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U.S. and European firms face $1 trillion in costs to relocate their Chinese supply chains, BofA says

A worker welding truck parts at a factory in Weihai, China, October 18, 2018.

STR | AFP | Getty Images

Foreign firms looking to move their manufacturing processes outside of China in the wake of coronavirus could face $1 trillion in costs over five years, according to new Bank of America research.

However, the bank argues that such a move would likely be beneficial for companies in the long term.

Even before the pandemic, BofA’s survey of global analysts found that companies were shifting away from globalization and towards a more localized approach when it came to their supply chains. This was due to a host of factors that threatened the network that supplies modern factories, including trade disputes, national security concerns, climate change and the rise of automation.

However, in a new study, BofA Head of Global Research Candace Browning and her team suggested that Covid-19 has catalyzed the reversal of a decades-long shift in manufacturing from the U.S. and Europe to China.

The report revealed that the pandemic had caused 80% of global sectors to face supply chain disruptions, forcing over 75% to widen the scope of their existing re-shoring plans.

“While Covid has acted as a catalyst to accelerate this change, the underlying reasons are grounded in a shift to ‘stakeholder capitalism,’ concluding relocation favors a broader community of shareholders, consumers, employees and the state,” Browning explained.

While each of these stakeholders was approaching relocation from a different perspective, the analysts observed that they were broadly drawing the same conclusion: that portions of supply chains should relocate ideally within national borders, but failing that to countries deemed “allies,” the report said.

Around two thirds (67%) of participants in BofA’s Global Fund Manager survey thought localization or re-shoring of supply chains would be the most dominant structural shift in the post-Covid world.

Cost of $1 trillion

Shifting all export-related manufacturing that is not intended for Chinese consumption out of China could cost firms $1 trillion over five years, BofA projected.

The analysts said this would likely reduce return on equity by 70 basis points (bp) and free-cash-flow margins by 110bp, offset by a potentially lower risk premium. This would mean that the negative effects would be “significant, but not prohibitive,” analysts suggested.

Return on equity and free-cash-flow margins are both used by investors to asses a company’s profitability and ability to maintain its day-to-day operations.

In order to offset higher operating costs associated with this mass “re-shoring,” policymakers and corporate management would likely act aggressively, Browning’s team anticipated.

“We don’t expect a silver bullet, but we were struck by the universal declaration (in our survey) of intent to automate in future locations,” they revealed.

“Policymakers are also expected to help through tax breaks, low cost loans and other subsidies with recent announcements to that effect from the U.S., Japan, the EU, India and Taiwan (amongst others).”

On a sector level, BofA researchers suggested that stocks in construction engineering and machinery, factory automation and robotics, electrical and electronic equipment manufacturing, application software and other similar services would all stand to benefit from the acceleration of this trend. Meanwhile banks in North America, Europe and South Asia could also receive a boost from greater economic activity that comes with these changes.

Localization through choice, not tax policy

While localization of production could be economically beneficial, this will only be the case if it comes about through companies’ choice and assessment of efficiencies, rather than being forced through trade tariffs or tax policy, according to UBS Global Wealth Management Chief Economist Paul Donovan.

Donovan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Tuesday that the trade tariffs on China imposed by the Trump administration last year were largely absorbed in the form of squeezed profit margins for U.S. companies, which over time would result in less efficiency and more inflationary pressure.

He suggested that if companies voluntarily localized production because automation, digitization and robotics meant they could efficiently relocate closer to their consumers, the broad cost reduction would more than offset more expensive labor costs, making “business sense.”

Donovan argued that voluntary localization in this way “mitigates the damage” of protectionist policy.

Companies forced by taxation to shift their production does “more harm than good on a net basis,” he said.

“If companies are saying it is no longer efficient for us to produce in Shenzhen (China), we are going to produce in New York instead, then that is an efficiency call and that is a good thing.”

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