectivity in Africa and connecting the continent with India and other Oceanic and South-East Asian countries through a sea passageway. This is expected to boost economic collaborations of India and Japan with African countries by enhancing the growth and interconnectedness between Asia and Africa.

The alliance claims to focus on providing a more affordable alternative to China’s BRI with a smaller carbon footprint, which has been another major concern in BRI project execution across Indo-Pacific region. The emphasis has been put on providing quality infrastructure while taking into account economic efficiency and durability, inclusiveness, safety and disaster-resilience, and sustainability. The countries do not have an obligation of hiring only Japanese/Indian companies for the infrastructure development projects and are open to the bids from the global infrastructure companies.

In more recent times, in May 2021, the EU and India have joined hands for a comprehensive infrastructure deal, called the ‘Connectivity Partnership’. This deal aims at strengthening cooperation on transport, energy, digital, and people-to-people contacts between India and the EU and developing countries in regions across Africa, Central Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, it aims at improving connectivity between the EU and India by undertaking infrastructure development projects across Europe, Asia, and Africa. It also focuses on providing a more reliable platform to the already ongoing projects between the EU and India’s private and public sectors.

While the two partners claim otherwise, the deal seems to be their collective answer to China’s BRI and its growing influence in the Asian, African, and European belt. Unlike BRI, the EU-India Connectivity Partnership aims to follow a clear rule-based approach to have greater involvement from the private sector with backend support from the public sector of both sides. This protects the host country against heavy debt and in turn restricts the level of political influence that both sides may have on the host country. This advantage over China’s infrastructure deal makes this project a serious competitor to the BRI in this region as host countries are most vary of falling into a debt-trap with China.

Another recent initiative to dethrone the BRI has been the ‘Build Back Better World’ (B3W), which has been undertaken by the Group of Seven (G7) countries in June 2021. This project, led by the USA, is focused on infrastructure development in low- and medium-income countries, and aims to accomplish infrastructure projects worth US$40 trillion in these countries by 2035. Further, the project is intended to mobilize private-sector capital in areas such as climate, health, digital technology along with gender equity and equality involving investments from financial institutions of the countries involved.

This project claims to be based on the principles of ‘transparency and inclusion’ and intends to cease China’s rising global influence (through BRI) as it aims to make B3W comparatively more value-driven, market-led, and a higher-standard infrastructure partnership for the host country. To ensure inclusivity and success of the project, the USA invited other countries such as India, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa to join the project. However, considering the nascent stage of the B3W development, the proceedings and details of the project are not explicitly clear, however, given that its intention is to help the USA compete with the BRI, it is expected to be well-funded, robust, and inclusive.

EOS Perspective

China’s BRI started on a very high note, garnering multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects across a host of Asia, African, and European countries. However, over the last couple of years, increasing number of countries have become wary of its inherent problems, such as looming debt, increasing Chinese influence, and incompletion of projects. This has helped shift the momentum towards other developed countries that have for long wanted to counter China’s growing global influence. Using this opportunity, Japan, India, the EU, and the USA have come up with alternative infrastructure deals to compete with the BRI.

That being said, BRI will not be easy to shove aside as China has been in this game for several years now and has a significant time advantage. While countries such as India can try to compete, they do not have the financial might to take up projects that are strategically important and commercially viable.

Further, several of the alternative projects, such as India-EU Connectivity Partnership and G7 B3W aim to significantly involve the private sector for investments. While this is good news for the host countries where the project will be undertaken, private players will definitely be more concerned about financial viability of their investment and may not be able to match the BRI investment values, debt rates, etc. Moreover, geographic location puts China in an advantage for projects in the Asian region (when compared with the USA and the EU).

Therefore, while the attempt to dethrone China’s BRI has gained significant momentum and found proper backing, it is something that cannot happen in the short term. However, given the growing anti-China sentiment, it can be expected that with the right partnerships and project terms, BRI may start facing some serious competition from global powers across the globe.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Clean Beauty: Next Stop – China

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China is one of the most promising markets for cosmetics and skin care companies globally, only being second to the USA in size. Despite its size and potential, the Chinese beauty market has remained relatively closed to several international players that make cruelty-free and vegan products. This is because of Chinese regulations that required compulsory animal testing pre- and post-market entry for international brands. However, in 2021, the Chinese government squashed the mandated animal testing requirement and introduced other certification methods. While this opens the market for a plethora of players who have till now shied away from entering the Chinese market, steering through the Chinese turf may still not be very simple.

China’s new cosmetic regulations easing entry for imported products

China is currently the second-largest cosmetics market globally, and has an immense potential to grow further. As per China’s Ministry of Commerce, the value of imported cosmetics grew by 30% in 2020, underlining the strong potential for international brands in the Chinese market. At the same time, several international companies have kept their distance from this US$57 billion beauty and personal care market, owing to stringent regulations.

However, in 2021, the government introduced new rulings for cosmetics and beauty products, which have altered the regulatory landscape in China. As per Chinese regulations, cosmetics are divided into two categories, special and general cosmetics, and the two are subject to different pre-market registration requirements.

As per the new regulations, while the former will continue to be subject to pre-registration with National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) before being allowed to be manufactured or imported, general cosmetics now only require filing documentation of the product with the authority. Earlier, the general category also required prior approval before import.

In addition to streamlining the process for the general category, the government has reduced the number of special product categories from nine to six. As of 2021, the only product categories under the special category encompass hair dye products, hair perm products, spots removal and skin whitening products, sunscreen products, and hair loss prevention products. The streamlining of the registration process for general category is expected to have a direct impact on the cost of warehousing and logistics for global brands as it is likely to quicken the import cycle.

Another regulation that was a deterrent to entering the Chinese market was that international beauty companies were expected to perform animal testing for their products both pre-and post-market entry. This created an issue for the growing number of global clean beauty brands who position themselves as vegan or cruelty-free. These brands could either choose to dilute their brand positioning by undertaking animal testing for the Chinese region or had to keep away from this goldmine market.

However, these companies did have one channel to enter this market, and that was through cross-border e-commerce sites, such as Alibaba’s Tmall. Although this resulted in a limited presence as the cross-border market size has government restrictions and is about one-tenth the size of the domestic market. Moreover, physical retail still continues to dominate the Chinese market with regards to cosmetics sale, with growing popularity of multi-brand stores.

As per the new regulations, global companies do not require animal testing anymore before entering the Chinese market. This will level the playing field between international imports and domestic brands, as domestic brands have been exempt from animal testing since 2014.

However, there are a few conditions to be met by companies looking to bypass animal testing. The brand must provide relevant quality certifications from their country of origin, the product should not be aimed at children or babies, the product should not contain any raw material that is not included in China’s approved list of raw materials, and the applicant brand and its Chinese representative should not have been flagged as requiring further supervision by the authorities.

Clean Beauty Next Stop China by EOS Intelligence

Companies responding to the new regulations

This opens the door for several international players who position themselves as cruelty-free. In May 2021, Australian clean beauty brand, Frank Body, welcomed a closed investment from Chinese private equity firm, EverYi Capital, which put the value of the brand at about US$74 million (AUD 100 million). The investment, which includes the creation of a Shanghai team for the brand, will help the company find a strong footing in the Chinese market in the light of the latest animal testing relaxation. The brand is expected to enter the market over the next 12 to 18 months, with prospects of opening a physical store.

