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Colombia chases Mexico’s lead in nearshoring

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On paper, the opportunity seems obvious. As Washington increases pressure on US companies to bring production back from China, a close US ally with a well-qualified workforce, relatively low costs, a bilateral free trade agreement and major cities less than three hours by plane from Miami is eager to welcome them.

In practice, converting that opportunity into reality is much harder. A country of 50m people long dependent on exports of oil, coal, coffee and other commodities, Colombia has never had a big export-oriented manufacturing sector. As it tries to build one, it lacks the sophisticated base that Mexico has built in the past 25 years under the auspices of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and it cannot replicate Mexico’s close geographical proximity to the US. 

Andrés Velasco, dean of the school of public policy at the London School of Economics and a former finance minister of Chile, says that for any country, creating an export-focused manufacturing industry from scratch is extremely hard, because it required a whole ecosystem of interconnected suppliers and skills. “The country uniquely positioned to benefit from nearshoring in the Americas is Mexico,” he says. “If you are making car parts in China, you can make them in Mexico instead. But it’s difficult to go from zero to 20. Colombia is near zero right now [in manufacturing].” 

Bogotá commissioned a study several years ago from a team of Latin America economists in the US on how it could industrialise, recalls Mauricio Cárdenas, a former Colombian finance minister and a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York.

“It said that if you were in one sector already, it was easier to move up the value chain,” he says. “For example, if you are in paint already, then you could potentially go to petrochemicals and plastics.” 

However, such opportunities are limited by the small size of Colombia’s existing industrial base. It lacks, for example, the electronics expertise which Mexico has accumulated during years of assembling computers and televisions. 

Trade and industry minister José Manuel Restrepo is nonetheless confident that Colombia can compete with Mexico. “This is a country which from the start of this government has declared itself . . . in favour of the private sector and pro-business,” he says.

Where Colombia has been successful already is in attracting companies that outsource business processes, such as call centres. The French digital giant Teleperformance has 27 offices in Colombia and plans to hire another 10,000 staff there. In September, US retail giant Amazon said it would hire 2,000 more staff in Colombia, mainly for service roles dealing with customers across the Americas. The company opened a regional hub in Bogotá in 2018. 

“Colombia has been the perennial superstar in our market in the last three to four years,” says Kirk Laughlin, founder and managing director of Nearshore Americas, a consultancy in the technology services industry. Mr Laughlin cites the country’s close alliance with the US, the strong work ethic of its population and a supportive government as key advantages.

There should be other opportunities for Colombia to diversify its exports. Its Latin American peers, notably Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Chile, have built big agro-industries around the export of fruit but Colombia has lagged behind, despite a natural abundance of varieties.

The government has made a big push recently to cultivate avocados as an export crop but its target of $100m of exports this year pales by comparison with the $2.8bn sold abroad last year by Mexico, the world’s top avocado grower.

A Colombian farm worker sorts avocados. The government has made a big push to cultivate the fruit as an export crop © Jan Sochor/Getty Images

Analysts say the main reason for Colombia’s historic neglect of agriculture was a long-running guerrilla conflict, which scared away investors for decades, until a peace agreement in 2016. During the violence, much of the farmland was used for cattle grazing and there was little investment. Coffee, long the mainstay of agricultural exports, is mainly produced by small growers who lack the technology deployed by larger competitors in Brazil, the world’s top exporter.


10,000


Number of new hires in Colombia by French telecoms company Teleperformance

Keenly aware of the need to diversify the economy, the government is trying to encourage foreign investors to relocate to Colombia. In August, President Iván Duque hosted a visit from a US delegation led by national security adviser Robert O’Brien, and there was an announcement afterwards that Colombia would take part in an American reshoring initiative.

“O’Brien said: ‘We want Colombia to be one of the pilot countries in this process of “Back to the Americas”’,” says Mr Restrepo, who was at the event. “Obviously we are interested in taking part in this US programme. But our near shoring is not limited solely to the US.”

It remains to be seen whether “Back to the Americas” will herald a new wave of industrialisation in the continent or a significant relocation of jobs from Asia to Colombia. But there is a fresh urgency to the government’s long-cherished aspiration of nearshoring.

“Colombia is trying to discover a new model. This is imperative because the Covid crisis has made it even more clear that a model based on oil and coal will run out and will run out sooner than had been expected,” says Mr Cárdenas.

“This is not a hypothetical or theoretical topic, but a very urgent one. This economy needs new motors.”



