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Is Vietnam the Next China: Myth vs. Reality

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Is Vietnam the Next China: Myth vs. Reality

The ongoing US-China trade war has brought a renewed urgency in recent months resulting in my crisscrossing this tiny nation from the northern capital of Hanoi to the country’s economic epicenter to the south, Ho Chi Minh City – formerly known as Saigon, and every stop in between. Once viewed as an emerging market with potential, Vietnam today is considered the hottest “go-to” sourcing destination as supply chains uproot from China and President Trump and President Xi continue to work out their disagreements.

However, despite logging thousands of miles of travel and spending days upon days conducting factory audits in the remotest corners of the country, I’ve discovered Vietnam’s manufacturing industry and export products may not live up to the hype as China’s best alternative.

Myth #1: Vietnam manufacturing is on par with China.

One striking difference I noticed immediately is that Vietnam’s manufacturing is at least 10-15 years behind China. On my factory tours, I witnessed outdated machinery, lack of modern equipment and saw few signs of the latest supply chain best practices, including LEAN certification standards and supply chain manufacturing principles in action. In my daily research on vetting manufacturers, I consistently come across poorly designed websites- if I am lucky to find one at all, sales pages listing professional contacts using Gmail and Yahoo accounts, and often encounter few staff members who can converse or speak English well. These deficiencies contribute to the challenging task of sourcing products meeting global export standards.

Myth #2: Vietnam’s pricing is cheaper than China.  

With labor about one-third of China, the cost of living and land is much cheaper than its northern neighbor, many falsely believe that Vietnam-made products automatically translate into big savings.

There are three contributing factors:

1. In nearly every industry, Vietnam lacks quality raw materials and must import them from China, thereby, increasing costs

2.  As new foreign direct investments set record highs, industrial park land costs have increased dramatically to coincide with this boom

3. Manufacturers (well aware that the US-China trade war has put American buyers in a corner) have raised their prices accordingly.

These all contribute to the drowning out of any major cost savings. In my experience, several times North American buyers have responded that my Vietnam price offer is wildly off the mark and not competitive with their current China suppliers, China tariff included. 

Myth #3: In Vietnam, you can expect to find everything as in China.

In the world of manufacturing and supply chain, I constantly hear: “Just start sourcing from Vietnam.” That would be all fine and dandy assuming an apples to apples comparison, but Vietnam is anything but China. Over the past two decades, China has perfected their manufacturing and supply chains to the point of employing robotics and automation churning out sophisticated products by the millions. Just take a trip to the hugely popular Canton Fair or attend one of the hundreds of trade shows and expos throughout the year; you will find every product imaginable, in every variant and color, too.

Furthermore, China has the most up-to-date and modern infrastructure—from container ports, highways, railways, and warehouses—to deliver goods globally. In contrast, Vietnam only in recent years has started to emerge onto the manufacturing scene, known mostly for light furniture, textiles, sewing, and electronics parts. 

Exasperated by the US-China trade war, Vietnam’s manufacturing industry has been red hot, however, it’s not an equivalent replacement for China. Buyers can expect less-than-stellar quality products and choices than what China offers, met with challenging business practices and frustration due to the lack of manufacturing transparency, data, and information. While Vietnam might be a manufacturing dream destination for many of your gains, it might be just that in the end: a pipe dream. 

Tariffs & Shippers

IS THE CARGO SHIP SAILING ON NEW TARIFFS?

Demand for Space on Cargo Ships is Surging Ahead of Anticipated Tariffs on China

As over 300 witnesses present testimony in Washington, DC this week and next on the impact of proposed China tariffs on their businesses, uncertainty hangs in the air.

Following the hearing process, committee review and publication of tariff schedules, new tariffs could be imposed as soon as late July or August, which means the cargo shipping rush is on to beat the potential hikes.

