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US-Europe Gripes on China Overcapacity Aren’t All Backed by Data

  • Data shows overcapacity concentrated in solar and batteries
  • EV makers more efficient rather than laden with overcapacity

In Washington and Brussels, there’s a consensus that China is experiencing a surge of excess capacity that could wipe out overseas industries, spurring protectionist measures to stem the damage.

“China’s overcapacity distorts global prices and production patterns,” US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said ahead of her visit to the country this week, highlighting solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. There are similar concerns in Europe, with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen citing overcapacity as a reason for opening an anti-subsidy probe into Chinese EVs.
美国财政部长珍妮特·耶伦在本周访问中国之前表示,“中国的产能过剩扭曲了全球价格和生产模式”,并强调了太阳能电池板、电动汽车和电池。欧洲也存在类似的担忧,欧盟委员会主席乌苏拉·冯德莱恩(Ursula von der Leyen)以产能过剩为由,对中国电动汽车展开反补贴调查。

A look at the data suggests that while China does have widespread industrial overcapacity, much of this is driven by industries that Western nations don’t compete with China on, such as low-tech goods and those related to the nation’s property slump — from cement to furniture.

For EVs, the issue for advanced economies appears to be more that Chinese companies are more efficient rather than loaded with excess capacity.

Read more: Yellen Heads to China This Week to Press Beijing on Overcapacity

Chinese leaders have been pouring money into manufacturing, focusing on new industries such as EVs, batteries and renewable energy, as Beijing looks for new sources of growth for its slowing economy. Trading partners worried about the prospect of low-cost imports flooding their markets and wiping out jobs are pushing back — and in some cases raising the barriers on Chinese products.

Beijing has said it wants to curb overcapacity, so analyzing the data is important as it shows where China sees an issue. The EV industry is likely not one of them, though overcapacity is present in solar and batteries. It also provides advanced economies an indication where they might find more success when pressuring China to act on overcapacity.

Here’s a look at what the numbers say:

Prices  价格

From the rest of the world’s perspective, overcapacity can be felt through lower prices. Chinese export prices fell last year at the fastest pace for almost a decade, but that was driven by low-tech goods like clothing and toys.

China’s automobile exports, which surged last year as the country overtook Japan as the world’s top car exporter, actually became more expensive. That suggests their rising attractiveness isn’t due to price cuts.

China's Export Price Drop Led By Low-Tech Goods

Low-Tech Goods Have Driven China Export Price Decline

Source: China Customs Administration; Bloomberg

Chinese companies aren’t dumping electric vehicles on global markets at a lower cost either. Leading Chinese EVs fetch roughly double on average in Europe than domestically.

Utilization 利用率

The most common way of measuring overcapacity is capacity utilization, rated on a scale where zero means factories are laying idle, to 100 meaning maximum use.
衡量产能过剩的最常见方法是产能利用率,其评级标准为 0 表示工厂闲置,100 表示最大限度利用。

China’s capacity usage rates across industry was below 76% for all of 2022 and 2023, the longest stretch recorded since 2016 when Beijing launched a nationwide capacity-cutting campaign. That was below the level of around 80% considered “normal,” according to a commentary by the Communist Party’s leading financial body.
2022年和2023年全年,中国全行业产能利用率均低于76%,这是自2016年北京启动全国去产能行动以来最长的一段时间。根据共产党主要金融机构的评论,这一数字低于 80% 左右的“正常”水平。

China's Industrial Capacity Use Has Been Fairly Stable

Capacity utilization rate, quarterly

Source: China National Bureau of Statistics; Federal Reserve; Eurostat; Confederacao Nacional das Industrias

But that doesn’t seem to be causing alarm in Beijing. First, the rate is several percentage points higher than in 2016 and has picked up in recent quarters. “Under these circumstances, it is hard to believe that China has a serious structural overcapacity,” Fan Lei, an economist at Guolian Securities, wrote in a recent note.
但这似乎并没有引起北京的恐慌。首先,这一比率比 2016 年高出几个百分点,并且在最近几个季度有所回升。 “在这种情况下,很难相信中国存在严重的结构性产能过剩,”国联证券经济学家范磊在最近的一份报告中写道。

