Posts Tagged ‘tariffs’

Pacific gets pretty specific

February 26, 2009

Big news down under this week has been the announcement that our largest clothing/textile firm is shutting down its local manufacturing and shifting all such activity offshore, principally to Asia. Pacific Brands which controls a huge portfolio of household names in Australia, has conceded that it can’t compete with lower cost environs.


At the same time it has indicated it will be paring back its range of offerings very considerably, as it has a very unbalanced portfolio. The top 20 brands make up two thirds of sales, the Top 10, 49 percent, the Top 5 a third. More than 200 make less than $0.5m a year each.

It has been asked what the impact of the current financial crisis will have on firm boundaries (i.e. how far they stretch themselves in terms of range of products and activities). Pacific Brands look to be reducing their extent of horizontal reach (or perhaps their extent of duplication within existing product markets). Carrying slow-moving product is a lot harder to justify when your financiers are looking over your shoulder and are nervous about debt levels.

yakka-shortsWhat is missing in the above linked discussion about boundaries, is the actual physical dimension – namely whether firms might be more or less likely to redistribute activities in the current climate. It would seem Pacific Brands have been contemplating this shift for quite a while. Australia has been pretty ruthless in cutting protection of the textile, clothing and footwear industry (although there was a stay on proceedings for a few years), and the firm can now very easily bring in overseas product. The rapid drop in the Aussie dollar during the crisis could have justified a delay, but it would be simply postponing the inevitable. It may well be a good time to lock in any necessary asset purchases, supply contracts and the like in Asia as firms there also deal with high uncertainty about some of their key export markets.

Such relocation to a substantially lower cost location could be seen as a de facto substitute for the sort of vertical specialisation Lien predicts. The firm might be more comfortable substituting one hierarchical governance arrangement with another, even if the new FDI-driven one is presumably more complex, rather than taking on the vagaries of market transactions (especially as the latter will shift in nature as the economy inevitably recovers).

I will keep an eye out for more instances of substantial readjustment of firm boundaries in these tumultuous times. Feel free to share your examples too.


Will the WTO have any teeth on the downside?

February 16, 2009

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has justifiably received much criticism in recent years for its failure to push through the next round of trade liberalisation. Instead bilateral and regional agreements tend to have been the domain for reductions in trade barriers.

It is a fascinating turn of events therefore to see the WTO emerge as the forum attempting to stem the rising tide of protectionism. There are genuine fears that the current rash of stimulus policies also represent retrograde steps that will reintroduce national preference, higher tariffs, quotes and the like.

Technically the various rules within the various WTO-monitored treaties should act to prevent such behaviours. Unfortunately the WTO’s enforcement measures often are trade-restricting themselves (such as right for a nation to impose countervailing duties on offending nations), and the body is often slow to investigate and act.

This is a not a minor issue in the international business arena. Much multinational expansion is predicated on reasonably free movement of their goods. If this cannot be retained we will be seeing a much more traumatic crisis than that currently being tackled at the national level. The WTO’s moves warrant very close attention. A return to some winning form is strongly needed.

A car (industry) in search of direction?

November 10, 2008

So the Australian government has delivered its latest pile of assistance for the car industry. The new package looks like delivering $6.2b in assistance over the next 13 years. This is $3.4b more than previously allocated. That is certainly a large sum. As discussed in an earlier post, the auto industry is a wonderful case study in the dynamics of government-business interaction in the face of globalisation pressures.

So is this a case of greater trade barriers, and thus a retreat from globalisation?

This is not as easy question as it might first seem. Certainly, this is a huge package of subsidies. Any aspects that reduce the costs of producing a car in Australia (such as significant topping up by the government of the firms’ R&D spending) are distorting the allocation of resources away from free market outcomes where comparative advantage can play out.

On the flipside, Australia continues to reduce tarriff levels on imported vehicles. This is an unequivocal move towards freer trade.

So we are left trying to weigh up the globalising versus distorting dimensions of the package. Or put differently, we might want to look at the rationale for the distortions. Australia does not make these decisions in isolation. Other Western nations, from the US to Europe are also looking at ways to salvage the auto industry. The industry itself attracts disproportionate amounts of policy-makers’ attentions and cash due to the prestige and visibility of the products, the noisy labour market ramifications of any downsizing, and the much discussed flow-on effects on local suppliers.

Multinationals are increasingly able to pick and choose between locations with regards to availability of subsidies. Australia could be seen as just trying to compete with its Western rivals in this market. It is a perverse form of trying to build comparative advantage, but its the political reality.

Meanwhile, the real story is the ongoing success and growth of Asian automobile manufacturing and assembly. As I said in my earlier post, the sad part of the story is the lack of consideration of where this $6.2b could be more effectviely spent (tertiary education anyone?). I am also not alone in fearing that this level of industry pandering might spread.