Robots taking over U.S. factories imperil emerging-market growth
(Bloomberg) -- The robot revolution is here, and it’s not all good for emerging-market economies.
As the conversion to more automated factories picks up steam in countries like the U.S., Japan and Germany, there’ll be less factory work outsourced to developing nations with relatively low labor costs, according to a report by Moody’s Investors Service. The impact will be most severe in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
While most robot-related anxiety in popular culture has swirled around unfounded concern of a violent cyborg rebellion and the more likely possibility of blue-collar job losses, Moody’s raises the specter that developing countries that depend on manufactured exports could be in for a painful reckoning. Automated factories require a huge up-front investment in technology, but once that’s in place the operational costs will often be far lower than in fully staffed manufacturing sites in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
“As manufacturing has become highly integrated across countries, the adoption of automation in one country now has implications both within and beyond its borders,” Moody’s analysts including Samar Maziad wrote in a note Wednesday. Whether the adoption of robotics is “positive or negative for a particular country will be contingent on how private-sector investment strategies, government policies and labor market dynamics evolve.”
The emerging markets most likely to be hurt by factory automation are those with the highest percentage of exports to the leading adapters of the technology, and those that produce relatively high-tech products that are most likely to be eventually be made with robots. The U.S., China, Germany, Japan and South Korea account for 75 percent of global robot-technology purchases, according to Moody’s.
Here’s the regional fallout:
Between 2013 and 2015, exports of high-tech manufacturing goods accounted on average for over half of gross domestic product in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia, according to Moody’s. Up to 20 percent of high-tech manufacturing exports goes to Germany, an active user of robots.
Between 2013 and 2015, high-tech manufacturing exports made up on average about 30 percent of Thailand’s GDP, 35 percent of Malaysia’s and 31 percent of Vietnam’s, according to Moody’s. A big chunk of those exports goes to China, which has made robotics a focus of its industrial policy and is one of the world’s biggest buyers of the machines. Local authorities plan to triple robot density to 150 per 10,000 human workers by 2020, data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence show.
The region is probably the area best positioned to withstand the shift, but Mexico and Costa Rica are most vulnerable, according to Moody’s.