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China Turns to Automation and Robotics to Solve Aging Problem

June 30, 2022

Read Time 8 MIN

The impact of an aging population has taken a toll on China’s economy. Industrial automation and robotics could be the solution.

We believe that China is at the beginning of a structural shift thanks to the country's policy support, demographic trends and technological progress. Furthermore, the ongoing trend of domestic substitution will likely provide a fertile breeding ground for local champions to be born and thrive – and our portfolio companies Shenzhen Inovance Technology Co., Ltd Class A (“Inovance”) (0.64% of Strategy assets)1 and Shanghai Baosight Software Co., Ltd. Class A (“Baosight”) (2.06% of Strategy assets)2 are a great example of that. These tailwinds make it an exciting time to invest in the thematic,3 and a deep understanding of the policy and technological landscape will be crucial for stock picking.

China’s Aging Population

The largest existential threat facing China is its declining population – the impact of an aging population on the country’s economy has the potential to be highly unsavory and should not be ignored by global investors. Industrial automation and robotics are the solutions to China’s aging population.

Problem – China’s population growth rate has decelerated to its lowest point in six decades. A higher cost of living, delayed marriages and a lack of social mobility are often cited as contributing factors.

Solution – Welcome to the world of China’s industrial automation! The country views industrial automation as a key component in its aging population playbook. It is no surprise that China now represents a staggering 30% of global automation, and continues to expand its role from a “final assembler” to one with a comprehensive end-to-end supply chain. Therefore, we believe that China is at the beginning of a structural shift thanks to its policy support, demographic trends and technology progress.

China’s Policy Support

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that it is critical for portfolio companies to be aligned with the goals of the Chinese government when investing in China.

So when China's 14th FYP (2021-25) and 2035 Long-Range Objectives unequivocally raised the strategic importance of the manufacturing sector (see Exhibit 18), the Investment Team knew it was time to roll up their sleeves and perform the rigorous due diligence. Our view is that China’s intention of sustaining manufacturing's current share in GDP will meaningfully reaccelerate investment growth in the sector (see Exhibit 19) and that China has a more than adequate set of tools at its disposal to achieve their goal (see Exhibit 22).

Manufacturing Sector as % of GDP

Exhibit 18: China’s latest FYP marks an inflection: it aims to reverse a decade-long trend of the declining importance of the manufacturing sector

Manufacturing Sector as % of GDP

Source: World Bank, Haver, Chinese government, China NBS, and Bernstein analysis.

Manufacturing Value Add vs. Fixed Asset Investment Growth

Exhibit 19: In the last decade, as manufacturing sector’s share in GDP declined, investment in the sector decelerated; the trend is now reversing with the 14th FYP directive

Manufacturing Value Add vs. Fixed Asset Investment Growth

Source: China NBS, China Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and Bernstein analysis.

Key Manufacturing Policy Tools in China

Exhibit 22: List of related policies explained

Category Policy Details
Subsidies Subsidy to automation capex Direct subsidy as % of automation equipment purchase
"Little Giants" (Zhuan Jing Te Xin) subsidy Flagship program to support technologically advanced manufacturing SMEs
Preferential tax and tariff Preferential VAT and profits tax rate Qualified high tech enterprises enjoy lower (or zero) VAT and profits tax rates
R&D tax deduction Extra 100% R&D expense tax deduction for manufacturing enterprises
Differentiated tariff Lower tariff for import of advanced technology (esp. when no domestic capability)
Capital/credit Credit & debt market access Easier access to debt market & lower interest rate for manufacturing enterprises
Beijing Stock Exchange New stock exchange to list technologically advanced manufacturing enterprises
Shanghai STAR board To promote the listing of smaller high technology-focused enterprises
Industry funds & investments Incl. gov't big fund and various private enterprise funds
Industry standards Rising industry standards New requirements on environmental protection, energy saving & safety standards
Collaborative R&D schemes Supply chain "self-help" Industrial clusters cooperate across the supply chain (e.g. R&D consortium)
Academia-industry cooperation To marry state and academic R&D resources with private sector needs and commercial opportunities
Military-civilian integration

Source: China National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Finance, State Tax Administration, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, multiple company reports, and Bernstein Analysis.
Bernstein, The Robot Renaissance – China Investment Global Implications.

Targeted technology upgrades are another key policy objective, targeting three main areas:

  1. Industry X.0 (e.g., green and smart manufacturing) that drives modernization of a wide range of manufacturing verticals.
  2. China is already in the lead and hopes to incubate global champions (e.g., high-speed rail, certain heavy equipment and AI).
  3. Supply chain bottlenecks where self-sufficiency in the long run is deemed necessary (e.g., high-end CNC, semiconductor manufacturing and special materials).

Although many policy tools have been in place for years, recently China's support for upgrade has become far more sophisticated and targeted. Rather than distributing broad-based subsidies to anyone whose company name happens to contain certain key words in their policy documents, more resources are being allocated to companies that are making real Research & Development (“R&D”) efforts, have met certain technology bars and show high potential to succeed.