In a similar move, Brazilian beauty conglomerate, Natura & Co., mentioned during its 2020 fiscal year results that it is looking to expand into China with its brands, Aesop and The Body Shop. The two brands were expected to complete their registration in China by first half of 2021, with Aesop expected to open its first store in Shanghai by the end of 2021, while The Body Shop is scheduled to open its first store in 2022 (however, there is no information regarding the completion of the registration process yet). While these brands have been available in China through cross-border e-commerce, they expect that physical retail presence will help establish a strong foothold in this growing market.

Nerissa Low, founder of Singapore-based organic and cruelty-free cosmetic company, Liht Organics, has also welcomed the decision and expressed interest in entering the offline Chinese market. Liht Organics, which entered China in 2020 through cross-border e-commerce, gained significant traction in the Chinese market. However, the brand refused to enter the offline market when approached by several Chinese distributors, as the company did not want to compromise on its cruelty-free ethos. Given the change in regulations, the founder has expressed interest in expanding beyond cross-border e-commerce considering the potential in the offline market and is looking for the right partner and opportunity.

Moreover, popular international brands such as Drunk Elephant, Fenty Beauty, and The Ordinary, which are currently limited to be selling through Alibaba Tmall, are expected to enter the Chinese market and establish a physical presence there. While a lot of these brands might wait to establish physical stores and may penetrate the market through mainland e-commerce websites such as Tmall (instead of Tmall Global) to reach a larger audience, presence in multi-brand retail stores or opening pop-up stores will be the natural next step.

Despite new regulations, challenges remain

However, entering the Chinese market (despite the abolishment of the animal testing rules) will be no easy feat. Owing to the recent changes in regulations, the companies need to keep up higher standards in terms of product quality, marketing, and operations. Moreover, some of these regulations have made it harder for foreign players to comply as they require a complete overhaul of their local marketing strategies and operational functions.

Firstly, as per the new regulations, the NMPA of China has made it mandatory for international companies to have a domestic agent who must be based in China. This agent will be responsible for the registration process, which includes massive paperwork and approval procedures. Moreover, these agents will be held completely accountable for the company’s products and operations in China and will be answerable and responsible for any safety concerns arising in the product. In addition, they will be responsible for ensuring that the product, its ingredients, and its marketing are compliant with the Chinese regulations. Thus it will be a challenge for foreign players to find a Chinese agent to fill this capacity as in reality, such a person/company may have no impact on how the ingredients or final product are made. This is also definitely expected to increase costs for the company.

The government has also imposed harsher penalties for non-compliance and various violations such as misleading advertising, non-compliance of new cosmetic naming guidelines, non-submission of approved hygiene license and certificates, etc. This makes it critical for companies that the Chinese agent is well aware of all regulations and is thorough with all registration requirements as violations can also result in cancellation of license.

Secondly, while the removal of animal testing for imported cosmetics is a welcome news for a great number of global cosmetic brands, the policies put in place of this pose to be equally challenging and complex to steer through. Under the new regulations, cosmetics falling under the general category require a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certificate to avoid animal testing. These GMP certificates need to be issued from the brand’s local government regulatory department. Considering that different countries will have different authorities and templates for issuing these certificates, there is a lot of ambiguity regarding what is acceptable and what is not.

Moreover, cosmetic companies need to provide a manufacturing quality management system (QMS) for each individual ingredient used in the cosmetic formulations. This requires companies to collect information on each and every ingredient manufacturer and supplier, including their quality specification documents and certificates. This is a tedious process since a company may use ingredients from several manufacturers for a single product. In addition, in case a company plans to change a supplier, it will have to undergo this process and update the information with the Chinese authorities for the new supplier, which is both money and time consuming.

On the one hand, it is true that the exemption from animal testing has given an opportunity of many cruelty-free brands to enter the Chinese market. However, on the other hand, the lengthy procedure and strict scrutiny over the process is undermining the overall market entry process for mid to small size companies. Non-compliance with these certifications will reverse the relaxation on animal testing for the companies that don’t meet the new procedural requirements and then their products will need to undergo animal testing for selling in China.

Furthermore, despite getting the green light to enter the Chinese market, the cruelty-free cosmetic companies would still need to deal with another challenge arising from the consumer side. While the clean beauty segment is definitely growing, it is currently not a major factor in purchasing decisions by consumers, unlike in the USA. Chinese consumers seek products that are functional and have healthier, milder, and more reliable formulas. Hence, to ensure a right placement of their cruelty-free products, companies would need to undergo distinctive marketing strategies to grab a good consumer base. Education and awareness regarding cruelty-free products and creating a substantial market for such products may require significant marketing funds.

In addition to the changes in regulations with regards to animal testing, the Chinese government added new regulations regarding product labelling. As per the new regulations, the labels must have corresponding Chinese explanation to everything mentioned and they must a have larger font size than the explanation in foreign language. Also, the label should contain the Chinese name and special cosmetics registration certificate numbers, product implementation number, name and address of the person responsible in China and of the manufacturer along with the production license number.

Adding to these is a ban on use of any kind of medical term, names/pictures/endorsement of celebrities in the medical field, and implication of medical effects to avoid any misleading of information. Although all these changes are implemented in order to curb the market of counterfeit products, they are expected to make the product approval process lengthier, as now companies would be required to undergo a comprehensive regulatory review of the guidelines to ensure hassle-free entry into the Chinese market.

EOS Perspective

While the new regulations provided a pathway for several foreign clean beauty players to enter the Chinese market, the process still requires a lot of navigation, especially since a lot of rulings regarding safety requirements, GMP authorities, and template remain ambiguous.

Moreover, since these certificates need to be derived from the country of origin, the country’s overall political and business equation with China might also play a subtle role in their acceptance by the Chinese authorities. For instance, China has not yet declared the jurisdictions that will be recognized for the QMS certificate. Given the current political friction with Australia and the USA, the Chinese authorities may not accept QMS certificates from these countries at the moment. Thus brands from these countries may have to look to find suppliers or shift part production to other countries to be able to enter the Chinese market.

While currently there is no clarity regarding what terms and jurisdictions will initially be accepted for the GMP and QMS certificates, it is expected that clarity on the matter will be provided by the government shortly. In the long run, these regulations are a move in the right direction. As the government has overall simplified the filing process and focused on quality and safety measures, the new regulations are a positive development for international cosmetic companies, especially clean beauty brands that have been unable to enter the second largest beauty market in the world.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Indian Pharma Needs to Reinforce Supply Chain Capabilities

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COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of strong healthcare and pharmaceutical ecosystem for India. Constant demand for drugs and the expectation to deliver them in time put a lot of pressure on pharma supply chains, highlighting several challenges and shortcomings. At the same time, the Indian pharma sector seems to have benefited from the situation as well, as the pandemic unlocked new avenues of growth. To seize new opportunities, the Indian pharma sector should now focus on increasing manufacturing capacity, invest in R&D capabilities, develop world-class infrastructure, and strengthen its supply chain network.

Challenging times for the Indian pharma sector

With coronavirus wreaking havoc, the Indian pharmaceutical sector was shaken and the pandemic inflicted several challenges on the industry.

The key challenge faced by pharmaceutical companies has been the shortage of key raw materials for manufacturing drugs. India imports 60% of APIs (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) and DIs (Drug Intermediates) and nearly 70% of this demand is met by Chinese companies (as of July 2020). This reliance to import cheaper raw materials from countries such as China is a result of lack of tax incentives, high cost of utilities, and low import duties in India.

