It’s getting so that with each passing week, claims that reshored factories are producing an American manufacturing renaissance look more and more specious. Last week, I wrote about Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars who found that the supposed reshoring wave is much more talk than action. Now they’ve filled in some of the details, and the Federal Reserve has undercut the renaissance myth with a recent study of its own on what much lower natural gas prices are and are not doing for domestic industry’s competitiveness.
In an article for IndustryWeek, Jim Rice and Francesco Stefanelli of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics acknowledge that some reshoring has taken place recently – by which they reasonably argue means “a change in policy from a previous decision to locate manufacturing offshore from the firm’s home location.” But they contend that their own research has unearthed precious little evidence that these corporate decisions add up to a “major trend” – or anything close.
According to Rice and Stefanelli, most of the more than 50 reported instances of reshoring they investigated were actually alleged plans to reshore, not actual reshoring. In addition, they note, accounts of these supposed renaissance-inducing events “tend to lack certain key details. For example, there is seldom mention of whether the offshore operation has been closed, which means that the company could be adding domestic capacity while continuing to support offshore production.”
Their conclusions: “[T]here is no clear reshoring trend in the U.S. Companies do not appear to be abandoning overseas operations in droves; some are building new capacity in the U.S. and other countries to meet domestic demand. And the level of reshoring activity varies widely depending on the industry involved.”
Moreover, the authors shed much needed light on the politics of reshoring. The renaissance claims, they note, are “especially appealing at a time when Americans yearn for a return to the heyday of homegrown manufacturing when jobs were seemingly plentiful. Moreover, vested interests are eager to provide evidence of a national manufacturing base that is being rejuvenated by its believed newfound competitiveness. “
And they issue a warning that could not be more important: “If the reshoring revolution turns out to be a false dawn, it could distract us from the policies and investments that need to be put in place in order to make supply chains more competitive and effective, or even identify a different phenomenon that will affect supply chains in the future.”
But what about fracking revolution and the huge cost advantage cheap natural gas is bound to give U.S.-based manufacturing? A June report for the Fed by William R. Melick of Kenyon College found that lower energy prices have certainly been helpful to American industry, but far from a game-changer.
It’s not that gas prices in the United States aren’t way down. In the past eight years, Melick states, they’ve declined by two-thirds compared to the gas prices paid by Europe-based manufacturers. But for their U.S.-based counterparts as a whole, the natural gas price bonanza has meant only a 10 percent increase in capital spending during this period, an increase in production of less than three percent, and an increase in employment of less than two percent. And the impact of cheaper gas on the global competitiveness of American manufacturing is even smaller.
Lower natural gas prices have had a much bigger impact on America’s most energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, according to Melick. But he also notes that the four most intensive gas-using industries – nitrogenous fertilizers; alkalies and chlorine; carbon black; and flat glass – represented only 0.5 percent of U.S. manufacturing’s total value added in 2011.
According to Melick, the fracking revolution’s effects on domestic manufacturing could become significant over time. But to date, they’ve been about as revolutionary as the decidedly less-than-renaissance-y rebirth of American industry.