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Germany risks a factory exodus as energy prices bite hard

FACTORY EXODUS

Potential factory exodus in Europe’s industrial heartland faces  manufacturers of German car parts, chemicals and steel struggle to absorb power prices that rocket to new highs almost every day.

Power and gas prices in Germany more than doubled in just two months, with year-ahead electricity — a benchmark for the continent — soaring past 540 euros ($545) per megawatt hour. Two years ago, it was 40 euros.

“Energy inflation is way more dramatic here than elsewhere,” said Ralf Stoffels, chief executive officer of BIW Isolierstoffe GmbH, a maker of silicone parts for the auto, aerospace and appliance industries. “I fear a gradual deindustrialisation of the German economy.”

The nation relied on gas from Russia to fuel its power plants and factories, but now it’s preparing for an unprecedented challenge to keep lights on and businesses running after Russia slashed those flows. Temporary shutdowns due to high prices have been seen before, with fertilizer and steel production curbed in December and March.

Now, prices are seeing an even more sustained rally that’s tightening the squeeze. European gas for next month settled Thursday at a record high of 241 euros per megawatt-hour, about 11 times higher than usual this time of year.

While the government is limiting the increases faced by households to some extent, businesses aren’t immune to those soaring costs, and many are set to pass on increases to customers or even shut altogether.

“Prices are placing a heavy burden on many energy-intensive companies competing internationally,” said Matthias Ruch, a spokesman for Evonik Industries AG, the world’s second-largest chemical producer with plants in 27 countries.

The company is substituting as much as 40% of its German natural gas volumes with liquefied petroleum gas and coal, and passing some higher costs on to customers. But the notion of relocating is a nonstarter, a spokesman said.

Still, there’s evidence that Germany’s industrial position is slipping. In the first six months of this year, the volume of chemical imports rose by about 27% from the same period last year, according to government data analyzed by consultancy Oxford Economics. Simultaneously, chemical production fell, with output in June down almost 8% from December.

The International Monetary Fund said last month that Germany is set to be the worst performer in the Group of Seven nations this year due to industry’s reliance on Russian natural gas.

Europe’s largest copper producer, Hamburg-based Aurubis AG, aims to minimize gas use and pass on power costs to customers, CEO Roland Harings said August 5. Sugar giant Suedzucker AG devised emergency energy plans in the event Russia completely cuts off gas supply to Germany, a spokesperson said by email.

BMW AG is stepping up its preparations for a potential shortage. The Munich-based automaker runs 37 gas-powered facilities that generate heat and electricity at plants in Germany and Austria, and it’s considering using local utilities instead.

Packaging firm Delkeskamp Verpackungswerke GmbH plans to close a paper mill in the northern city of Nortrup because of high energy costs, with 70 workers losing their jobs.

A prolonged ascent for energy prices may wind up transforming the continent’s economic landscape, said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

“Some industries will go under serious stress and will have to rethink their production in Europe,” he said.

Chinese factory exodus

The exodus of Chinese manufacturing goes hand-in-hand with a surge of outbound investment. This is up more than 50% in the first 11 months of 2016 from a year earlier, with manufacturers involved in more than a third of China’s overseas mergers during that period. At the same time, China’s private sector investment at home rose just 3.1%.

The prospect of reaching a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement accelerated such supply chain shifts. TPP would make Vietnam an open economy and a favourable destination for FDI. With other ASEAN countries intent on joining too, a pattern similar to 1990s’ Pearl River Delta was emerging with countries such as Indonesia introducing economic stimulus packages to encourage foreign investment, and keeping currency at low levels. The whole regional block was poised to replace the Pearl River Delta region, benefit from lower labour costs, and emerge as the world’s low cost manufacturing centre.

President Trump’s abrupt cancellation of TPP has now thrown doubt on the viability of importing to the US. In the short-term, reshoring and FDI in the US should gain renewed impetus. But one thing is for sure, these manufacturers will not be returning to China.