Don’t Miss the Boat

The prospect of tariff hikes acts like an “early bird” registration rate as companies are incentivized to lock in better prices now. Many retailers are competing just to find space for their goods on an ocean carrier. Air shipments are an alternative, but far costlier. The shipment surge has resulted in massive congestion at ports and warehouses that are bursting at the seams.

This scenario is familiar. Retailers scrambled last year to book cargo to get ahead of tariffs. Importers front-loaded holiday merchandise shipments to beat the 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports in the fall of 2018, and then front-loaded spring 2019 merchandise imports late in the year when they anticipated the tariffs would go up from 10 to 25 percent on January 1, 2019. That threat temporarily subsided when President Trump extended the negotiation deadline with China, but reemerged in May 2019. This time, the tariff threat materialized. Goods would remain at 10 percent only if they were exported from China to the United States prior to May 10, 2019 and entered into the United States before June 15, 2019.

New Tariffs, New Shipping Surge

The President has said he will make a decision after the June 28-29 G-20 meetingwhether to impose 25 percent tariffs on an additional $300 billion in Chinese imports, meaning a tariff on nearly everything the United States imports from China, including the kitchen sink (yes, kitchen sinks are on the tariff list).

Retailers generally import most of their holiday goods in August and September, but many are moving up this timetable in anticipation of higher tariffs, accelerating the traditional holiday peak shipping season. If major importers all do the same, advancing the shipment of months of inventory, how will shipping lines manage the demand and allocate vessel space? Where does all this volume sit when it arrives? What is the impact on costs for shippers?

All of this can add up to some choppy trade waters.

Hold My Spot

Retailers, who are the “shippers” of goods, may negotiate service contracts with ocean carriers under which the shipper commits to provide a certain amount of volume over a given period and the carrier commits to a certain rate schedule and set of services. Typically, the greater amount of volume, the better the rates will be. The alternative to contracts is the less predictable spot rate market. Usually valid for only one shipment, the spot rates fluctuate with market conditions.

Larger established shippers are more likely to have service contracts, while small- and medium-sized businesses are likely to be more at the mercy of the spot rate market. Because retailers generally require more pricing certainty and service guarantees, they may opt for contractual arrangements and lose out on the chance to capitalize on weak spot markets. Spot rates can dip below contract levels, for example, if carriers add too much capacity into the system or volume slows. Some businesses play it both ways, confirming some volume under contract and turning to the spot rate market for the rest.

There can also be price-based competition to secure slots on a particular vessel during peak periods, with carriers able to demand surcharges to protect shippers from being rolled onto a later vessel departure. When tariffs are imminent, shippers are often more willing to pay these surcharges to get space on the next available crossing.

Rather than contracting with an individual shipline, a shipper may choose to work with a common carrier, like UPS, that offers ocean transportation, but does not operate the vessels. These Non-Vessel Owning Common Carriers (NVOCCs) differentiate themselves by pointing to their ability to offer a diversified carrier mix and flexibility in cases of unexpected circumstances, such as a strike at the dock a particular carrier uses. The NVOCC negotiates with ocean carriers for a number of slots on particular trade lanes, in effect negotiating as the shipper, and then offers ocean shipping service to customers.

Seeking A Port in a Storm

In theory, changes to service contracts must be agreed upon by both parties – carrier and shipper – before taking effect. In practice, however, shippers and carriers sometimes treat service contracts more as guidelines than binding agreements. Import surges have caused some carriers to hike previously agreed rates, and if the shipper won’t pay, the cargo might sit in Shanghai.

Various organizations are developing innovative solutions to address these contract challenges, including through the use of technology to record contract terms and track shipments’ conformity with those terms, financial security tools to ensure penalty settlement, and requirements to pay collateral at the time of contract, unlike the current spot market where no money is exchanged until goods are on the water and either party can cancel at any prior point without an enforceable penalty.

