Is the US moving toward a future of “zero net offshoring” for manufacturing?

manufacturingIncreasing competition from manufacturers abroad has led many  to conclude that manufacturing industries have no place in a relatively high wage, knowledge-driven economy like that of the United States. Others contend that manufacturing will be the key to reestablishing prosperity and bringing high paying jobs back to the United States. Various plans have been put forward for cooperation between businesses, governments, and organizations that will spur investment, production, and innovation at home, while boosting exports abroad.

Experts disagree on whether America has lost its edge in manufacturing merely due to emerging foreign competitors or due to a combination of foreign competition and domestic policies that stifle manufacturing efficiency. A certain amount of outsourcing assembly or production of inputs is expected due to specialization, but the real blow to American manufacturing came as final goods production moved overseas. Benefits have accrued to consumers due to lower prices for foreign manufactured goods, although these benefits must be weighed against the costs of lower employment and income in America. Profits are often higher for offshored businesses, but these profits are often accompanied by unforeseen transaction costs. Offshoring can also ensure access in emerging markets.

The Manufacturing Institute reports that US policy towards taxing and regulating businesses has exacerbated the movement of companies overseas, and that changes could be made to promote the “re-shoring movement”. Their studies estimate that, “it is 20 percent more expensive to manufacture in the United States than it is among out major trading partners, excluding the cost of labor” and “the regulatory burden on manufacturers is equivalent to an 11 percent tax on their businesses.”  The statutory and effective corporate tax rates, at 40.0% and 34.6% respectively, are among the highest in the world. These structural costs disadvantage American manufacturers and encourage offshoring.

President Obama’s State of the Union address and a recent white paper outline a plan to remedy some of these issues, although the success of any proposal in today’s fiscal climate is uncertain. The plan calls for the creation of fifteen Manufacturing Innovation Institutes to attract R&D funding and speed the process from basic research to product development. It encourages states and cities to offer incentives to companies that will produce in America, lowers the corporate tax rate for manufacturers to 25%, and provides tax credits for clean energy research and production. Additionally, opening markets through trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and proposed talks with the European Union could either lead to a manufacturing boost, or encourage even more production to move overseas depending on the markets’ reaction and the language of the agreements.

Although offshoring is a rational choice for many businesses to cut costs, the combination of hidden costs to foreign production, rising foreign labor costs, complex supply chains, and business-friendly policy changes may serve to reverse some offshoring. The nascent re-shoring movement is a testament to this fact, and strong economic trends are making such moves more desirable. If policy does not hamper these developments the US could see “zero net offshoring” in the near future, where businesses make decisions about where to locate production facilities based on a more level assessment of costs and benefits.

Posted by: Ben Copper

Sources: Manufacturing.net, The Manufacturing Institute, White House press release, The Economist

Photo Credit: courtesy of flickr user The U.S. National Archives

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