China crisis

16 February 2017

I write this comment as the Chinese New Year is celebrated. Like in many cultures, people in China have a series of traditions that say that, as your new year goes, so goes the rest of the year.

Some of these traditions, as explained in the West, anyway, are pretty straightforward – If you have an empty rice pot on new year's day, you'll be hungry all year; others are more metaphorical – if you brush the floor, you'll brush the wealth out of your house.

On the basis of recent news, the omens for the crane industry in China are not entirely auspicious. In our news pages this month, we open with results from Manitowoc and Kobelco. Kobe Steel describes a very worrying time in China for its construction machinery business, which now includes cranes as well as excavators. Largely reflecting on its excavator business, the company said that "collection would be difficult and prolonged; a repayment plan with a high degree of certainty was not achieved for existing retained receivables". The cost of that was an allowance of 27.6 billion yen ($245 million) for 'doubtful' accounts.

Prompted by issues including credit management, the Japanese firm held talks with its Chinese partners and, unable to overcome 'differences of concerning production and marketing', decided to dissolve their joint venture, buying out its minority partners in its excavator business and selling off its own share in its Chinese wheel loader business.

Kobelco is not the only crane manufacturer from a mature market stepping – running, even – away from China. Last October, Terex announced a new 'global' crawler crane, the LC 300, built in Jinan using expertise from Zweibrücken. This would have been the fulfilment of the company's grand plans to make the Jinan Genie factory part of a unified global production chain.

That Genie plant had been developed by Ken Lousberg, who went on to lead first Terex's Chinese business and then, from the summer of 2015, the company's cranes segment. At almost the same time as the LC 300 was announced, Lousberg left the business, to be replaced by Steve Filipov. Just a few weeks later, Filipov said the company would be closing the Jinan plant, and that the LC 300 would be delayed.

For Chinese manufacturers, local and export markets alike are a challenge. In last month's issue, Stuart Anderson traced the development of Chinese crane production and sales, noting that the country's manufacturers have done much to catch up with their global rivals – although they have some way to go in terms of parts consistency and service.

Anderson noted that while domestic and export sales were strong in 2011, production fell dramatically over the following five years, against a backdrop of massive local oversupply. At the same time, the Chinese Government invested to boost exports, earning foreign currency and building global businesses.

This month, Anderson digs deeper into specific export markets. While Chinese manufacturers have seen some notable successes, and have undeniably begun to build a long-term presence in some markets, on a country-by-country basis, many of their biggest successes have been tied to specific factors.

This is not entirely unusual or unique to Chinese manufacturers. For a few years, for example, crane sales managers around the world turned their attention to Australia and the mining countries of South America as mineral prices soared. All turned away as fast as they could when the mining industry slowed again. What is exceptional is the extent to which their sales are driven by central government investment and diplomacy. Often, big crane sales will come on the back of a loan guarantee or overseas development programme, or will follow a Chinese contractor to a major project.

In an increasingly unstable political environment and with the world economy still stumbling through a slough, the ability of the Chinese Government to stimulate local demand or craft mutually beneficial overseas investment and trade deals will be limited.

In January, Alibaba founder Jack Ma hit back at those in the US who believe that it is Chinese policies that get in the way of the US being great again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that the US had wasted $14.2 trillion on foreign wars, while China had invested in its own people and infrastructure.

Chinese leaders, in industry and in politics, still have a lot of work to do to ensure that they listen to customers and to lower-level employees, using that feedback to build better products. But they would do well to stick to the investment and trade policies Ma highlights, ignoring clownish provocations and toddler tantrums. Faced with a rival that looks increasingly to isolationism and hard power, China should concentrate on globalisation and soft power.

Will North, editor