As the race to get goods to shore heats up, shippers not only face cost increases at sea. With ports struggling with containers stacked six or seven high, shippers also face extra charges to get their goods off ships, onto trucks and into warehouses. As one example, the onslaught of containers also means a surge in demand for chassis, the steel frames that allow trucks to carry shipping containers. If sufficient chassis are not available, truckers have to delay deliveries, incurring costs that are passed to the shipper.

With thousands of retailers moving tremendous volume, the issue of warehouse capacity also becomes a challenge. According to Los Angeles Times reporting, Southern California’s warehousing and distribution complex, the largest in the world, has a less than one percent vacancy rate. Some retailers have resorted to storing pallets outside, while others face hefty fees for exceeding storage windows.

Ports part one
China trade

Are China’s Neighboring Ports Ready?

What about sourcing from countries other than China to avoid the tariffs? That’s easier said than done, at least in the short term to beat a looming tariff deadline. Switching to new vendors and manufacturers takes money and time. New vendors must be trained to meet retailer standards and be able to meet needed lead times. Factories must be vetted for quality standards, social welfare conditions and security factors. China also has superb logistics and other supply chain advantages that other countries cannot match.

In a recent piece in The Hill, the Cato Institute’s Dan Ikenson pointed to trade data showing that, as U.S. imports from China fell by 12 percent in the first four months of 2019, imports from Vietnam grew by 32 percent over the same period. However, Vietnam’s transportation infrastructure is reportedly overwhelmed with the new volume, straining the country’s roads and ports. And, Vietnam is facing pressure to adopt more rigorous measures to ensure that Chinese products do not get transshipped through the country and into the United States, merely to avoid U.S. tariffs.

“The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach together comprise the San Pedro Bay Port Complex…On the import side, our most recent analysis estimates the current and proposed tariffs directed at China will impact roughly 66% of all imports by value at the San Pedro Bay.”

– June 17 letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer from Eugene Seroka, Executive Director, Port of Los Angeles

Rough Waters Ahead

Despite the current shipping boom as producers and retailers build inventory to get ahead of tariffs, the shipping industry is concerned about the future impacts of an inevitable falloff in volume, even if the U.S. economy remains strong. When import volumes soften, dockworkers are not called to work, and the demand shrinks for logistics workers, warehouse workers and truckers. The surges and variability caused by tariff threats – some enacted and some not — have generated a boatload of uncertainty across the wide range of industries that make up the supply chain.

That uncertainty affects not only the users of shipping infrastructure, but sometimes the infrastructure itself. The Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) owns and operates the Conley Container Terminal in the port of Boston, which serves 1,600 regional import and export businesses. After avoiding tariffs last fall on ship-to-shore cranes to service larger container ships, Massport finds the cranes back on the proposed tariff list. The imposition of 25 percent tariffs would add at least $10 million in costs for three new cranes it plans to buy. Currently, there is no U.S. manufacturer for these cranes and the only experienced manufacturer is in China.

The President and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities is among those testifying at the hearings this week. He will make the case that tariff increases would negatively impact ports’ ability to make investments in infrastructure that are needed to handle significant growth in trade volumes in years to come. Modern transport infrastructure and a return to greater trade certainty will add up to smoother sailing for ports, consumers, and workers across the supply chain.

Leslie Griffin is Principal of Boston-based Allinea LLC. She was previously Senior Vice President for International Public Policy for UPS and is a past president of the Association of Women in International Trade in Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Used with permission.

Port of Baltimore Reports Record-Breaking March

Following a very successful 2018, the state-owned public marine terminals at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore reported record-setting numbers in March including most general cargo tons in a month (1,018,274), most 20-foot containers in a month (95,82), best March on record for cars and light trucks (59,052), and the highest amount roll on/roll off cargo tons since June 2012 (96,535). The cumulative tonnage amount beat records set in May 2017 as well as surpassing the latest container record from July 2018.

