Friday, July 4, 2008

The Murder of US Manufacturing

Martin Hutchinson had an interesting commentary entitled "The Murder of US Manufacturing" in the Bear's Lair at He discussed the upcoming sale of GE's applicance division to a foreign company who will likely move most production abroad while keeping the GE share of the US appliance market. Here is a selection:

GE's announcement a week ago that it would accept offers for its appliances business marked the death-knell of yet another US manufacturing business, one among so many in US manufacturing's long and seemingly unstoppable downtrend since 1980.

That decline may seem an inevitable historical trend, and Wall Street's analysts would claim that the US economy can prosper just fine without it. Yet impartial analysts of the putrefying corpse of US manufacturing capability are forced into an inescapable question: did it die of natural causes or was it murdered?...

To see how this happened, think back to the 1950s. Electric appliances were the major growth business of that decade, symbolizing the decade's new affluence. Forecasters confidently predicted that by 2000 robot appliances would be in every household, removing the drudgery of housework once and for all. As a youthful reader of Isaac Asimov's Robot stories I shared that confidence - after all, the computerization necessary for robot control systems, which had not existed in 1940 when Asimov wrote the first of his I Robot short stories, was already revolutionizing business management by the late 1950s.

Now it's not just 2000 but 2008. So where the hell are the robots? GE Appliances has no such offering; if you buy a GE vacuum cleaner you will still have do all the work yourself. Can it be that the technological optimism of the 1950s was misplaced, and that home robots will never exist, or will be invented only in the far distant future? You'd certainly think so from looking at GE's catalog of products.

However it turns out that GE is simply behind the curve. The iRobot Corporation of Bedford Massachusetts, founded by keen Asimov readers from MIT in 1990, manufactures fully robotized vacuum cleaners as well as some pretty neat robotized mine-clearing equipment for the military. iRobot's standard model runs around $300, less in real terms than an ordinary vacuum cleaner would have cost you in 1980. iRobot's total sales are only $250 million, which GE would no doubt class as a rounding error, but dammit, the company doesn't have GE's brand name or distribution network.

Had GE had the sense and innovative skill to develop robot vacuum cleaners, can anybody doubt that that product group's sales would today be several billion dollars, with appropriately high margins? It is thus clear that by starving GE Appliances of investment and, more important, of research dollars, and devoting the company's efforts to financial services, "Neutron Jack" and his cohorts have deprived the United States of a major new business and deprived us overworked consumers of a major labor-saving technology (unless we are lucky enough to find out about iRobot or its few small-company competitors)....

I agree with everything that Hutchinson wrote here. But to be fair to GE management you need to look at the reason why they failed to invest in appliance manufacturing while building up their financial business. The effect of the foreign government dollar purchases has been to take the profits out of US manufacturing while building up the profits in the US financial sector. In other words, GE management was responding logically to an international system characterized by growing mercantilism.

What GE failed to anticipate is that an international system characterized by growing mercantilism is not sustainable. The mercantilist countries eventually destroy the economies of their victims. US consumers no longer have the increasing wealth necessary to sustain increasing borrowing. As a result, GE’s investments in financial services have been proven to be a bad choice.


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