Mexico's Maquiladora system, a darling of the 1990s and sometimes referred to as a template for special economic zone programs in other emerging economies, suffered a double whammy over the past two years. The first whammy, U.S. economic weakness, has a built-in light at the end of the tunnel: there is a question of timing, but the downturn in U.S. demand from competitive export processors abroad won't last forever, and somebody will be a winner on the upswing. But the second whammy is competition from China, and if there is light at the end of that tunnel, it is more likely from raging wildfires than soothing rays of daylight. As a result, direct investors are hesitant; speculators are pondering a bet against the peso that might pay off if exports and Mexico-bound direct investment don't recover; and financial officials are concerned about the bilateral and systemic risks that could eventuate if a turn-around doesn't come.
Mexico's comparative advantage lies in lower labor costs than the United States, proximity to developed North America, and--for some industries--somewhat lower costs due to different regulations on areas associated with high per capita income economies such as environmental protection. On the other hand, comparative disadvantages include an intrusive bureaucracy that is sometimes corrupt, sometimes simply hostile to the private sector; poor utilities and transportation infrastructure; under-investment in human development; and a less than dynamic industrial structure reflecting imperfect financial intermediation and residual statism. "Clustering" of the right industries doesn't always take place, and demonstration effects from vibrant new industries are too few, despite successes. Maquiladoras were a strategy for maximizing the comparative advantages and protecting investors from the disadvantages, thus tipping the scales and making it attractive for U.S. and other multinationals to come on down.
And come they did. Today there are 3,288 Maquiladora plants in Mexico employing over one million citizens, and accounting for half of the country's exports (see Table 1). But Maquiladora exports have fallen with the U.S. recession and rising Chinese competition. More than two hundred plants closed last year, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Most went to Asia--primarily China.
What is going on here? Mexico's comparative advantage over the world in its Maquiladora-intense sectors, as revealed by changes in share of world exports, didn't erode in the years leading up to the recent troubles. Mexico grew its global export shares in most of these industries significantly in the late 1990s. But as much as Mexico was changing, China was changing faster--and growing its share of global exports in most of these same industries even faster (see Table 2). That was a sign that there would be trouble when boom-times burst. Importantly, this wasn't just rooted in what China was doing right; it concerned what Mexico was failing to do to keep up: from 1996-2002 Mexico's Global Competitiveness Report ranking fell seriously from 33 to 45 (55 in terms of micro-economic competitiveness, or business environment), while China (despite fluctuations) moved from 36 to 33.
China's reforms challenge Mexico's comparative advantages head on, and make the disadvantages starker. China wins on low labor costs and many other costs of doing business, while quality control, technology diffusion, mid-level management skills, and physical infrastructure are improving fast enough to impress even skeptics and make Mexico's shortcomings in these areas more apparent.
What's left? Mexico's proximity to the U.S. market is the remaining hope. Proximity as salvation presupposes either the criticality of just-in-time timetables or else prohibitively high costs for shipping weightier goods. Looking at the comparative advantage data post-1996, there are a handful of sectors where Mexico stayed …