Second, data suggests that while some sectors like electrical equipment, which includes solar panels, have unusually low utilization, the headline number has been dragged-down by low-tech sectors impacted by China’s property crisis. That has cut demand for products like glass and cement, where capacity utilization has fallen to as low as 30%, according to Daiwa Securities Group Inc.
其次,数据显示,虽然包括太阳能电池板在内的电气设备等一些行业的利用率异常低,但整体数字受到中国房地产危机影响的低技术行业的拖累。大和证券集团表示,这减少了对玻璃和水泥等产品的需求,这些产品的产能利用率已降至 30%。

Minerals Like Cement Lead China's Overcapacity

Sector likely hit by China's housing construction slump

Source: China National Bureau of Statistics

Note: First quarter of 2020 excluded due to pandemic impact
注:由于疫情影响,2020 年第一季度不包括在内

In other sectors like auto manufacturing, chemicals, and equipment such as wind turbines, the rate is climbing toward the 80% threshold.
在汽车制造、化工和风力涡轮机等设备等其他行业,这一比例正在向 80% 的门槛攀升。

Use of Assets  资产使用

Those conclusions are supported by China’s monthly survey of the financial performance at industrial firms, which allows the calculation of how efficiently companies are using their fixed assets.

That data shows historically low levels of asset efficiency in sectors like electrical machinery, phones and computers, according to analysis by Gavekal Dragonomics.

But the ratio for auto manufacturing is high by historical standards, likely reflecting strong use of production lines for electric vehicles, according to Gavekal’s Thomas Gatley.
但根据 Gavekal 的托马斯·盖特利 (Thomas Gatley) 的说法,按照历史标准来看,汽车制造的比例很高,这可能反映出电动汽车生产线的大量使用。

Use of Industrial Assets Lowest In Furniture, Computer and Communications Equipment

Non-current asset turnover by industrial sectors, 12 month moving average
按工业部门划分的非流动资产周转率,12 个月移动平均值

Source: Gavekal Dragonomics; Bloomberg

Note: Note: posiitve z-score indicates unusually high, negative unusually low
注:注:正 z 分数表示异常高,负 z 分数表示异常低

Autos 汽车

China is by far the world’s largest market for pure electric and hybrid vehicles, with domestic sales surging 36% last year and expected to grow 25% this year. Its ratio of exports to production is far lower than other car producing nations such as Germany, Japan and South Korea.

China Exports a Small Share of its Car Production

Car exports as a share of domestic production, annual

Source: International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers; German Association of the Automotive Industry; China Passenger Car Association; Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association; Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association; Bloomberg

Overcapacity might result in vast parking lots filled with unsold cars. But Chinese automakers’ inventories don’t look high, according to a Bloomberg analysis of listed companies. Data on dealers’ inventories from China’s car dealer association also doesn’t show an unusual increase.

Some analysts, who estimate China has a carmaking capacity of 50 million or more and conclude that utilization is below 50% relative to domestic sales of 22 million, include obsolete capacity in their calculation or are “simply bluffing,” said Paul Gong, head of China autos research at UBS Group AG. “The overcapacity narrative has been exaggerated and oversimplified,” he added.
一些分析师估计中国的汽车产能为 5,000 万辆或更多,并得出结论,相对于国内 2,200 万辆的销量,利用率低于 50%,他们的计算中包括了落后产能,或者“纯粹是在虚张声势”,该公司负责人 Paul Kong 表示。瑞银集团中国汽车研究。 “产能过剩的说法被夸大和过于简单化了,”他补充道。

Chinese Automakers Inventories Similar to US

Sales to inventory ratio, by quarter

Source: Bloomberg 资料来源:彭博社

One oversimplification is ignoring the distinction between EV and internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, of which sales have plummeted amid the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles.