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Analysis

Can the lumbering US housing department become a force for change?

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One of Marcia Fudge’s first big battles as an elected official was over a shopping centre in Warrensville Heights, Ohio.

A developer wanted to build a hub for major retailers in the largely black Cleveland suburb, which has a population of 13,000. But Fudge would not have it. Warrensville Heights did not want “giant retail stores,” but office space and hotels, she said.

“We also control our own destiny and our own vision for the future,” Fudge, who was mayor of Warrensville Heights between 2000 and 2008, said at the time. “The days of plantation rule are over.”

Fudge won that battle and many others like it, and is widely credited for revitalising the area during her eight years as mayor.

Now she is being counted on by progressives to do the same in urban areas across the US as President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The $50bn agency manages 1m units of public housing and oversees a vast array of federally-funded housing programs — from insuring mortgage loans to voucher programs for low-income families.

Housing reform is expected to be a key part of Biden’s efforts to support the black voters who propelled him into office, many of whom still deal with the consequences of decades of segregation and discrimination in America’s housing market.

Malcolm Glenn, a fellow at the New America think-tank, called Fudge’s appointment to HUD “a real opportunity” to make tangible progress on an issue where race and economics are tightly bound.

“If this administration and Secretary Fudge make racial equity, not just a core, but sort of the singular core guiding force around everything that they do, I think we’ll be in a much much much better place than we’ve ever been,” Glenn says. “I don’t think any HUD secretary has ever done that.”
 
Ro Khanna, a Democratic Representative from California, believes Fudge is uniquely qualified for the job. “She understands deeply housing inequity, she understands racial exclusion,” Khanna said. “[She will] really focus on equity in housing and anti-racist zoning laws and anti-racist policies.”
 
But to deliver on those hopes, Fudge will have to grapple with a demoralised agency facing dual crises. An unprecedented number of Americans face the threat of eviction because of the Covid crisis. And inside HUD, a mass exodus of career staffers under previous Secretary Ben Carson has decimated the ranks.

Congress slashed the department’s operating budget by 15 per cent last year.

Carson, a black surgeon who grew up in public housing, did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility to rectify the effects of systemic racism on the American housing market.

HUD also has a long record of underdelivering, and has sometimes been regarded as a backwater of government. Rates of home ownership among blacks have been largely stagnant since the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed discriminatory policies that, among other ills, made it exceedingly difficult for blacks to take out mortgages.
 
Even Fudge acknowledged its shortcomings soon after her nomination. “I don’t know that anybody can even tell you what HUD has done,” she said. “So I really do think that HUD has not fulfilled its mission.”

Fudge, 68, has lived in the same tightly-knit neighbourhood for decades. Her personal phone number is listed in the local phone book, and she drives her 89-year-old mother to church every Sunday morning, stopping first at McDonald’s for a cup of coffee.
 
Her success in Warrensville Heights elevated her to Congress before the end of her second mayoral term. But her ascent was also tinged with tragedy: she was elected to fill the seat of her close friend and former boss, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones when she died suddenly in August 2008.

“She’s tough as nails and I have to caution her sometimes about being too tough,” said Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, adding that Fudge is the first person that fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus members confide in during a crisis.

During her time in Congress, she worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, an agency not often thought to be at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. But Fudge prodded it to expand food voucher programs, development schemes in rural areas, and for clearer labelling on food products.
 
She was actually angling for the top agriculture job when Biden tapped her for HUD instead. Last year, she told Politico in November: “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the black person in [the Department of] Labor or HUD.’”

At HUD, Fudge has proposed boosting spending on housing, establishing programs to help Americans save up for mortgage down payments, and transforming a voucher program for low-income renters from a lottery to a guarantee for everyone that meets the requirements.
 
“Her style is not combative. She prefers to get along, but she’s not a pushover,” said Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, who worked closely with Fudge during her mayoral tenure. “That means just don’t piss her off.”

In response to a question at her confirmation hearing from Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on what he called a “long history of intemperate comments”, Fudge replied: “Sometimes I am a little passionate about things.”

She is almost certain to meet further opposition. During the confirmation hearing, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Patrick Toomey complained that Obama-era fair housing policies were too costly and time consuming for home builders — and Fudge wants to go much farther than the Obama administration did.

People who know Fudge do not expect her to back down. “I think President Biden and his team want to have a slugger in that position,” said Tami Jackson Buckner, a partner Michael Best Strategies and sorority sister of Fudge’s. “She is someone who knows that without a home, it’s hard to fulfil your American dream.”