India’s dependence on China has affected the supply of essential APIs. The recent pandemic has magnified this problem, and in order to meet the increasing demand, Indian pharma manufacturers need to strengthen their supply chain strategies by working with multiple API suppliers, both domestic as well as international.

Another concern has been the increased raw materials and logistics cost. Between January and June 2020, the production costs at the Chinese suppliers increased due to the implementation of safety and hygiene measures thus increasing the overall cost of APIs and other materials imported by India by an average of 25%. Logistics prices also went up during the same period, with the cost of shipping a container from China to India increasing to an average of US$ 1,250 up from US$ 750. Additionally, air freight charges also went up from US$ 2/kg to US$ 5-6/kg.

Furthermore, restrictions on movement of products and other goods also posed a problem for pharma supply chain. Even though the sector was exempted from these restrictions, delays in the delivery of drugs were registered. These delays have been largely contributed to by the complexity of various processes and their elements (from raw material procurement to procuring casing and other packaging material – all of which come from different locations to the final assembly point, and their delivery can be exposed to delays at each stage). While logistics companies tried to make product deliveries on time, they were restrained by limited workforce and movement restrictions (that required clearance at every step).

Moreover, due to panic buying, scarcity of OTC and generic drugs was also observed.

Government’s push to make India self-reliant

The government has undertaken steps to strengthen the pharma sector and announced several schemes and policies to boost domestic pharma manufacturing.

To reduce import dependence in APIs and boost domestic manufacturing, the government approved a US$ 971.6 million (INR 69.4 billion) Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme in March 2020 to promote domestic manufacturing of APIs and KSMs (Key Starting Materials)/DIs. Under the scheme, financial incentives ranging from 5% to 20% of incremental sales will be given to selected manufacturers of 41 critical bulk drugs (of the identified 53 APIs for which the country is heavily dependent on imports). This includes aid for fermentation-based products from FY2023–2024 to FY2028–2029 and for chemical-synthesis-based products from FY2022–2023 to FY2027–2028. It is expected that the scheme will result in incremental sales of US$ 649.6 million (INR 464 billion) and generate a large number of employment opportunities.

Moreover, in November 2020, a new PLI Scheme (referred to as PLI 2.0) for the promotion of domestic manufacturing of pharmaceutical products was announced, wherein US$ 210 million (INR 150 billion) were allotted for pharma goods manufacturers based on their Global Manufacturing Revenue (GMR). Financial incentives ranging from 3% to 10% of incremental sales will be given to manufacturers (classified under Group A – having GMR of pharmaceutical goods of at least US$ 700 million (INR 50 billion), Group B – having GMR between US$ 70 million (INR 5 billion) and US$ 700 million (INR 50 billion), and Group C – having GMR less than US$ 70 million (INR 5 billion). The objective of the scheme is to promote production of high-value products, increase the value addition in exports, and improve the availability of a wider range of affordable medicines for local consumers. The initiative is likely to create 100,000 (20,000 direct and 80,000 indirect) jobs while generating total incremental sales of US$ 41,160 million (INR 2,940 billion) and total incremental exports of US$ 27,440 million (INR 1,960 billion) during six years from FY2022-2023 to FY2027-2028.

Another scheme named Promotion of Bulk Drug Parks was announced by the government in March 2020 to attain self-reliance. Under the plan, funds worth US$ 420 million (INR 30 billion) were allotted for setting up three bulk drug parks between 2020 and 2025. This initiative aims at reducing the manufacturing cost as well as the dependency on importing bulk drugs from other countries. Financial assistance will be given to selected bulk drug parks to the extent of 70% of the project cost of common infrastructure facilities (for north-eastern regions and states in the mountainous areas, the assistance will be 90%). The aid per bulk Drug Park will be limited to US$ 140 million (INR 10 billion).

Furthermore, to end reliance on China, Indian pharma companies are also taking steps to strengthen their operations and manufacturing capabilities with regard to pharmaceutical ingredients. For instance, Cipla Ltd. (Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company) launched the “API re-imagination” program in 2020 to expand its manufacturing capacity by using the government incentive schemes.

The announcement of the above schemes is a show of intent by the government towards building a self-sufficient pharma sector in India. It will be interesting to see how much pharma players stand to gain from these potentially game-changing initiatives. However, only time will tell if these policies are good enough for the industry stakeholders or will these schemes not be plentiful enough to truly help the manufacturers.

Indian Pharma Needs to Reinforce Supply Chain Capabilities by EOS Intelligence

Investment in API and intermediaries’ sub-sectors on the rise

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Indian pharmaceutical companies (that deal particularly with manufacturing of APIs, vaccine-related products, and bulk pharma chemicals) have been attracting huge investment from private equity firms. This is happening mainly because of two reasons. Firstly, the occurrence of the second wave of COVID-19 in India has increased the demand for medicines (including demand for self-care, nutritional, and preventive pharma products to boost immunity), and secondly, pharma companies across North America and Europe are shifting their manufacturing sites from China to India (to reduce dependency on a single source). Indian companies received an investment worth US$ 1.5 billion from private equity firms during the FY2020-2021 (since the coronavirus outbreak) and the investment is expected to reach US$ 3-4 billion in the FY2021-2022.

Some of the major deals that happened in this space included Carlyle Group (US-based private equity firm) buying 20% stake in Piramal Pharma (Mumbai-based pharma company) for US$ 490 million in June 2020 and 74% stake in SeQuent Scientific (India-based pharmaceutical company) for US$ 210 million in May 2020. Further, KKR & Co. (US-based global investment company) purchased a 54% controlling stake in J.B. Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company) for nearly US$ 410 million in July 2020. Another example is Advent International (US-based private equity firm) acquiring stakes in RA Chem Pharma (Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company) for US$ 128 million in July 2020.

From a capital perspective, COVID-19 acted as an investment accelerant that will keep the market open for opportunistic deals for many years to come. In the current scenario, investment firms are re-evaluating the pharma landscape and looking to invest in innovative ideas and products that help them grow. It is highly likely that in the coming months, if the right opportunity strikes, the investment firms will not deter from going ahead with novel deal structures. This could include arrangements such as both parties sharing equal risk and rewards, a for-profit partnership wherein the investor specifically focuses on enhancing the digital-marketing capabilities of the pharma company (rather than sticking to just acquiring a certain share or merge with an existing company) and being open to taking more risk, if needed.

Partnerships expected to increase

The pandemic has led pharma companies to rethink their operational and business strategies. For long-term sustainability, players are analyzing their market position and partnering with other industry stakeholders for better market penetration and value creation for their customers.

In November 2020, Indian Immunologicals Ltd. (Hyderabad-based vaccine company) announced that the company would invest US$ 10.5 million (INR 0.75 billion) in a new viral antigen manufacturing plant based in Telangana that would cater to the need for vaccines for diseases such as dengue, zika, varicella, and COVID-19 (in April 2021, the company announced a research collaboration agreement with the Griffith University, Australia to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus).

Furthermore, Jubilant Life Sciences Ltd. (Noida-based pharma company) entered into a non-exclusive licensing agreement with Gilead Sciences (US-based biopharmaceutical company) granting it the right to register, manufacture, and sell Remdesivir (Gilead Sciences’ drug currently used as a potential therapy for Covid-19) in India (along with other 126 countries).

