Most businesses changed strategies due to trade war: AmCham Singapore survey

Though 78 per cent of all respondents expressed concern about the trade war, only 14 per cent had a negative outlook for the coming six months.
Though 78 per cent of all respondents expressed concern about the trade war, only 14 per cent had a negative outlook for the coming six months.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Companies here spooked by the United States-China trade war are holding off on investments or cancelling them entirely, according to a survey out on Thursday (Dec 6).

It also found that firms have started looking into diversifying their presence in other countries and adjusting supply chains to secure components outside the US or China.

A small number are even contemplating relocating some or all manufacturing out of China and the US, with 5 per cent of firms thinking of leaving China entirely.

The survey, which was conducted by market research consultancy Blackbox Research in November for the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore, polled 179 member companies that have a presence in South-east Asia. Most were American firms.

AmCham Singapore executive director Ann Yom Steel told The Straits Times: "We are certainly seeing the impact of the US-China trade war reverberating on the business decisions of firms everywhere."

However, she noted that the one in three companies that did not change their strategies could be a sign of resilience, as these firms have been in the Asia-Pacific region for decades.

Because of that resilience, the approach for these firms tends to be less reactive and more long term, added Ms Yom Steel.

Mr Gerry Mattios, expert vice president in Singapore at consultancy Bain and Company, told a panel discussion on the survey's release that while firms may be mulling different strategies, it is still logistically difficult to move manufacturing operations.

"We have to remember that shifting manufacturing is actually very expensive and it is not easy, whether it is supplier quality, capacity issues or customs regulations with countries that they have not done business with before," said Mr Mattios. "Making those decisions is not something that can happen overnight."

While some market analysts see the shifting of supply chains to be a potential upside of the trade war for Singapore and the region, Mr Mattios said some bosses are looking at accelerating investments into automation elsewhere instead.

"If I am not able to manufacture in my factory in China any more because of labour arbitrage, shouldn't I be investing back in automation back in the US, since I was already planning to do that anyway," he added.

Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow associate Cindy Owens said another difficulty was the availability of skilled labor.

The 90-day ceasefire struck between the US and China at the recent G20 summit is also unlikely to resolve the intellectual property rights protection issues, said Ms Owens, though it is a positive sign that both sides are willing to come to the table.

The hour-long panel discussion at the AmCham office in Scotts Road ended on a cautiously optimistic note, with one panellist noting that the hard stance of the trade war could be an opportunity to change China's economic trajectory for the better by allowing better market access to foreign firms, for example.

Their optimism was mirrored by the survey results. 56 per cent of the firms polled maintained a positive outlook for the coming six months despite concerns over global trade tensions.