Recently, interesting economic news has come from the Empire of the Middle. On the one hand, financial markets reacted worried on the softening of the Chinese economy, but on the other hand they reacted rather positively about the first corporate debt default allowed in the country. To me, all of the above is good news. If financial markets get a bit nervous for a few days, then so be it! It cannot be a complete surprise that at some point the growth of the Chinese economy would slow down. Double-digit growth cannot last forever, and growth cannot keep going on a straight line without some corrections along the way. If markets are worried about a growth of 5% for China, then how will they react when China lands into a recession, as it surely will happen at some time?
Personally, I find China’s performance over the last 30 years quite impressive to say the least. I am old enough to have seen dramatic changes about that country. When I was a kid, all the news from China was rather sad. There was a chronic situation of near-famine, and what I heard then, true or not, was that the Chinese had only one bowl of rice per person for a whole day. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution directed by Mao Zedong did not exactly spelled prosperity, by far not. After the arrival of Deng Xiaoping, things changed and a new direction took place, which had led the country to where it is today. Pragmatism took over from blind dogma. Deng Xiaoping’s quote “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” summed it up nicely. I have to admit that I was still rather young and did not pay much attention to what happened in China. That came later during my professional life. In the early 1990s, the price of wheat increased, and this became cause for concern in the poultry industry, in which I was working by then. I remember a conversation with one of my customers. We came to the conclusion that China had decided to feed its people, and that was the sign of a new era. Since that day, I have followed with much interest the evolution of China, and until this day it has not stopped fascinating me.
Bringing a country of 1.5 billion people in 30 years from hunger to the world’s largest economy is no small deed. Western economies with a much lower population should know, since they struggle to provide enough jobs to their populations, which in many cases would fit in only one of the large Chinese cities. Chinese leaders have shown a remarkable pragmatic approach in the way they have carried out this change. They have performed an impressive balancing act to stay in power through economic development that allowed the population to not have enough reason to start a revolution, which is the only way to change a government when there are no elections. Feeding their people was definitely a sound strategy to achieve the double objective of power continuation and increasing prosperity. However, this economic success has come at a high price. China suffers from major environmental damage, and the rest of the world also undergoes the consequences. This is where the news of the past few days sends some interesting signals about the future. China is now entering a phase of optimization. Growth is not anymore just about more, but it is about better. Phase one, providing for the basic needs seems on its way to completion. Now, focusing on the quality of future growth becomes necessary, as keeping the course of the previous decades would probably soon lead to make the country hardly liveable. But allowing the pace of growth to slow down in order to get the time to improve the situation and clean some of the damage is not the only sign that shows that Chinese leaders have the confidence that the country has achieved a level of economic prosperity sufficient to absorb this slowdown. The recent debt default of the solar panel company Chaori shows that China has decided to stop to protect business from failure, as until this case, various levels of government would guarantee the debt. The message seems to be that the economy is strong enough to take such hits. This is a strong signal that China will no longer bail out businesses and that they will let market forces select the winners and the losers. That is quite the move toward liberalism. A number of Western countries do not appear this bold, lately. In the same area of a changed economic philosophy, China is also currently allowing market forces to regulate the value of its currency, which is currently weakening, even though Western countries have always put pressure on China to re-evaluate the Yuan. The ability to persevere on long-term objective and not let outsiders interfere more than necessary is one of the quality of the Chinese that I like particularly. They do what is good for China and do not allow foreigners to undermine they progress. They run their economy with the same resilience and determination as they did with the Long March. Personally, I like the approach of the Chinese leaders. They are smart, focused and pragmatic. The new generation of entrepreneurs and executive also shows these good qualities. I also am quite impressed by the enthusiasm and curiosity of young Chinese students. They have the momentum on their side and it feeds their desire to succeed.
As I mentioned earlier, a couple of decades ago China decided to feed its people, mostly to avoid social unrest that could get out of control. In the area of food security, China has, like in the rest of its economy, achieved impressive results, but at a high cost, too. I believe that part of the current shift in economic philosophy can be looked at from the perspective of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The objective number one for China has been to meet the basic needs: food, shelter, safety. Although there is still a part of the population living in poverty, the basic needs, from a collective point of view, are more or less met, as the majority of the population has now entered the middle class or better and the rest seems to follow in that direction. In the first phase, it is clear that environmental damage was under little scrutiny, as the end justified the means. After all, hungry people are not picky about what they eat, if it means surviving. In the today’s Chinese society, just eating what is available is no longer the only priority. Once the basic needs are met, the emotional takes gradually over from the biological. Consumers start to think and to question. It is not anymore about surviving today only, but about living in the future. The population is expressing its discontent of the quality of life and against the environmental recklessness of businesses more and more often. If food was used to be considered a potential source of unrest, now the problem has shifted to air and water. Heavy air pollution, contaminated water and the sight of thousands of dead pigs floating in the river that flows through Shanghai, as was the case a few months ago, are no longer tolerated by the population.