In February 2021, to scale up the biopharma ecosystem, the state government of Telangana partnered with Cytiva (earlier GE Healthcare Life Sciences) to open a new Fast Trak lab in Hyderabad. This facility will enable the biopharma companies in the region to improve and increase production efficiency, reduce operational costs, and make products available in the market quicker.

Future ripe for new opportunities

The pandemic has opened a stream of opportunities for India’s pharma sector which are expected to drive the growth of the sector in the long term.

China’s supply disruption and increased raw material costs have forced global pharma companies to reduce dependence on China. As an alternative, the companies either set up new API manufacturing plants (which is time-consuming) or turn to existing European or US drug manufacturers to help them meet their requirements. However, both options are capitally draining and there is a need for finding a cost-efficient solution. This presents a huge opportunity for the Indian API sector which is also a key earnings growth driver for pharma manufacturers.

India is among the leading global producers of cost-effective generic medicines. Now there is a need to diversify the product offerings by focusing on complex generics and biosimilars. With the guidance of the United States Food & Drug Administration (USFDA) in identifying the most appropriate methodology for developing complex generic drugs, Indian pharma companies such as Dr. Reddy’s, Zydus, Glenmark, Aurobindo, Torrent, Lupin, Cipla, Sun, and Cadila are working on their product pipeline of complex generics. Currently, the space has limited competition and offers higher margins (in comparison to generic drugs) thus presenting a lucrative opportunity for Indian players to explore and grow.

Similarly, biosimilars (referred to as similar biologics in India) is another area where Indian companies have not been faring too well in international markets mainly due to the non-alignment of Indian regulatory guidelines with the guidelines in other markets (mainly in Europe and USA). The government had already revised the guidelines of similar biologics (done in 2016, which provided an efficient regulatory pathway for manufacturing processes assuring safety and efficacy with quality as per cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations enforced by the FDA)) and introduced industry-institute initiatives (such as ‘National Bio-Pharma Mission’, launched in 2017 to accelerate biopharmaceutical development, including biosimilars, among others) to improve the situation. But now with the intensified need for improved healthcare system and more effective medicines, COVID has presented Indian companies with an opportunity to shape their biosimilar landscape.

India holds a strong position as a key destination for outsourcing research activities. While it has been a preferred location for global pharma companies to set R&D plants for a number of years now, becoming an outsourcing hub for pharma research is another growth area that is yet to be explored to its full potential.

EOS Perspective

Currently, the Indian pharma industry is at an interesting crossroad wherein the industry responded to the unprecedented situation with agility and persistence. The pandemic presented several opportunities and challenges for the industry and unsurprisingly, had a positive impact on the sector. The pandemic acted as a catalyst for change and investment for the pharma sector, which also responded to the challenges by adjusting to the new normal that furthered new opportunities.

In the past few months, COVID-19 has led the government to reassess the country’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities and led them to take steps to make India self-sufficient. As an immediate measure, the country has been reviewing its business policies (for the ease of doing business and to attract more investment) and pharma companies recalibrating their business models, and some success has been achieved. The government should also be mindful that, in the long run, success will only be achieved when industry stakeholders are presented with a business environment (in the form of incentives, tax-subsidies, low rate of interest on bank loans, utilities such as electricity and water at discounted rates, and transparent business policies, etc.) that is conducive for growth.

Moving forward, the Indian pharma companies need to be adaptive and flexible. While the sector has been resilient to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, companies need to focus on risk management as well. Moreover, with continuous capital flowing into the sector, there is an opportunity for firms to not just broaden their scope of innovation but also to invest in critical therapeutic areas.

To emerge as a winner post pandemic, the Indian pharma industry needs to focus on its strengths and propel full steam in the direction of opportunities presented by COVID-19.

*All currency conversions as on 20th May, 2021, 1 INR = 0.014 US$

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

COVID-19 Unmasks Global Supply Chains’ Reliance on China. Is There a Way Out?

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Dubbed as the factory to the world, China is an integral part of the supply chain of a host of products and brands. From manufacturers of simple products such as toys to complex good such as automobiles, all are dependent on China for either end products or components. However, China’s ongoing trade war with the USA and the COVID pandemic have made several brands question their supply chain dependence on this country, especially in some industries such as pharmaceuticals. Moreover, aggressive investment incentives offered by countries such as India and Japan have further cajoled companies to reassess their global supply chains and reconsider their dependence on China. However, with years of investment in the supply chain ecosystem, a shift such as this seems easier said than done.

China emerged as the manufacturing hub of the world in the 1990’s and hasn’t looked back since. Owing to vast availability of land and labor, technological advancements, and overall low cost of production, China became synonymous to manufacturing. Over the past decade, increasing labor and utility costs, and growing competition from neighboring low-cost countries such as India, Vietnam, Thailand, etc., have resulted in some companies shifting out from China. However, so far this has been limited to a few low-skilled labor intensive industries such as apparel.

The year 2020 has changed this drastically. The COVID pandemic along with the ongoing trade war between the USA and China made companies realize and question their dependency on China. In the beginning of last year, COVD-19 brought China to a halt, which in turn impacted the supply chain for all companies producing in China. Moreover, several pharmaceutical companies also realized that they are highly dependent on China for few basic medicines and medical supplies and equipment, which were in a considerable shortage throughout 2020. This pushed several companies across sectors such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and electronic goods, to reconsider their global supply chains to ensure reduced dependence on any one region, especially China.

Currently, several companies such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft are looking to shift their production from China to other South Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand.

Some of the companies looking to reduce dependence on China:

Apple

In November 2020, Apple, along with its supplier Foxconn, expressed plans to shift assembly of some iPad and MacBook to Vietnam from China. The facility is expected to come online in the first half of 2021. Moreover, Apple is also considering shifting production of some of its Air Pods to Vietnam as well. In addition, it has invested US$1 billion in setting up a plant in Tamil Nadu, India to assemble iPhones that are to be sold in India. Apple and Foxconn are consciously trying to reduce their reliance on China due to the ongoing USA-China trade war.

Samsung

In July 2020, Samsung announced plans to shift most of its computer monitor manufacturing plants from China to Vietnam. The move is its response to hedge the supply chain disruptions it faced due to factories being shut in China during the early phase of the pandemic. In addition, in December 2020, the company shared its plans to shift its mobile and IT display plants from China to India. Samsung plans to invest about US$660 million (INR 48 billion) to set up the new facility in Uttar Pradesh (India).

Hasbro

Hasbro has been moving its production out of China into Mexico, India and Vietnam over the past year. It aimed to have only 50% of its products to be coming out of China by the end of 2020 and only 33% of its production to remain in China by the end of 2023. In 2019, about 66% of its toys were produced in China, while in 2012, 90% of its toys were manufactured in the country. The key reason behind the consistent switch is the souring trade relations between the USA and China.

Hyundai

During the past year, Hyundai Motors has been looking at developing India into its global sourcing hub instead of China in order to reduce its over-reliance on the latter. It has been encouraging its vendors, such as Continental, Aptiv, and Bosch, to ramp up production in India so as to move their supply chain away from China. It plans to source its auto parts from India (instead of China) for its existing factories in India, South America, Eastern Europe as well as planned facility in Indonesia.

