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TheStreet Open House

China's Falling Exports Force Multinationals to Change Plans

TAIPEI ( TheStreet) -- China recorded a 3.1% drop in exports in June compared to a year earlier. Now, do long-term investors hold a celebration or a funeral?

The state-run Xinhua News Agency called the fall to $174.32 billion "surprising." But people who follow China's effort to retool -- and cool -- its economy will be less than startled by last month's official tally. It's part of a slow yet profound shift in the economy.

Exports have been gathering rust since about 2010 as an economic growth engine for China. It's not that multinational corporations (MNC) can't still make money off made-in-China, but wages tripled from 2000 to 2010, gaining 15% in some years, and the yuan is holding firm against other world currencies. Factory exports have naturally lost some shine.

Just for example, investment from Taiwan declined 17% last year as companies from the manufacturing center just offshore found better bargains in Southeast Asia and in a few cases went home. Taiwan is one of China's oldest and steadiest sources of outside investment.

This means that an MNC expecting forever high returns from its China exports alone may need to manufacture its own coffin unless it moves offshore or starts to produce for increasingly wealthy though increasingly picky Chinese consumers.

The export decline in June also may reflect weak global demand, trade friction with other countries and dodgy domestic spending habits, Xinhua said.

I'd bet my widgets the Chinese government wanted it this way. Its 2011-2015 five-year economic plan calls for fostering an environment to induce spending to parallel wage hikes and unstable demand in the West. In another sign of the same shift, the Communist leadership said in March that China needed better balance between its aggregate supply and demand.

After a decade of growth that raised as much world fear as excitement, the leaders aren't afraid of a few slower years as they pursue better balance. Economic growth came in at 7.8% last year, the slowest since 1999, and at 7.7% in the first quarter of this year. That's down from an average of 9%-10% per year in the decade from 2001.

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