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Britons brace for price of UK going to net zero

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When the UK became the world’s first major economy to commit to a binding target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, it had already made good progress with its electricity grid.

The rapid growth of renewable energy in the UK and the closure of many coal-fired power stations has cut the sector’s emissions by more than 70 per cent since 1990, and sent cleaner electricity to homes with minimum impact on consumers’ lives.

But as chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to deliver a green-tinged Budget on Wednesday, and the UK gets ready to host the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, experts are warning that decarbonising the electricity grid was in many ways the easy part of the journey to net zero.

“This year half the electrons supplied to British homes were green, but that doesn’t matter much to the consumer — the next stage of reforms and changes will be very different,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government on how to reach net zero.

The next leg of the journey will require consumers to adapt the way they live and, for those able to pay, also get their wallets out.

Hitting the net zero target will require sweeping changes in two key areas: transport, as the shift to electric cars accelerates, and buildings, where an overhaul is required to the way 30m homes are heated and insulated.

As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty © Dinendra Haria/SOPA/Getty

And the shift to low-carbon vehicles and swapping out of gas boilers for electric heat pumps presents the government with a series of delicate political and fiscal choices.

The projected cost is immense: the CCC estimates that annual capital spending largely by the private sector in greening the economy will peak at £50bn a year by 2030. That represents about one-eighth of current investment by the public and private sectors.

However, the CCC calculates that from the mid-2040s savings in operating spending — stemming in significant part from how it will be cheaper to run an electric car than a petrol-engine vehicle — will start to exceed the annual investment.

Stream graph showing that UK capital spending of about £50 billion a year is needed to hit the net-zero target, but it will be gradually offset by lower operating costs from deploying green solutions

The greening of transport and homes will create winners and losers, and the government has yet to clarify where the cost burden will fall. The Treasury has said it will later this year publish a net zero review, setting out in more detail “how the costs of achieving net zero emissions are distributed”.

For transport, which the CCC estimates will require £11.4bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years, the political pathway is easier than for buildings, according to Josh Buckland, who was an adviser to former business secretary Greg Clark and is now at consultancy firm Flint Global.

“Transport is to some degree a solvable problem,” he said. “Consumers can buy cars through financing deals, and so don’t have to pay up front costs.”

Still, there are political potholes ahead. As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty.

Stacked bar chart showing UK tax revenues from activities involving carbon emissions in 2019-2020 in billions of pounds sterling

The main contenders for replacing that revenue, said Buckland, are some combination of per-mile road-pricing and congestion charging — both ideas the Treasury has been toying with for years but shied away from for fear of a political backlash.

But far more problematic than transport, according to experts, will be the greening of the UK’s housing stock, which the CCC estimates will require £11.7bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years — and a massive shift in consumer attitudes. 

A 2020 poll by Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit organisation, found that 49 per cent of people did not even consider their gas boilers as contributing to global warming — even though they account for almost one-fifth of carbon emissions.

The gap in public understanding is a huge challenge, according to Joss Garman of the European Climate Foundation, another non profit organisation. “Right now there is a big gulf about where the policy conversation is on decarbonising heat and where the public conversation is,” he said.

The scale of the necessary transition is also immense. The UK currently installs an estimated 30,000 electric heat pumps a year, while the government’s own goal is 600,000 a year by 2028, but to hit the net zero target installations will need to run at well over 1m a year into the 2030s and 2040s.

The CCC estimates that it will cost an average of £10,000 per household to achieve the target, with heat pumps priced at about £6,500 compared to £2,000 for a conventional gas boiler.

In its interim net zero review published in December, the Treasury was vague about how these costs will be borne, noting that they will be absorbed by households, property owners or the taxpayer, “depending on policy choices”.

Compared to transport, where an electric car is obviously attractive to the consumer, the political challenge of greening the nation’s homes are legion, said Buckland. 

“Firstly there is the upfront cost issue for homeowners, but also the consumer experience is different,” he added. “Gas boilers heat your home at the flick of a switch, whereas a heat pump takes 24 hours and heats the home to 17 to 19 degrees. It will require an attitudinal shift.”

Persuading consumers to spend money on heat pumps and loft insulation rather than kitchens and bathrooms will require a cocktail of grants and incentives, said Stark, which the government has so far failed to devise.