Google

Google is looking to manufacture its new low-cost smartphone, Pixel4A, and its flagship smartphone, Pixel5A in Vietnam instead of China. In addition, in 2020, it also planned to shift production of its smart home products to Thailand. This move has been a part of an ongoing effort to reduce reliance on China, which in fact gained momentum post supply chain disruptions faced due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Microsoft

In early 2020, Microsoft expressed plans to shift the production base of its Surface range of notebooks and desktops into Vietnam. While the initial volume being produced in Vietnam is expected to be low, the company intends to ramp it up steadily to shift volumes away from China.

Steve Madden

In 2019, Steve Madden expressed plans to shift parts of its production out of China in 2020, given growing trade-based tensions between the USA and China. However, due to the COVID pandemic, it could not make planned changes to its supply chain. In October 2020, it again expressed plans to start shifting part of its production away from China by spring 2021. It plans to procure raw materials from Mexico, Cambodia, Brazil, and Vietnam to reduce reliance on China.

Iris Ohyama

The Japanese consumer goods player expressed plans to open a factory in northeastern Japan to diversify its manufacturing base, which is based primarily in China. The company made this move on the back of increasing labor cost in China, rising import tariffs to the USA, along with the supply disruptions it faced for procuring masks for the Japanese market. In 2020, it also set up a mask factory in the USA. In addition, the company plans to open additional plants in the USA and France for plastic containers and small electrical goods to cater to the local demand in these markets.

Nations using this opportunity to promote domestic production

In August 2020, about 24 electronic goods companies, including Samsung and Apple, have shown interest in moving out of China and into India. These companies together have pledged to invest about US$1.5 billion to setup mobile phone factories in the country in order to diversify their supply chains. This move is a result of the Indian government offering incentives to companies looking to shift their production facilities to India.

In April 2020, the Indian government announced a production linked incentive (PLI) scheme to attract companies looking to move out of China and set up large scale manufacturing units in the electronics space. Under the scheme, the government is offering an incentive of 4-6% on incremental sales (over base year FY 2019-20) of goods manufactured in India. The scheme, which is applicable for five years, plans to give an incentive worth US$6 billion (INR 409.51 billion) over the time frame of the scheme.

In November 2020, the Indian government subsequently expanded the scheme to other sectors such as pharma, auto, textiles, and food processing. In addition, it is expected to provide a production-linked incentive of US$950 million (INR 70 billion) to domestic drug manufacturers in order to push domestic manufacturing and reduce dependence on Chinese imports. Apart from incentives, India is developing a land pool of about 461,589 hectares to offer to companies looking to move out of China. The identified land, which is spread across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, makes it easy for companies looking to set shop in India, as acquiring land has been one of the biggest challenges when it came to setting up production units in India.

On similar lines, the Japanese government is providing incentives to companies to shift their production lines out of China and to Japan. In May 2020, Japan announced an initiative to set up a US$2.2 billion stimulus package to encourage Japanese companies to shift production out of China. About JNY 220 billion (~US$2 billion) of the stimulus will be directed towards companies shifting production back to Japan, while JNY 23.5 billion (~US$200 million) will be given to companies seeking to move production to Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.

In the first round of subsidies, the Japanese government announced a list of 57 companies in July 2020, which will receive a total of US$535 million to open factories in Japan, while another 30 companies will be given subsidies to expand production in other countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. The move is a combination of Japan looking to shift manufacturing of high value-added products back to the country and the initial disruptions caused to the supply chain of Japanese automobiles and durable goods manufacturers.

Similarly, the USA, which has been at odds with China regarding trade for a couple of years now, is also encouraging its companies to limit their exposure in China and shift their production back home. In May 2020, the government proposed a US$25 billion ‘reshoring fund’ to enable manufacturers to move their production bases and complete supply chain from China preferably back to the USA and in turn reduce their reliance of China-made goods. The bill included primarily tax incentives and reshoring subsidies. However, the bill has not been passed in Congress yet and now with the leadership change in the USA, it is expected that president Biden may follow a more diplomatic strategic route with regards to China in comparison to his predecessor.

In addition to individual country efforts, in September 2020, Japan, India, and Australia together launched an initiative to achieve supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific region and reduce their trade dependence on China. The partnership aims at achieving regional cooperation to build a stable supply chain from the raw material to finished goods stage in 10 key sectors, namely petroleum and petrochemicals, automobiles, steel, pharmaceuticals, textiles and garments, marine products, financial services, IT services, tourism and travel services, and skill development.

Similarly, the USA is pushing to create an alliance called the ‘Economic Prosperity Network’, wherein it aims to work with Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea to restructure global supply chains to reduce dependence on China.

COVID-19 Unmasks Global Supply Chains’ Reliance on China by EOS Intelligence

Is it feasible?

While these efforts are sure to help companies move part(s) of their supply chain out of China, the extent to which it is feasible is yet to be assessed. Although the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted and exposed several supply chain vulnerabilities for companies across sectors and countries, despite government support and incentives, it will be very difficult for them to wean off their dependence on China.

Companies have spent decades building their manufacturing ecosystems, which in many cases, are highly reliant on China. These companies not only have their end products assembled or manufactured in the country, but also engage Chinese suppliers for their raw materials, who in turn use further Chinese suppliers for their inputs. Therefore, moving out of China is not a simple process and will take tremendous amount of time as well as financial resources.

While companies such as Google or Microsoft are looking to shift their assembling plants out of China, they are still dependent on China for parts. This is all the more relevant in case of high-technology products, such as automobiles and telecommunication infrastructure, where companies have made significant investments in China for their supply chain and are dependent on the nation’s manufacturing capabilities for small, intricate, but technologically advanced parts and components.

Moreover, despite significant efforts and reforms from countries such as India, Vietnam, and Thailand, they still cannot match China in terms of availability of skilled labor, infrastructure, and scale, which is required by many companies especially with regards to technologically advanced products. That being said, more companies are looking at a strategy where they are maintaining their presence in China, while also developing relatively smaller operations outside the country to have a fallback and to reduce total dependency on China. This is also dubbed as the China + 1 strategy.

Another reason going in China’s favor has been its capability to bounce back from the pandemic and resume production in a short span of time. While production had been halted in January to March 2020, it ramped up April onwards and was back to normal standards within no time. This reinforced the faith of many companies on Chinese capabilities. Therefore, as some companies are already cash-strapped due to the pandemic, they are not interested in investing in modifying their supply chains when in most cases normalcy resumed in a relatively short span of time.

EOS Perspective

Companies have been looking to diversify their supply chains and reduce dependence on China for a couple of years now, however, the trend has gained momentum post the coronavirus pandemic and growing US-China trade tensions. The onset of the COVID-19 outbreak exposed several vulnerabilities in the supply chain of global manufacturers, who realized the extent of their dependence on China. Moreover, several countries realized that they relied on China for key medicines and medical supplies, which cost them heavily during the pandemic.

Given this situation, several nations such as Japan, India, and the USA – together and individually, have started giving incentives to companies to shift production from China into their own borders. While this has resulted in several companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Sanofi, Samsung, etc., to expand their manufacturing operations out of China, it does not necessarily mean that they are moving out of China. This is primarily due to heavy investments (in terms of both time and money) that they have already made into developing their intricate supply chains as well as the inherent benefits that China provides – technologically skilled labor, sophisticated production facilities, and quick revamping of production after a calamity.

That being said, it has come into the conscience of companies to reduce their over-reliance on China and while it may not impact the scale and extent of operations in the country in the short run, it is quite likely that companies will phase out their presence (at least part of it) in China over the coming decade.