China’s Demographic Trends

There are two main trends that are exacerbating the already tight labor supply dynamics:

  1. Since 2013, service-based industries are gaining workers at the expense of manufacturing. New economy jobs offer higher pay, better working conditions and greater flexibility (Exhibits 62, 65).
  2. The remaining workers are less willing to go out of their home province. With this trend, the imbalance of labor supply-demand sharply deteriorated in China's manufacturing hubs. For example, over 60% of manufacturing enterprises and employment are concentrated in Eastern China, while only 36% of migrant workers originate in the region.

For factory owners, automation is no longer a consideration based solely on cost parity — the intensifying labor shortage gives first-movers the additional advantage of stable production to win market share. Since the shift in China's demographics is a decade-long trend and its impact on automation has just become material for the first time, we think the strong automation demand in China will be enduring.

Migrant Worker Population

Exhibit 62: Migrant worker population in manufacturing sector peaked in 2012 and the decline is accelerating

Migrant Worker Population

Source: China NBS and Bernstein analysis.

Average Monthly Income by Industry & Sub-Sector 2020

Exhibit 65: “New economy” creating better options than working in factories

Average Monthly Income by Industry and Sub-Sector 2020

Note: Meituan rider monthly income is based on estimates by the Bernstein Asia Internet team; the Didi driver monthly income is based on estimates and analysis by the Bernstein Asia Logistics & Transport team. For more information on these stocks see Bernsteinresearch.com.

Data Source: Bernstein, The Robot Renaissance – China Investment Global Implications.

Import Substitution

China is making considerable progress toward internalizing its supply chains and import substitution will be another key growth driver for Chinese automation companies in the coming years. To date, local Chinese companies have experienced success in key components such as Variable Frequency Device (VFD)/Inverter and Distributed Control System (DCS), while the localization ratio of other products, such as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), sensor and industrial robots remain low.

Technology will be a key barrier to entry for most domestic automation players. Local companies that command minimal market share typically operate within verticals where products require complicated algorithms, advance chips and components. However, there are some companies, such as Inovance and Baosight, that are breaking through and emerging as local champions.

Western industrial tech companies will inevitably encounter stiffer competition, but it's not all doom and gloom. “Decoupling” is not part of China’s primary objectives – to move to high-value-add segments (i.e., shifting from making shoes and cement to making electric vehicles, high-speed trains, large aircrafts, smartphones, fuel cells, and innovative drugs, advanced industrial technologies, etc.) are in demand. These technologies span across domestic and foreign regions, and range from laser technology and industrial software, to robotics and CNC machinery. With this in mind, China knows better than to close the market to “protect” local players. Quite the contrary, the country has been encouraging the import of advanced technologies with its tariff scheme. Upgrade is the dominant goal, while local substitution is a by-product.

Inovance & Baosight – Leaders in the Automation and Robotics Space

Hardware – Inovance

Company Description:

Established in 2003 as a high- and new- technology company, Inovance focuses on the R&D, production and sale of industrial automation control products that are used in the equipment manufacturing, energy saving, environmental protection and new energy sectors.

Investment Thesis:

  • Inovance has successfully expanded its market share in servo system, inverter, small PLC, and SCARA robot – segments that have historically been dominated by foreign players. In the near term, we expect the company to continue to gain share at the expense of foreigners, as they struggle to cope with supply chain disruptions related to COVID lockdowns.
  • Over the long term, share gains will be driven by import substitution. In other words, by offering products that are of equal quality to their international peers, but at a meaningful discount.
  • Inovance will leverage its dominant position in verticals that are highly cash generative to fund its growth in electric vehicle and industrial robot end markets.
  • We expect the company to benefit from a potential rebound in China’s manufacturing FAI in 2H22, given their broad customer base that covers a wide range of industrial applications.

Software – Baosight

Company Description

Baosight is a software company listed in China’s A-Share market, its main business is digitizing the steel sector and making it more efficient through software and software enabled processes, such as combustion control systems for tempering furnaces and hot blast furnaces.

Investment Thesis:

  • Baosight is a proxy for the digitization of China’s steel industry. This is a profitable, growing software company that is contributing to the clean-up one of the dirtiest industries on planet earth. Namely, the steel sector in China.
  • Very few foreigners own the company and few know about it. Not only is this an automation play, but it is also a play on ESG.
  • Baosight stands to benefit from three key structural growth trends: 1) tightened government regulation on carbon emissions, 2) steel industry consolidation and 3) 5G-driven IoT and Industrial Internet applications.
  • Additional growth drivers come in the form of their growing data center business, where company is re-purposing its land to secure power quotas and break into the IDC sector.

Conclusion

For over twenty years, the VanEck’s Emerging Markets Equity Investment Team has worked hard to identify and invest in forward-looking, sustainable and structural growth companies centered on the demographic and technological growth trends shaping the transformation of emerging markets economies. In this blog, we wanted to showcase our investment philosophy and process through actual portfolio stock examples. In this case, we have identified China’s aging population as a problem and industrial automation and robotics as the viable solution to address it. As a result, we have expressed our views and conviction by doing heavy due diligence and investing in China’s leaders in the automation and robotics space – Inovance and Baosight.

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IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES

1 As of May 31, 2022.

2 As of May 31, 2022.

3 Defined as industrial automation and robotics thematic in this instance.

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