McKinsey's China oracle grades his hits and misses

Updated: 2013-10-08 07:31

(China Daily)

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Consultancy | Michael Barris

He blew it. Back in January, Gordon Orr went out on a limb. The Shanghai-based director with United States-based management consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted that China would surprise the world in 2013 by abolishing national holiday weeks.

With millions of Chinese just wrapping up their celebration of National Day, it's clear that his forecast missed the mark. But Orr, who has been publishing predictions for McKinsey for five years, admits that one was "more a hope than an expectation".

It was also just one of many calls Orr revisited recently as he graded his overall performance as a China prognosticator.

"Fifteen years ago, when the current structure of mandated vacation weeks was put into place, China's economy was very different," Orr, McKinsey Asia's director and chairman, explained in a report early this year titled "What's in store for China in 2013?"

"There was a real belief that, without mandated vacations, most workers would never get a holiday or have an opportunity to spend the income they were saving," Orr wrote. "Today, their compulsory holidays merely serve to saturate and overload the country's infrastructure - if anything, reducing the amount of money that people spend on travel and related services as more and more choose to stay at home."

Supporting the case for abolishing or at least phasing out vacation weeks, Orr wrote, was the ability of the contemporary middle class in China to "schedule their own vacations when they want to much more readily than they could in the past".

Years ago, "large numbers of State-owned and private-sector enterprises did not meet the legal requirements for vacations," Orr wrote. "But in the age of social media, even factory workers can now name and shame offending employers."

McKinsey's China oracle grades his hits and misses

In various roles with New York-based McKinsey, one of the world's most prestigious management consultants, Orr has lived in China for nearly two decades.

During that time, he has been a frequent speaker at the World Economic Forum's "Summer Davos" meeting of political leaders, academics and journalists in Dalian.

Before assuming the role of director and chairman of McKinsey Asia, Orr spent five years as managing director of McKinsey's Greater China offices. He was a key figure when McKinsey opened offices in Shanghai in 1993 and Beijing in 1995.

In July, after five years of publishing predictions about China, Orr looked back on the "good guesses, major misses and lessons" he learned as a China oracle. In a report called "Forecasting China," Orr identified what he considered the "highlights and lowlights" of his forecasts from 2009 to the present.

One call he admits he got "spectacularly wrong" was his 2009 prediction that China would leap to embrace electric vehicles. The government that year had called for 500,000 electric, hybrid and other "new energy" vehicles to be produced in the country by 2011. The actual volume turned out to be 15,000, including 10,000 electrics.

The fizzled expectations knocked 65 percent off the share price of electric automaker BYD Co, despite US investor Warren Buffett's notable 10 percent stake in the Shenzhen-based company, Orr wrote.

"In China, as elsewhere in the world, consumers have largely rejected electrics, and electric-vehicle technology has failed to live up to the commitments of Chinese companies," Orr wrote. "But the need for electric vehicles is still pressing - if anything, more so given the intense pollution in Beijing earlier this year."

Orr predicts "a second wave for electric vehicles in China, but "probably not on a major scale until after 2017".

Another forecast that landed wide of the mark was his 2011 call that China's government would "meaningfully reduce its stake in State-owned enterprises", particularly in the industrial companies overseen by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

"Instead," Orr wrote, "the status quo is well and truly held. Indeed, since 2010, the market share of State-owned enterprises has grown in numerous sectors".

He posted "some easy wins" in 2012, including projecting that sales growth in China's vehicle market would slow down. As overall sales growth that year plunged to 9 percent, from 32 percent two years earlier, domestic automakers took the brunt of it, seeing growth of just 5 percent.

Sales by major joint ventures between local companies and multinationals rose 11 percent. Only those at the highest end of the market enjoyed a 20 percent sales surge, notwithstanding the economic slowdown and the government's clampdown on so-called "conspicuous consumption".

Orr was only half-right when he forecast that same year that green investment would boom. While solar installations in China in 2012 doubled the 2011 rate, and quadrupled the 2010 figure, pushing China to the world's second-largest end market for solar installations, solar-module makers suffered from lower selling prices, weakening demand in Europe, industry overcapacity and rising trade barriers.

And how's he doing in 2013? So far, "it's too early to tell how my list for 2013 will fare," Orr wrote.

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(China Daily 10/08/2013 page17)