Adding to the success in 2018, the Port reported handling $59.7 billion in cargo value while both state-owned public and privately-owned marine terminals were responsible for 43 million tons of international cargo. Furthermore, state-owned public terminals reported the number of TEU containers exceeded the one million mark for the first time with 1,023,152 TEU containers in 2018.

The Port of Baltimore continues its leading position in the state’s economy as it’s responsible for approximately 15,330 direct jobs while providing a salary 9.5 percent higher than Maryland’s annual wage, according to The 2017 Economic Impact of the Port of Baltimore in Maryland report. Additionally, the report states The Port is responsible for roughly $3.3 billion in personal wages and salaries and $2.6 billion in business revenues.

“Month after month, the Port of Baltimore continues to demonstrate its importance to Maryland’s economy,” said Governor Larry Hogan. “These new records reflect the industry’s confidence in our Port and its workforce, further proving that Maryland is open for business.” 

Source: Port of Baltimore

WE CAN’T CONTAIN OURSELVES

As global trade continues to grow (albeit at a slower pace than the World Trade Organization initially projected for 2018), there are some ports that are already processing an impressive number of twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs). A TEU is a unit of measurement given to cargo capacity, based upon the volume of a 20-foot-long container. Height does not factor in when determining TEUs, though most containers range between four feet, three inches and 9 feet, six inches. When a port processes a TEU, one container counts as one TEU. When a port processes 9.3 million TEUs in a year like the Port of Los Angeles, that earns them the No. 1 spot on Global Trade’s Top 50 North American Container Ports.

But while some ports are already doing big business, a greater push for more efficient container ports is being applied across the continent. While many larger ports are already equipped to handle large vessels, many simply cannot accommodate the newer, larger Panamax-sized ships which are becoming increasingly more common thanks to new larger size limits allowed by the Panama Canal expansion. Super Panamax, Post Panamax and Neo Panamax vessels got their name from the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) in 1914, but newer requirements were enacted on June 26, 2016, when the Panama Canal opened its most recent set of locks.

Whether a vessel is Panamax, Neo Panamax, Super Panamax or Post Panamax is based upon the Panama Canal’s initial lock chamber dimensions of 1,050 feet long by 110 feet wide by 41.2 feet deep. These guidelines allow the ACP to determine whether a ship can pass through the canal, by factoring in the width and depth of the water in the available locks, as well as by the height of the Bridge of the Americas, which these ships must pass under on their way through the canal.

But Super, Post and Neo Panamax ships aren’t just larger, they’re more efficient, too, thanks to their ability to carry more cargo per trip. Unfortunately, all that efficiency is for naught if a port can’t accommodate that size vessel. The good news is that an increasing number of ports are expanding to accommodate these ships, investing millions of dollars to dredge deeper waterways and wider locks, expanding docks, adding cranes, extending existing rail and much more. Among those ports, many of the top 50 have gone above and beyond to expand and improve, earning them spots among the top 50 container ports by TEU in North America.

The Big Guys

The two largest ports by TEU are both located in the Golden State of California. With more than 9.3 million TEUs in 2017 alone, the Port of Los Angeles is the No. 1 port by volume in North America, with the Port of Long Beach not far behind with 7.5 million TEUs the same year.

So, what’s bringing so much cargo to the Left Coast? In addition to its capacity for larger Panamax ships and high volume shipments, the Port of LA’s proximity to Asian markets such as China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan that make it so popular. In fact, the 7,500-acre Port of LA alone processes 20 percent of the foreign cargo entering the United States.

Just nine miles south of the Port of LA, No. 2 ranked Port of Long Beach prides itself on being a popular cruise ship port as well as one of the “greenest” ports in the world. With its Green Port Policy initiative and more than 20 years of environmental protection programs, the Port of Long Beach strives to reduce its environmental footprint, encourage sustainability and protect the greater community from environmental impacts the port may make. As such, the port has invested $4 billion dollars toward efforts to become a zero-emissions port in the coming years.

