Consumer

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies and conglomerates. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

This could be Li & Fung Ltd.'s (very slim) chance to shine.

Donald Trump on Monday officially quashed the Asia-Pacific free trade pact that would have made it cheaper for U.S. companies to import goods from countries such as Vietnam and Japan. He has also threatened to institute a 45 percent tariff on goods imported from China.

Conventional wisdom calls for this to be the death knell of the world's middlemen -- companies such as Li & Fung that built global empires on the promise of helping Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc. and other Western companies find and manage factories to make their T-shirts and sneakers more cheaply than they could on their own.

Sinking Shares
Li & Fung is down 24 percent in the past year, compared with a 20 percent rise in the Hang Seng Index
Source: Bloomberg

But what if the consensus is wrong and a wave of protectionism actually helps tilt customers back into the arms of these intermediaries? An increase in the complexity of the global trading and tariff system could offer an opportunity for companies to win back clients who will need their expertise to negotiate the pitfalls of manufacturing offshore.

Trump's tariffs have been regarded by some as the last straw for these export trading businesses that have struggled after Wal-Mart and other customers brought more of their sourcing operations in-house. The rise of e-commerce giants such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have also made it faster, cheaper and easier for retailers to source goods online.

In response, shares in Hong Kong-based Li & Fung have sunk to near their lowest level since 2003. Its profit margin dropped to 2.05 percent in the last fiscal year from 3.4 percent in 2011. The company has promised to unveil a new turnaround plan this year, but the street isn't holding its breath: Only three out of the 14 analysts that cover the company have a "buy" rating on the stock, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 

Piggy in the Middle
Li & Fung's profit has fallen as Western customers face slowing demand and pricing pressures
Source: Bloomberg

It's worth considering whether they may be wrong. U.S. retailers are already reeling from slowing customer demand and deep price cuts back home. Companies are petrified that if Trump's China tax comes to fruition it will further pressure already slimmed-down profits on the 35 percent of U.S. goods made in China. By throwing out the Trans-Pacific Partnership, importers such as Nike Inc., which makes 40 percent of its goods in Vietnam and pushed hard for TPP, have seen $450 million a year in potential import cost savings disappear, according to the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America.

China Rules
Cotton textile imports to the U.S., by country
Source: Office of Textile and Apparel

But with 90 percent of the apparel purchased in the U.S. made abroad, it's almost impossible for America to abruptly stop relying on foreign production. That fear could push retailers to reconsider Li & Fung, if indeed the middleman can deliver lower-cost production.

There are other tailwinds supporting the trading company. It could benefit from moderating labor and production costs in China, and a weakening yuan will also cushion margins. Li & Fung buys more than half its products from the country, whose currency had its biggest annual drop in two decades in 2016.

Growth in Asia's domestic consumption offers opportunities. Already, Li & Fung has been able to boost the percentage of revenue coming from the region to 15.6 percent in the first half of 2016, up from 1.2 percent in the first half of 2010.

The big if, however, is whether Li & Fung can convincingly make a case that it can deliver on its founding principles of helping retailers navigate a confusing barrage of tariff structures and get the cheapest prices.

The company will need to work much harder to build up its factory network outside of China in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It will need to diversify its customer base away from the U.S,. which still makes up more than 60 percent of its business. And it will have to modernize its technology systems and online operations so that it can better compete with Alibaba.

Otherwise, the conventional wisdom that calls for Li & Fung's demise will be proven out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in New York at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net