“There isn’t a technical barrier here, so much as the lack of a plan,” he added.

To drive change, the government could consider flipping the balance of energy taxes on to gas from electricity, which currently attracts far higher greenhouse gas levies.

Whatever the policy decisions, said Stark, the government will soon have to put some cards on the table when the Treasury publishes its net zero review before the UN COP26 summit. “To be credible it will have to spell out a clear plan . . . and that includes the fiscal choices ahead.”



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China’s exporters hit by global shortage of shipping containers

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Steve Chuang’s Hong Kong-based electronics manufacturing company has enjoyed steady demand from the US and Europe over the past year. But, like many Asian exporters, he is struggling to get his products to customers.

Chuang’s business, which makes solar energy electronics, is just one of many enjoying a trade boom that has helped the regional economy bounce back from last year’s pandemic-driven downturn.

But their success is being held back by disruption to global shipping supply chains. The surge in exports from China to the west, combined with disruption at ports due to coronavirus, has left many containers out of position, resulting in queues of ships outside ports and soaring freight rates. The Chinese media have dubbed it “a single box is hard to find”.

The amount it costs to send a 40-foot container from China to the US has more than quadrupled in the past year, Chuang said: “We have never seen anything like this in the last two decades . . . Empty containers cannot get back to Hong Kong.”

China has recovered faster from the pandemic than any other big economy and its exports of lockdown-related goods, electronics and medical equipment have soared.

Export volumes have been rising at a double-digit rate for several consecutive months, and at the end of last year China’s trade surplus hit a record high.

But the rise in demand for its products comes as pandemic-related restrictions and staffing shortages in ports across the US and Europe delay the return of containers to east Asian ports.

Roberto Giannetta, chairman of the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, said a lack of truckers and warehouse workers elsewhere in the world inhibited the ability of ports to return containers to China.

“There’s a huge number of containers that are just sitting around the middle of nowhere . . . Australia, eastern Europe, middle America,” he said. “It’s like a kind of perfect storm preventing containers from returning back to Asia.”

Hu Haoli, assistant to the president of Wanlong Chemical in Wenzhou, said freight rates remained elevated, although it had only a limited impact on his business because the products it sells are high-end.

But for other companies, especially China’s vast textile industry, the delays are having a more severe effect. An exporter in Shaoxing, a city on the east coast of China, said the sharp rise in freight rates in December had caused many textile businesses to shut.

Shipping executives had hoped the traditional factory closures that usually accompany the lunar new year would slow production volumes, giving shipping lines a chance to catch up. But those hopes have failed to materialise — some Chinese factories pressed employees to keep working over the holiday in a bid to keep pace with global demand.

The delays and shortages risk pushing up goods prices. In Hong Kong, Chuang said he faced shipping delays of two to four weeks and his company is negotiating with customers to share the costs, which have increased the price of his products by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent.

Having so far mainly affected routes out of Asia, there are signs that the shortage of containers is starting to feed through into the return leg, hitting companies that import into China. In January McDonald’s in Hong Kong announced the delays had disrupted its supply of hash browns. It also experienced a brief shortage of peanuts for ice-cream sundaes.

Ports are scrambling to find more containers to help alleviate the shortages. For example at Ningbo, a big facility in China’s Zhejiang province, authorities recently helped to source an additional 730,000 empty containers.

John Fossey, head of container equipment and leasing research at Drewry, a maritime research consultancy, said production of shipping containers slumped year on year in the first half of 2020, although it ramped up in the second half, taking total output up by 10 per cent over the full year.

But these new containers will cost more: as a result of the soaring demand, combined with rising costs of raw materials such as steel, the price of a new container for delivery this summer is now about $6,200, its highest level on record, according to Fossey. This is “likely to put several owners off contracting new equipment”, he warned.

While some reports from China indicate improving activity at its ports over recent weeks, others within the shipping industry remain pessimistic about the prospects for the coming months. Willy Lin, chairman of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council, thought there would be “no relief” until summer at the earliest.

He flagged the growing likelihood that manufacturers could turn to overland trade routes, particularly by trucking from Guangxi province in southern China to Vietnam and on to South East Asia. Chuang said that some businesses were seeking to export to Europe by land across Russia.

Meanwhile, Asian exporters are scrambling to secure shipping space.

“Just about every single available ship in the world is being used at the moment, because there’s so many ships that are just sitting there [at ports] waiting to be offloaded,” said Giannetta.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai



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