Market Watch

Potential Trouble Brews on the Horizon for Outsourced Manufacturing

Revenue for the year is downgraded; future prospects cloudy in light of global economic uncertainties

November 16, 2012

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The 2012 growth outlook for the outsourced manufacturing industry has vacillated since the year began Business activity was upbeat earlier in the year, and companies were generally optimistic about growth prospects for the second half. But while IHS forecasts still show the industry posting modest growth by year-end, the outlook for outsourced manufacturers has changed dramatically.

All the strength in the market now is concentrated among a small number of leading outsourced manufacturers—which are showing most of their growth with an even smaller number of major customers. For much of the rest of the industry, business is actually contracting as global growth has slowed amid a host of unfavorable elements, including the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, slowing expansion in China and a near stall in the U.S. economy.

IHS now estimates global outsourced manufacturing revenue will rise to $389 billion in 2012, up 5 percent from $369 billion in 2011. This represents a downgrade from our most recent forecast issued in June 2012 of nearly 10 percent growth in 2012. Growth this year is less than the 7 percent expansion of 2011, and is also considerably down from the 32 percent increase that the outsourced market enjoyed in 2010 after recovering from the recession.

Overall, new business activity is generally higher as customers of original equipment manufacturers look to outsourcing in order to reduce costs as well as to accelerate their supply chains. Even so, companies have sounded a cautious note in numerous conference calls over the past few months in which trends in the underlying electronics business were discussed. The phrases "stable," "modest" and "hopefully it gets better in the second half" were often heard.

Economics and outsourcing

Global economic weakness remains the major stumbling block for the electronics industry. In fact, many of the companies that IHS has spoken with recently have shifted their outlook from stable to lower.

In many cases future sales prospects are contracting as overall global growth has slowed amid economic challenges in Europe, China and the United States. And with economic growth slowing, most outsourced manufacturers may lower their earnings expectations for the rest of 2012.

Dependency on large customers

Much of the strong industry growth in the first half was highly geared to one company: Hon Hai, aka Foxconn, which owes a significant portion of its growth to just a small number of customers, including its largest client, Apple.

As Hon Hai is now the largest outsourced manufacturing provider by a factor of nearly four compared to its closest competitor, the direction of the IHS outsourced manufacturing industry forecast is highly correlated to Hon Hai and to its largest customers such as Apple.

Aside from these key customers that are still reporting very strong growth, there’s a high likelihood the market is entering a slowdown.

Strategies for outsourced manufacturers

In the face of economic headwinds and concerns about overdependence on a limited number of large customers to drive growth, IHS advises outsourced manufacturers to take three courses of action.

First, sharpen the focus on winning new sales as well as accelerating the time-to-volume for previously won business.

Second, get the financial house in order, as low rates make it both accretive to rework the capital structure as well as easier to negotiate better inventory terms with customers.

Finally, prepare for an upcoming decrease in demand and a protracted period of very modest sales. Outsourced manufacturers should work to control whatever factors they can, including expenses, hiring and capital spending.

Many companies are already addressing this slowdown head-on by undertaking such actions. Because of this as well as the memories from the Great Recession fresh in the minds of companies across the industry, IHS believes the industry will likely exit this period of sluggish growth in better shape.

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