Will shale gas decimate China’s toy makers?

reuters

By Clyde Russell Reuters

LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) – Such is the impact of the shale gas revolution in the United States that it’s quite possible that babies born today will no longer play with plastic dolls and cars made in China.

It’s almost become a fait accompli that China is the world’s factory, but the early warning signs that this may be changing are starting to show.

The advent of cheap natural gas in the U.S. is threatening to displace expensive naphtha in the production of petrochemicals, the key building blocks for plastics, synthetic fibres and solvents and cleaners.

While the shale gas boom is certainly no longer a secret, up to now its main impact has been in displacing coal in power generation in the U.S., and making inroads as both a heating and transport fuel.

While the U.S. is planning to export some of its shale bounty as liquefied natural gas, in effect it is already exporting more energy in the form of coal, which has helped keep Asian prices soft even in the face of record Chinese and Indian imports.

The same sort of dynamic is likely to start hitting the Asian petrochemical sector in the next few years, as U.S. output ramps up on the back of cheap natural gas and producers from India to China struggle to compete given their reliance on oil-derived naphtha.

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Barron’s Made in America: The Next Boom

Barrons's Logo

By: KOPIN TAN Barron’s JANUARY 2013

Barron's Made in America

Photo: Barron’s John Kuczala

Cheap natural gas and increasingly competitive labor costs are bringing factories and jobs back to the U.S. Eight ways to win.

 As the only industrialized superpower not decimated by World War II, the United States once made nearly 40% of the planet’s goods. These days, that number has shrunk to 18%. We make American Girl dolls in China, Levi’s jeans in Mexico, and enough movies in Vancouver to nickname it Hollywood North.

After decades of outsourcing, however, the U.S. is quietly enjoying a manufacturing revival, and companies like Apple (ticker: AAPL), Caterpillar (CAT), Ford Motor (F),General Electric (GE), and Whirlpool (WHR) are making more of their goods on American soil again. It isn’t just U.S. companies that are drawn to our cheap energy, weak dollar, and stagnant wages. Samsung Electronics (005930.Korea) plans a $4 billion semiconductor plant in Texas, Airbus SAS is building a factory in Alabama, and Toyota (TM) wants to export minivans made in Indiana to Asia.
The Rust Belt owes its new shine to many factors, including rising wages and industrial-land costs in Asia. But none is bigger than the U.S. energy boom. Thanks to a head start in extracting oil and gas from shales, North America now produces far more natural gas than any other continent. Unlike oil, gas isn’t easily transported across oceans, and a result is some of the world’s cheapest energy within our reach: Natural gas here costs $3.55 per million British thermal units, versus roughly $12 in Europe and $16 in Japan. Cheap energy not only reduces our trade deficit and our addiction to Middle East oil, it also makes our factories more competitive globally — a boon for a country that had gone from exporting American goods to exporting American jobs.The biggest beneficiaries are energy-guzzling companies like chemical producers and steelmakers, and Barron’s has identified eight stocks that should prosper in our gas-fueled manufacturing upswing. They are Southwestern Energy, LyondellBasell Industries, Nucor, Dover, Calpine, CF Industries, Williams, and Union Pacific. But any glow will also rub off on regional lenders, home builders, and local small businesses. “The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” declares Nancy Lazar, co-head of the New York research firm International Strategy & Investment. “And Middle America is my favorite emerging market.”

Our energy boom got cracking with fracking, a controversial process in which pressurized fluids are pumped through rock formations, often a mile or more under the ground, to extract oil and gas. Critics condemn fracking, which they contend causes environmental harm, but even they agree that it’s led to an abundance of cheap gas. Over the past six years, U.S. production of petroleum and natural gas has jumped from 15 million barrels of oil-equivalent a day to 20.1 million, a 20-year high. Over the same period, imports have fallen from 14 million barrels a day to below eight million, a 25-year low.

It’s a sign of the times: Graduates from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology — acceptance rate: 88%; mascot: Grubby the Miner — now command a median starting salary 16% higher than that of Yalies.

By 2020, the U.S. will become the world’s biggest oil producer, says the International Energy Agency. By 2025, North America will be a net energy exporter, predicts ExxonMobil (XOM).

That edge should remain ours for decades. “It isn’t just the huge reserves we have underground,” says Tim Parker, who manages T. Rowe Price’s natural-resource stock portfolios. “No one else has our predictable cocktail of infrastructure already in place, know-how, a relative abundance of water, and a favorable royalty regime that give landowners a stake in the exploration game.” Europe, for instance, is averse to fracking and has little infrastructure; Japan has hardly any shales; and while China has vast reserves, only shales nudging the Yangtze River have enough water for fracking.

Of course, an especially frigid winter could send gas prices soaring, but any such spike should be temporary. Given our expanding reserves and record inventory, commodity strategists expect U.S. natural gas to stay between $3 and $5 per million BTUs for years — well below prices abroad.

CHEAP GAS ISN’T THE ONLY booster in our tank. In the decade since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, that nation has become Earth’s low-cost factory. But wages and benefits there are rising 15% to 20% a year, while they’re stagnant here. Despite Beijing’s efforts to hold it down, the yuan has gained 33% against the dollar since 2005. Industrial land averages $10.22 a square foot across China, but rises to $11.15 in the coastal city of Ningbo and $21 in Shenzhen — compared with $1.30 to $4.65 in Tennessee and North Carolina. “Within five years, the total cost of producing many products will be only about 10% to 15% less in Chinese coastal cities than in parts of the U.S. where factories are likely to be built,” says Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. Add duties and shipping, and the cost gap shrinks further.

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How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work

iPhone - People flooded Foxconn Technology with résumés at a 2010 job fair in Henan Province China NYT   1-22-12

iPhone - People flooded Foxconn Technology with résumés at a 2010 job fair in Henan Province, China.

By NYT  and   Published: Jan. 21, 2012

When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke,President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest. Read more of this post

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