A lot depends on the level of incentives and facilities provided by other nations. While countries such as India, Vietnam, and Thailand can offer low cost production with regards to labor and utilities, they currently do not have the technological sophistication possessed and developed by China. Alternatively, while Japan and the USA are technologically advanced, without recurring incentives and tax breaks, cost of production would be much higher than that in China. Thus, until there is a worthy alternative, most companies will follow the China +1 strategy. However, with growing trade tensions between China and other nations, and ongoing efforts by other nations to encourage and support domestic production, China may risk losing its positioning as the ‘factory of the world’ in the long run.

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Global Economy Bound to Suffer from Coronavirus Fever

Global economy has slowed down in response to coronavirus. Factories in China and many parts of Europe have been forced to halt production temporarily as some of the largest manufacturing hubs in the world battle with the virus. While the heaviest impact of the virus has been (so far) observed in China, global economy too is impacted as most industries’ global supply chains are highly dependent on China for small components and cheaper production rates.

China is considered to be the manufacturing and exporting hub of the world. Lower labor costs and advanced production capabilities make manufacturing in China attractive to international businesses. World Bank estimated China’s GDP in 2018 to be US$13.6 trillion, making it the second largest economy after the USA (US$20.58 trillion). Since 1952, China’s economy has grown 450 fold as compared with the growth rate of the USA economy. International trade and investment have been the primary reason for the economic growth of the country. This shows China’s strong position in the world and indicates that any disturbances in the country’s businesses could have a global effect.

On New Years’ Eve 2019, an outbreak of a virus known as coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, China to the WHO. Coronavirus is known to cause respiratory illness that ranges from cough and cold to critical infections. As the virus spreads fast and has a relatively high mortality rate, the Chinese government responded by quarantining Wuhan city and its nearby areas on January 23, 2020. However, this did not contain the situation. In January 2020, WHO designated coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), indicating that measures need to be taken to contain the outbreak. On March 11, 2020, WHO called coronavirus a pandemic with the outbreak spreading across about 164 countries, infecting more than 190,000 people and claiming 7,800+ lives (as of March 18, 2020).

Coronavirus threatening businesses in China and beyond

Businesses globally (and especially in China) are feeling the impact of coronavirus. Workers are stuck in their homes due to the outbreak. Factories and work places remain dormant or are running slower than usual. Also, the effects of coronavirus are spreading across the globe. Initially, all factory shutdowns happened in China, however, the ripple effects of the outbreak can now be seen in other parts of the world as well, especially Italy.

Automotive industry

Global automobile manufacturers, such as General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota, Daimler, Renault, Honda, Hyundai, and Ford Motors, who have invested heavily in China (for instance, Ford Motor joined ventured with China’s state-owned Chongqing Changan Automobile Company, Ltd., one of China’s biggest auto manufacturers) have shut down their factories and production units in the country. According to a London-based global information provider IHS Markit, Chinese auto industry is likely to lose approximately 1.7 million units of production till March 2020, since Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, where the outbreak originated, account for 9% of total Chinese auto production. While the factories are reopening slowly (at least outside the Wuhan city) and production is expected to ramp up again, it all depends on how well the outbreak is contained. If the situation drags on for few months, the auto manufacturers might face significant losses which in turn may result in limited supply and price hikes.

American, European, and Japanese automobile manufacturers, among others, are heavily dependent on components supplied from China. Low production of car parts and components in China are resulting in supply shortages for the automakers globally. UN estimates that China shipped close to US$35 billion worth of auto parts in 2018. Also, according to the US Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration, about US$20 billion of Chinese parts were exported to the USA alone in 2018. A large percentage of parts are used in assembly lines that are used to build cars while remaining are supplied to retail stores. Supply chain is crucial in a connected global economy.

Coronavirus outbreak poses a risk to the global automotive supply chain.

South Korea’s Hyundai held off operations at its Ulsan complex in Korea due to lack of parts that were supposed to be imported from China. The plant manufactures 1.4 million vehicles annually and the shutdown has cost approximately US$500 million within just five days of shutting down. However, Hyundai is not the only such case. Nissan’s plant in Kyushu, Japan adjusted its production due to shortage of Chinese parts. French automaker Renault also suspended its production at a plant in Busan, South Korea due to similar reasons. Fiat Chrysler predicts the company’s European plant could be at risk of shutting down due to lack of supply of Chinese parts.

However, very recently, automobile factories in China have started reopening as the virus is slowly getting contained in the region. While Volkswagen has slowly started producing in all its locations in China, Nissan has managed to restart three of its five plants in the country.

That being said, auto factories are facing shutdowns across the world as coronavirus becomes a pandemic. Ford Chrysler has temporarily shut down four of its plants in Italy as the country becomes the second largest affected nation after China.

Automobile supply chains are highly integrated and complex, and require significant investments as well as a long term commitment from automobile manufacturers. A sudden shift in suppliers is not easy. The virus is spreading uncontrollably across Europe now and if France and Germany are forced to follow Italy’s footsteps of shutting down factories to contain its spread, this will spell doom for the auto sector as the two countries are home to some of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the world.

Technology industry

China is the largest manufacturer of phones, television sets, and computers. Much of the consumer technologies from smartphones to LED televisions are manufactured in China. One of the important sectors in the technology industry is smartphones.

The outbreak of coronavirus is bad news for the technology sector, especially at the verge of the 5G technology roll-out. Consumers were eagerly waiting for smartphone launches supporting 5G but with the outbreak, the demand for smartphones has seen a decline. According to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, overall smartphone shipments in China fell 37% year over year in January 2020.

Foxconn, which is a China-based manufacturing partner of Apple, has iPhone assembling plants in Zhengzhou and Shenzhen. These plants, which make up a large part for the Apple’s global iPhone assembly line, are currently facing a shortage of workers that will ultimately affect the production levels of iPhone in these factories. According to Reuters, only 10% of workers resumed work after the Lunar New Year holiday in China. As per TrendForce, a Taiwanese technology forecasting firm, Apple’s iPhone production is expected to drop by 10% in the first quarter of 2020.

Moreover, Apple closed down all its retail stores and corporate offices in the first week of February 2020 in China in response to the outbreak. On March 13, 2020, it reopened all of its stores in China as the outbreak seems to be under control. However, while Apple seems to recover from the outbreak in China, it is equally affected by store shutdowns in other parts of the world (especially Europe). On March 11, Apple announced that all stores in Italy will be closed until further notice. Italy has been hit by the virus hard after China. The Italian government imposed a nationwide lockdown on the first week of March 2020.

On the other hand other multinational smartphone giants such as LG, Sony Mobile, Oppo, Motorola, Nokia, and many others have delayed their smartphone launches in the first quarter of 2020 due to the outbreak.

The coronavirus outbreak is more likely to be a disaster for smartphone manufacturers relying on China.

Other sectors such as LCD panels for TVs, laptops, and computer monitors are mostly manufactured in China. According to IHS Markit, there are five LCD factories located in the city of Wuhan and the capacity at these factories is likely to be affected due to the quarantine placed by the Chinese government. This is likely to force Chinese manufacturers to raise prices to deal with the shortage.

According to Upload VR, an American virtual reality-focused technology and media company, Facebook has stopped taking new orders for the standalone VR headset and also said the coronavirus will impact production of its Oculus Quest headset.

Shipping industry

In addition to these sectors, the new coronavirus has also hit shipping industry hard. All shipping segments from container lines to oil tanks have been affected by trade restrictions and factory shutdowns in China and other countries. Shipyards have been deserted and vessels are idle awaiting services since the outbreak.

