M&As overdue in vendor sector

07 Apr 2006

So Lucent and Alcatel have tried and succeeded where CNOOC and Dubai Ports failed.

In the current protectionist environment, that's an achievement already.

By the time the merger is consummated - as long as 12 months away - you can be sure a raft of other M&As will be underway in the over-serviced vendor sector.

Despite shedding half a million jobs when the bubble burst five years ago, the number of major comms suppliers has not changed. The business isn't big enough for all of them.

The latest stimulant has been the spate of giant carrier amalgamations in recent months, further shrinking the customer base.

Convergence doesn't fully subscribe to the view that vendor consolidation is all a result of the Chinese.

For sure, the Chinese vendors are making serious inroads, in particular in developing markets, by competing on price.

But it's hard to see that they are taking serious numbers of jobs from western rivals. One reason is that all vendors have established major businesses themselves in China.

The larger reason is that the evidence doesn't show any major loss of US manufacturing jobs to the mainland.

Oxford Economics notes that China's share of the bilateral merchandise trade with the US has remained at the same level for a decade. Financial Times columnist Guy de Jonquieres writes: 'The US is still the top manufacturing nation, producing almost a quarter of global output, the same as in 1994, while Japan's share has shrunk.'

No differentiation

For those of us wearing Chinese shirts and socks, this appears counter-intuitive. But it merely reflects the low value of most of what is made in the PRC. Indeed, two-thirds of the value of Chinese products is imported. China is less the world's factory than assembly center.

The Chinese government's campaign to promote 'independent innovation' should be seen in that light.

But the biggest driver of all behind vendor market consolidation is commoditization of the comms equipment market.

The massive custom switch with proprietary software has gone the way of the $5 IDD call. Today's it's all softswitches on open standard platforms.

Proof of this is the Chinese vendors themselves. They offer no differentiation other than pricing.

The comms vendors are treading in the footsteps of the computer sector 15 years ago.

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