Changing Infrastructure

One way North American ports are accommodating the new Super and Neo Panamax ships is by changing infrastructure and expanding ports to allow larger vessels to maneuver through locks with ease. The Port of Miami (No. 18) recently invested $1 billion into a major port overhaul and expansion, complete with channel widening (from 50 to 52 feet), $50 million dollars in rail improvements, and several super Panamax-capable cranes with 22-container outreach that are the biggest in the entire Southeast United States.

A $350 million-dollar expansion at the Port of Virginia (No. 7) is slated to be completed in 2019 and will include a brand new, 26-lane motor carrier gate, rail mounted gantry cranes (RMGs) to allow for higher container stacks, and various rail improvements. Not far up the coast, the Port of Baltimore is investing in several port-related projects around the city, including replacing the dilapidated Colgate Creek Bridge, which will expand access from the port to Interstate 95 for larger logistics trucks. A recent purchase of 70 acres of land will enable the port to store and process the increased amount of cargo coming off Super Panamax vessels. The expansion is expected to generate 1,650 new jobs for the city.

This past September, the Port of Georgia (No. 4) announced it would be investing $2.5 billion over the next 10 years to jump from its current capacity of 5.5 million, 20-foot TEUs to an impressive 8 million. It’s part of a whopping $14.1 billion in investments over the next five decades. For each dollar invested, the Port of Georgia expects a profit of $7.3 dollars to the U.S. economy.

Not too far north, the South Carolina Port Authority has committed $2.4 billion to deepen the Port of Charleston (No. 11) to 52 feet, making it the deepest port on the East Coast by the year 2021, and capable of an 8 million TEU capacity by 2028. Furthermore, the port plans to double its rail capacity by the year 2020. With a planned 180,000 additional feet of rail, the project is part of a strategy to cut 24 hours off transit time to the Midwest.

The Port of Philadelphia (No. 24), now known as PhilaPort, doesn’t just carry cargo but a rich history dating back to 1701 and the days of William Penn. But the 300+-year-old PhilaPort is anything but dated. Today, the port is undergoing improvements as part of a $300-million expansion authorized in 2016. The funds will be used to double PhilaPort’s container capacity, improve their PAMT terminal and increase the terminal’s capacity from 485,000 to 900,000.

Philaport is also undergoing a channel expansion which will bring the main channel from its current 40 feet to 45 feet to accommodate larger Super and Neo Panamax ships.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (No. 3) is in the midst of a $4-billion expansion and improvement project that will make room for Super Panamax vessels, as well as their increased cargo load.

International Ports

The U.S. is not the only country with ports making big changes—and doing big business—in North America. Canada is also home to two notable ports. The Port of Vancouver (No. 6), which is the largest port in Canada and the sixth-largest in North America, boasts a decidedly global hub, while the Port of Montreal (No. 12) does much of its business with Europe.

The Port of Vancouver processes about 2.9 million TEUs each year. Located on Canada’s west coast in picturesque Vancouver, British Columbia, the Port of Vancouver contributes $24.2 billion CDN to Canada’s economy each year, supplying about 92,600 jobs in British Columbia and an additional 115,300 jobs across Canada.

On Canada’s east coast, the Port of Montreal processes more than 1.5 million TEUs annually and has recently entered a partnership with the Centre for Technological Entrepreneurship (CENTECH) and École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) to create a “port logistics innovation unit.” The aim is to help address modern issues facing the port such as cybersecurity, supply-chain visibility and decarbonization and process improvement. The innovative program will be the first of its kind in North America.

The Port of Montreal also happens to be the closest port to Europe, and as such offers the shortest direct route of any North American port from Europe and the Mediterranean.

South of the U.S. border in the State of Colima, Mexico, is the Port of Manzanillo (No. 8), which processes more than 2.8 million TEUs per year. The largest port in Mexico, the Port of Manzanillo is the only container port from the country in the top ten. The port generates most of its business from iron ore, pectin, pickles (yes, pickles), cement and seafood products such as giant squid, swordfish, tuna and even shark.