According to a February 2020 survey conducted by Shanghai International Shipping Institute, a Beijing based think-tank, capacity utilization at major Chinese ports has been 20%-50% lower than normal and one-third of the storage facilities were more than 90% full since goods are not moving out. Terminal operations have also been slow since the outbreak in China. The outbreak is costing container shipping lines US$350 million per week, as per Sea-Intelligence, a Danish maritime data specialist.

According to Sea-Intelligence, by February 2020, 21 sailings between China and America and 10 sailings in the Asia-Europe trade loop had been cancelled since the outbreak. In terms of containers, these cancellations encompass 198,500 containers for the China-America route and 151,500 boxes for the Asia-Europe route.

Moreover, shutting down of factories in China has resulted in a manufacturing slowdown, which in turn is expected to impact the Asian shipping markets. European and American trade is also getting affected as the virus spreads to those continents. US retailers depend heavily on imports from China but the outbreak has caused the shipping volumes to diminish over the first quarter.

The USA is already in the middle of a trade war with China that has put a dent in the imports from China. National Retail Federation (world’s largest retail trade association) and Hackett Associates (US based consultancy and research firm) projects imported container volumes at US seaports is likely to be down by 9.5% in March 2020 from 2019. The outbreak is heavily impacting the supply chains globally and if factory shutdowns continue the impact is more likely to be grave.


Read our other Perspectives on US-China tensions: Sino-US Trade War to Cause Ripple Effect of Implications in Auto Industry and Decoding the USA-China 5G War


Other businesses

In addition to the auto, technology, and shipping industries, other sectors are also feeling the heat from the outbreak. Under Armour, an American sports clothing and accessories manufacturer, estimated that its revenues are likely to decline by US$50-60 million in 2020 owing to the outbreak.

Disney’s theme parks in California, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong have been shut down due to the outbreak and this is expected to reduce its operating income by more than US$175 million by second quarter 2020.

Further, IMAX, a Canadian film company, has postponed the release of five films in January 2020, due to the outbreak.

Several fast food chains have been temporarily shut down across China and Italy, however, most of them have opened or are in the process of reopening in China as the outbreak is slowly coming under control there. While the global fast food and retail players have limited exposure in China, they are suffering huge losses in Europe, especially Italy. The restaurant sector is severely impacted there, where all restaurants, fast food chains, and bars have been shut down temporarily till April 3 in an attempt to contain the outbreak.

Another significantly affected industry is the American semiconductor industry as it is heavily connected to the Chinese market. Intel’s (a US-based semiconductor company) Chinese customers account for approximately US$20 billion in revenue in 2019. Another American multinational semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company, Qualcomm draws approximately 47% of its revenue from China sales annually. The outbreak is making its way through various industries and global manufacturers could now see how much they have become dependent on China. Although the virus seems to be getting under control as days pass, the businesses are not yet fully operational. Losses could ramp up if the virus is not contained soon.

Global Economy Bound to Suffer from Coronavirus Fever by EOS Intelligence

 

Housebound consumers dealing with coronavirus

Since the virus outbreak, people across many countries are increasingly housebound. Road traffic in China, Italy, Iran, and other severely affected countries has been minimized and public places have been isolated. People are scared to go out and mostly remain at home. This has led local businesses such as shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, and department stores to witness a considerable slowdown, while in some countries being forced to shut down.

TV viewing and mobile internet consumption on various apps have increased after the outbreak. According to QuestMobile, a research and consultancy firm, daily time spent with mobile internet rose from 6.1 hours in early January 2020 to 6.8 hours during Lunar New Year (February 2020).

While retail outlets and other businesses are slower, people have turned to ordering products online. JD.com, a Chinese online retailer, reported that its online grocery sales grew 215% (year on year) to 15,000 tons between late January and early February 2020. Further, DingTalk, a communication platform developed by Alibaba in 2014, was recorded as the most downloaded app in China in early February 2020.

EOS Perspective

International businesses depend heavily on Chinese factories to make their products, from auto parts to computer and smartphone accessories. The country has emerged as an important part in the global supply chain, manufacturing components required by companies globally. The coronavirus outbreak has shaken the Chinese economy and global supply chains, which in turn has hurt the global economy, the extent of which is to be seen in the months to come. Oxford Economics, a global forecasting and analysis firm, projected China’s economic growth to slip down to 5.6% in 2020 from 6.1% in 2019, which might in turn reduce the global economic growth by 0.2% to an annual rate of 2.3%.

A similar kind of outbreak was seen in China in late 2002 and 2003, with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. China was just coming out of recession in 2003 and joined the World Trade Organization, attaining entrance to global markets with its low cost labor and production of cheaper goods. The Chinese market was at its infancy at that time. As per 2004 estimates by economists Jong-Wha Lee and Warwick J. McKibbin, SARS had cost the global economy a total of about US$40 billion. After SARS, China suffered several months of economic retrenchment.

The impact of coronavirus on Chinese as well as global economy seems to be much higher than the impact of SARS, since COVID-19 has spread globally, while China has also grown to be the hub for manufacturing parts for almost every industry since the SARS outbreak. In 2003, China accounted for only 4% of the global GDP, whereas in 2020, its share in the global GDP is close to 17%.

Currently, the key challenge for businesses would be to deal with and recover from the outbreak. On the one hand, they need to protect their workers safety and abide by their respective governments’ regulations, and on other hand they need to safeguard their operations under a strained supply chain and shrunken demand.

In the current landscape, many businesses in China have reopened operations but the outbreak is rapidly spreading to other parts of the world (especially Europe and the USA), where it is impacting several business as well as everyday lives. The best thing for manufacturing companies in this scenario is to re-evaluate their inventory levels vs revised demand levels (which may differ from industry to industry), and consider a short-term re-strategizing of their global supply chains to ensure that raw materials/components or their alternates are available and accessible – bearing in mind their existing production capability with less workers and customer needs during this pandemic period.

With the rapid spread of the virus, it seems that the outbreak is likely to cause considerable damage to the global economy (both in terms of production levels as well as psychological reaction on stock markets), at least in the short term, i.e. next 6 months. However, many experts believe that the situation should soon start coming under control at a global level. For instance, some experts at Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest financial services companies, believe that while this pandemic will bring the lowest growth rate of the global GDP in the last 30 years (expected at 2% in 2020), it does not pose any systematic risks to the world’s financial system (as was the case during the 2008 economic crisis).

Having said that, it is difficult to estimate what real impact the coronavirus will have on the global economy yet, and if opinions such as Goldman Sachs’ are just a way to downplay the situation to keep the investors calm. It is more likely to depend on how long the virus continues to spread and linger and how effectively do governments around the world are able to contain it.

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Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict

Talk to any top executive at Gucci, Prada, Tiffany (or any luxury brand for that matter) and they will tell you the importance of Hong Kong as a market in their business. For years, Hong Kong has ranked among the top five luxury hubs and accounted for about 5-10% of the estimated US$285 billion luxury goods market. However, the recent pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong against China have left luxury brands grappling, with many undergoing store closures. With the situation seeming to worsen by the minute, luxury brands must act fast and with prudence to limit their losses, formulate strategies, and identify other regions that may help them offset loss of revenues from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been one of the top destinations for luxury brands with several leading brands operating multiple stores in this small area encompassing 427 square miles and housing a population of 7.5 million. Hong Kong achieved this cult status due to a large number of visitors from mainland China (as well as other Asian countries) who travel to Hong Kong to shop. This is due to Hong Kong’s tax-free policy and an assurance that the products purchased are genuine (unlike in China where stores are distrusted).