The phase of optimization is also going to take place in food and agriculture. The situation about corn is a good indicator. Until 2012, China was self-sufficient for corn. With the increasing demand for meat as a result of economic improvement of the population, China has now become a net importer. The type of demand for the various food groups, together with the environmental toll of pursuing the objective of food self-sufficiency has reached its limits. It is important to acknowledge the performance of the Chinese agriculture, though. Even is the cost of achieving food security is high, one needs to remember that China is the world’s largest producer of rice, wheat, pork, eggs, fruit and vegetables, and cotton. It is the second largest producer of corn, behind the US. Considering the size of the country, being the main producer for all those commodities is quite an achievement. Yet China, announced last February that it was changing its objective, and that grain self-sufficiency was no longer sacred. It makes very good sense. The long term is as important as the present. China needs to work hard now to protect and restore its soils and its fresh water. On other area where the country can also achieve substantial results is by fixing post-harvest losses. Infrastructure will be developed further. Optimization of the food value chains will also take place, largely in the form of a consolidation of businesses. The seed sector will be interesting to follow in this regard, as many small seed producers will either disappear or be absorbed by larger entities. Considering the crucial role of genetics for crop yield, this rationalization of the sector should also contribute to a further improvement of the Chinese agriculture.
With land purchases abroad, world agricultural production up, international trade and a more astute food stocks strategy, China does not need to try to produce all its food itself. The bulk of the basic needs is covered. Now, it is time to optimize and repair without having to fear shortages. The focus is going to be more on waste reduction and efficiency than before. It definitely will be about doing more with less, to use a commonly used expression. An example of this tightening of standards is the so-called Green Fence for the recycling goods that China imports. Now the recycling materials need to be cleaned to enter the country. China simply does not want to use its energy and water resources. They want the waste producers to do that in their own countries. That is wise.
Another area for optimization is food safety and food quality. In a previous article , I wrote about a strategic shift towards speeding up the learning curve to meet higher standards. The shift from quantity to quality is a reflection of the pyramid of needs. When people have enough to eat, as is the case in large Chinese urban centers, they start to look at how food is produced and question what they do not like. Food security is for most no longer a worry, as the alarming rise in overweight and diabetes shows. When food security is no longer a worry, the focus shifts to food safety. That is quite normal.
My expectation is that China is no longer in the logic of just copying and producing cheap low quality. Although this reputation is still quite alive in Western countries, in my opinion it is incorrect. But after all, similar prejudices lived long about Japan, too, until the time that Americans realized that Japanese goods were of a better quality and Japanese companies were better run than their domestic counterparts. We will see the same thing about China. Some people will wake up too late. The Chinese are quite awake. Don’t worry for them.
Although the food industry, like all industries, resents criticism, it is actually the sign of a developed society. Basic standards do not satisfy anymore. People look for the something extra, and that is where opportunities arise. Those who listen to consumers and offer them what they want increase their chances of capturing the high-margin market positions. Let’s face it; markets for undifferentiated commodities are attractive mostly because of the large volumes they represent. In China, too, health and environment will be the drivers of future food supply. This will definitely offer good possibilities in the future. The Chinese will also take a look at their diet, and the per capita consumption of meat, just like economic growth, will not keep increasing forever. In the same way as it did in Western countries, it will reach a plateau, probably in 10 years from now, and later will gradually decline, for the same reasons as it is doing in the West, and also because the population of China is expected to decrease to 1.4 billion by 2050 and to 1.1 billion by 2100. That decrease represents a lot of consumers. It will be important to notice this change of trend on time. When consumption of certain food items in Western countries reached that plateau, most companies did not anticipate it. As usual in such situations, denial is the first reaction. First the change of trend is considered a temporary hiccup. Investments to increase capacity have often been made on the expectation of continuous growth, causing an overcapacity of production, and the production capacity needs to be used fully to be economically efficient. This creates a lack of flexibility and all producers enter the difficult times with the same cost profitability concerns. When the stagnation appears to last, producers like to think that indeed there will be a consolidation of the sector, but they usually all seem to think that they will weather the storm and will not be affected. Of course, it never works that way. Bad things do not happen only happen to others. Then, the crisis follows and usually a vigorous restructuring takes place. I have seen this many times and it is amazing to see how history repeats itself. There is no doubt that when food consumption will have reached its top, the same mechanism will show. This time, the problem will be quite robust, though. To supply China, production volumes will be much higher than previous similar scenarios of stagnation in the various Western regions. Further, just as much any marginal increment of consumption per capita multiplied by 1.5 billion means large volumes, any decrease of consumption will represent significant pain. This point is not here, yet. There are years of growth for most food groups ahead, but it is time to start thinking, and especially start planning, about a change of strategy. When the plateau appears, differentiation will become the main theme, and niches will be the place to be. Considering that the Chinese culture is long-term oriented and that relationships are a fundamental element of business in China, I would recommend starting paving the path for this shift sooner than later. After all, 10 years pass quite fast.
Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.