China’s biggest EV exporters including BYD Co., Tesla Inc.’s Shanghai factory and SAIC Motor Corp. all have capacity utilization rates above 80%, according to estimates from JSC Automotive. Only one major exporter, Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., which relied on ICE vehicles for the majority of its sales last year, has a low capacity use of 44%.
据JSC Automotive估计,比亚迪公司、特斯拉公司上海工厂和上汽集团等中国最大的电动汽车出口商的产能利用率均超过80%。只有一家主要出口商吉利汽车控股有限公司去年的大部分销售依赖于内燃机汽车,其产能利用率较低,仅为 44%。

Chinese EV Makers Capacity Use is Generally High

Overcapacity seen concentrated in ICE vehicles, smaller EV companies

Source: JSC Automotive 资料来源:JSC 汽车公司

The internal combustion engine sector is “much more affected” by overcapacity, said Camille Boullenois, an analyst at Rhodium Group. EV overcapacity is concentrated in smaller and uncompetitive companies which will likely not survive, she added.
荣鼎集团分析师卡米尔·布勒努瓦 (Camille Boullenois) 表示,内燃机行业受到产能过剩的影响“更大”。她补充说,电动汽车产能过剩集中在规模较小且缺乏竞争力的公司,这些公司可能无法生存。

The real issue for advanced economies is that Chinese carmakers are more competitive, thanks to technology, local supply chains, brand new transport infrastructure, and lower energy and land costs. Government subsidies play a role, but they may be secondary to innovation: China leads the EU and the US in peer-reviewed publications on green technology.

China’s top EV exporters “are competitive on quality as well as price,” Boullenois added.
Boullenois 补充道,中国最大的电动汽车出口商“在质量和价格上都具有竞争力”。

Green Goods 绿色商品

However, when it comes to batteries used in EVs, it’s clear that capacity is running ahead of demand.

Planned annual output capacity of China’s EV battery manufacturers will reach 4,800 gigawatt hours by next year but the country will need at most 1,200 GWh, Zhu Huarong, chairman of carmaker Changan Automobile, said last year.
长安汽车董事长朱华荣去年表示,中国电动汽车电池制造商计划明年产能将达到 4,800 吉瓦时,但中国最多需要 1,200 吉瓦时。

Prices are plunging, with the cost of lithium carbonate – the white salt that goes into making batteries – down 80% from a 2022 peak. The same is true for solar panels as prices more than halved last year.
价格正在暴跌,碳酸锂(用于制造电池的白色盐)的成本比 2022 年的峰值下降了 80%。太阳能电池板的情况也是如此,去年价格下降了一半以上。

Solar Panel Price Plunge Pinches Producer Profits

Manufacturing overcapacity has driven down the cost of solar panels

Source: PV Infolink 来源:PV Infolink

BNEF compared China’s planned manufacturing capacity for batteries used in EVs and power grids with the level consistent with reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, finding capacity from 2024-27 is about double what would be needed.
BNEF 将中国计划的电动汽车和电网电池制造能力与到本世纪中叶实现净零排放的水平进行了比较,发现 2024-27 年的产能约为所需的两倍。

For solar, it compared announced capacity with its “optimistic” demand scenario, finding China’s planned production capacity over 2024-27 will be more than double demand.

“The good news: an oversupplied world is one where costs are low,” said BNEF analyst Antoine Vagneur-Jones. But it will make plans by countries to onshore production much harder to justify, he added.
BNEF 分析师 Antoine Vagneur-Jones 表示:“好消息是:供应过剩的世界成本低廉。”但他补充说,这将使各国陆上生产计划变得更难以证明其合理性。

China Solar Capacity Exceeds Global Demand

Source: BNEF 资料来源:彭博新能源财经

Note: Solar demand is a forecast. Supply based on announced plants, some of which may be canceled.

To be sure, future demand growth can exceed expectations. That potential for under-estimation is large for green goods, where carbon reduction targets may be raised in years to come.

New capacity can often replace older capacity, rather than sitting alongside it when an industry is developing new techniques. In solar, the traditional “PERC” solar cell design is being driven out by new technologies.

“The old factories are obsolete and any firm that doesn’t replace them will likely fail. This is one argument for the sheer levels of planned over-investment,” Vagneur-Jones added.

Market forces are already reducing the capacity pipeline. Chinese solar and battery companies have already canceled several large projects this year, and companies are bracing for a “brutal” wave of bankruptcies.

This has a downside for competitors overseas. China’s wave of solar sector bankruptcies a decade ago left only the most advanced firms standing. Today’s overcapacity problem can become tomorrow’s competitiveness challenge.

    — With assistance from Dan Murtaugh
    — 在 Dan Murtaugh 的帮助下

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