Most of the leading luxury retailers derive a significant portion of their sales from Hong Kong. Richemont Group (which owns brands such as Cartier, Chloe, Dunhill, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Panerai, Piaget, and Roger Dubuis, among many other) derives about 11% of its global sales from Hong Kong, while Burberry derives about 8-9% of its global sales from the territory. Brands such as LVMH and Prada attain about 6% of their global sales from Hong Kong. Despite having one of the highest real estate costs, brands have always been bullish about Hong Kong, opening multiple stores and stocking their best and most recent collections.

Recent protests impact luxury retail sales

However, since mid-2019, Hong Kong’s retail market has taken a big hit. What started as a protest over an extradition law has translated into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement challenging China’s grip over Hong Kong and has brought the latter to a standstill.

Along with a large fall in visitors from China, several other countries have issued travel warnings against Hong Kong. Visitor numbers declined by 39% in August 2019 (compared with August 2018), with visitors from China falling more than 42% during the same period. In addition to fewer tourists, the local population is also avoiding malls and other public places owing to the ongoing protects. In fact, about 30 shopping malls shut down across Hong Kong in October due to violent protests. These closures have come around the peak festive time (the Golden Week holiday) and have continued to remain closed during the otherwise well-performing Thanksgiving week.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

Brands are estimated to suffer a 30-60% quarterly drop in sales in Q3 2019 and considering how the protests are widening and worsening, the sales are expected to drop further in Q4. For instance, as per UK-based financial services firm, Jefferies, Burberry’s sales from Hong Kong are expected to fall by about GBP100 million (US$131.6 million) in 2019. While the brand is expected to offset half of the loss from growing sales in other regions, the remaining loss will be incurred by the luxury retailer.

Given the steep fall in sales and high real estate cost, brands are now revaluating their presence in Hong Kong. In October 2019, Prada announced its plan to shut down one of its flagship stores in Causeway Bay. The company used to pay HK$9 million (US$1.2 million) monthly rent for the 15,000 square feet store and could not justify the high costs anymore. While a few brands are shutting down stores, few others, such as Burberry, are talking to their landlords about rent reduction to cope with the gloomy sales in the short run.

The impact on luxury sales may not be just short term in Hong Kong. Several brands are re-strategizing their approach towards Hong Kong, especially with regards to the Chinese customer. Chinese customers are increasingly going for shopping trips to Japan and South Korea instead of Hong Kong.

Moreover, the Chinese government is also encouraging customers to shop in mainland China by reducing taxes and thereby narrowing the price gap between China and overseas. In 2018, the Chinese government reduced import taxes on luxury goods and followed it with a cut in value-added tax in April 2019. Post this, several brands such as Gucci and Hermes reduced their prices by about 3% in China. This might show that several brands are trying to offset their losses in Hong Kong by targeting the Chinese consumer in their home country.

Brands are also shifting their marketing investments from Hong Kong towards the mainland. Hermes and LV have been extremely bullish about the Chinese market and have opened new stores in the region. Hermes opened its 26th store in China in 2019 and has been expanding its e-commerce presence in China since launching it in 2018.

Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict by EOS Intelligence

Brands are extra careful about their design and communication

In addition to focusing on reaching the Chinese customers (in their home market as well as new travel destinations), brands are also being extra cautious about not supporting Hong Kong in the conflict. China has been prompt at bringing brands to task if and when they identified Hong Kong as an independent country in any of their designs or brand communication.

Brands such as Givenchy, LVMH, Versace, and Coach have publically apologized to the Chinese nationals for their clothing designs that labeled Hong Kong as a separate country (from China). Moreover, they removed all such designs from their collections, globally, to ensure they remain in good books of the Chinese customers.

The Chinese have also been very sensitive about any support or sympathy shown to Hong Kong with regards to the conflict. For instance, Tiffany received significant backlash for one of its print ads, which showed a female model covering her right eye with her hand. The Chinese saw this as a sympathetic shout out to the Hong Kong protester who was shot in the eye in August 2019. While Tiffany clarified that the campaign was not a political statement and was conceptualized and shot much before the incident, they eventually removed the image from all digital and social media platforms.

Although not directly related to luxury brands, in October 2019, the Chinese government sanctioned the NBA for a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Daryl Morey, who is the GM of Houston Rockets team. The NBA and Tiffany cases show China’s lack of tolerance towards any pro-Hong Kong message by any brand or organization and thereby brands must ensure that they distance themselves from any pro-Hong Kong sentiment (real or perceived).

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Most brands are currently following a wait and watch strategy, where they are not sending large amounts of their inventory to Hong Kong as has always been the case. They have temporarily shut down shops and given unpaid leaves to their employees. They will wait and gauge if the Chinese consumers do return to Hong Kong when the situation settles and decide the future course accordingly. In case the Chinese customer takes a fancy to other shopping destinations (such as Japan) or start shopping domestically, Hong Kong may lose its position as the luxury hub of Asia.

Opportunities that may arise

In case the Hong Kong conflict has any permanent impact on luxury sales in the region, brands will have to go back to the drawing board to ensure a strong position in Asia. In addition to identifying and developing new shopping hubs for the Chinese customers, brands will also have to alter their strategy and approach to retain Hong Kong’s resident customers. Hong Kong’s resident customers are also avid shoppers but they are more price sensitive in comparison with their Chinese counterparts.

Targeting solely the local residents may also widen the scope of e-commerce in luxury retail sales. Unlike most other markets, e-commerce has not been a major driver of sales in Hong Kong. This is due to the fact that a large number of shoppers are travelers and therefore prefer to make their purchases from retail stores. Moreover, the presence of multiple stores within a small area further reduced the need for e-commerce.

However, if brands plan to reduce their footprint in Hong Kong (only to cater to local residents), they may look at shutting down few stores and promoting e-commerce sales. Hong Kong residents are also more likely to purchase from online multi-brand aggregators (such as Farfetch and Net-a-Porter) that offer deals and discounts. Thus working with such aggregators to promote their brands may also be a good avenue for luxury retailers.

A growing focus and investment towards developing the e-commerce part of the business may also result in growing demand and thereby investments in the mobile payment technologies (which are used for easy payments for purchases) in Hong Kong. While this technology never really took off in Hong Kong as it did in China, this may help in providing the push that it needed.

EOS Perspective

While it is yet to be determined if the ongoing conflict will have a permanent effect on Hong Kong’s position as a prime shopping destination, it is safe to say that the situation will remain unfavorable for the next few months. While some brands such as Prada are already shutting down stores permanently and limiting their exposure in Hong Kong, others such as Burberry are a little more optimistic and want to wait before taking any such decision. This is due to the fact that Hong Kong previously faced a similar situation in 2014, when the umbrella revolution disrupted sales. However, sales bounced back shortly after and Hong Kong continued to be one of the most important luxury markets.

That being said, current protests have become much more intense than anything Hong Kong has endured before and do hold the ability to permanently contract Hong Kong’s role as a leading travel and shopping destination. This may force brands to rethink their strategy for the region with increased focus on e-commerce. This in turn could create opportunities for Hong Kong’s e-commerce and its ancillary markets.

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