Teaming Up

Much like the No. 3 ranked Port of New York and New Jersey, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma have merged to create the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which has rounded out the top of the list at No. 5. In 2017, the Northwest Seaport Alliance processed more than 3.6 million TEUs, with a 15.6 percent increase in September 2018 over the prior year—the biggest increase in September volume since 2005. The port hopes to increase its annual TEUs from its current rate of 3.6 million annually to 6 million by the year 2025, generating 14,600 new jobs in the process.

In addition to being a major gateway for cargo from Asia and a major distribution point for cargo from Asia heading to the Eastern United States, the Northwest Seaport Alliance is also home to the Puget Sound, which has the strategic position of being an important gateway to Alaska. In fact, according to the Northwest Seaport Alliance, more than 80 percent of total trade volume between Alaska and the rest of the U.S. passes through the alliance’s North and South harbors.

New Ownership

This past September, the Port of Wilmington (No. 27) in Wilmington, Delaware, was sold to Gulftainer, a United Arab Emirates-based port operator on a 50-year concession. Gulftainer plans to invest $600 million into the improvement of the port. No stranger to North American ports, Gulftainer also currently operates Florida’s Port of Canaveral.

Of Gulftainer’s planned $600-million investment, $400 million would go toward a new, 1.2 million TEU container facility. Currently, the Port of Wilmington can process 600,000 TEUs. A new cargo terminal and training facility are also slated for development with the new concession.

 

Everything’s Bigger in Texas

The State of Texas is home to several major ports, including the Port Houston (No. 9) and Port Freeport (No. 39), both of which are undergoing expansions of their own.

Port Freeport is planning a major expansion which will deepen the port from its current 45 feet to 55 feet. It also will be lengthened to 2,200 linear feet to accommodate larger Post Panamax vessels. There are also plans at Port Freeport to expand operations from 125,000 TEUs to 800,000 TEUs each year with the addition of 90 acres of land that will be developed for container operations in the coming years.

Another current Port Freeport development is the Velasco Container Terminal, which upon completion will include another 130 acres of land where 1.5 million to 2 million TEUs will be processed annually. The Velasco Container Terminal will eventually house five Post-Panamax gantry cranes.

North of Port Freeport is inland Port Houston, which is undergoing some big changes of its own. Thanks to a $314 million budget approved in 2016 by the Port Commission, Port Houston is slated to undergo numerous repairs on existing properties. Current projects include rehabilitating Wharf Three to accommodate 100-gauge, ship-to-shore cranes, construction of 6,500 feet of railroad track and the demolition of several buildings and Lash Dock.

In addition to these improvements, Container Yard 7, which will span 50 acres of land, is being constructed at Port Houston. According to the facility’s website, the yard will boast reinforced and roller-compacted concrete pavement and will be fully equipped with water and sewer, stormwater collection, communication conduit and high-mast lighting.

Future plans for Port Houston include adding five security cameras, installing numerous drainage systems and conducting general repairs around the port.

Looking Ahead

These 50 North American container ports are leading the way in TEUs and making way for anticipated growth in the future. From updating security systems to survive in an increasingly “cyber” world, to fixing irrigation issues and repairing dilapidated structures, more and more ports are turning their focus to customer service, making their facilities more modern, efficient and comfortable.

Additionally, many ports are dredging deeper and wider channels to make room for larger Post Panamax, Super Panamax and Neo Panamax ships that are quickly becoming the norm. These ships don’t just enable shippers to ship more product at once, they also create a major savings in time and money for both the shipper and the ship. Plus, with fewer ships in the water, this larger class of Panama ships allows for a greener footprint, reducing emissions. Larger ships also mean more work unloading, and thus have the potential to generate more jobs, boosting local economies—and isn’t that what trade is all about?