The world might still be battling to control COVID-19 but the signs are that the global economy is ready to roar once more. Record prices for some commodities (though not oil this time), surging consumer demand and an investment craze that stretches from US teenagers’ bedrooms to Chinese skyscrapers is propelling the positive mood.
But there are snags in this perfect sounding antidote to a near-death experience. A lack of semi-conductors has forced some auto production lines to slow or stop, shortages of basics like raw and semi-finished construction materials are threatening to squeeze the recovery just as it gathers pace.
There are human shortages too; not least because the thousands of people who lost their jobs during 2020 are either unwilling or unable to return to work until the vaccine roll-out widens. Of course, there are many millions of workers for whom that has never been an option. A global vaccine program for seafarers is yet to appear though localised initiatives are increasing.
Physical events are being compounded by black swans; the Colonial Energy pipeline hack, a similar attack on a US meat producer and the storms that shut down US petrochemical production on the Gulf coast have played a part.
The impact of the virus on the supply chain and in turn on the world economy could best be described as critical. Striking first in China, the virus paralysed production and movement of goods as well as exports. Severe lockdowns quickly capped the spread but the problem did not go away.
Now the virus is back where it began, with news website Splash 247 reporting that the number of containers unable to move from south China because of a Covid-19 outbreak around Yantian Port had by June 1 already surpassed the volume of boxes held up in March when Ever Given grounded.
While lines have rerouted some ships to other ports, these facilities are not able to handle all the extra box flow. There are around 40 ships waiting at anchor for a slot to open up in Yantian. Splash cited analyst Lars Jensen in saying: “Every day increases the pile of backlogged cargo. Once the ports re-open to normal operations we should expect a surge of cargo – at least to the degree there are even vessels available to handle this. This in turn will cause ripples of potential congestion at the destination with a lag time of some two to five weeks.”
The delays will also disrupt empty container flows back into South China and create an additional ripple effect, potentially slowing the next wave of exports.
On the west coast of the US, a combination of COVID impact and consumer demand has strained vessel availability and port capacity to its limits. Consultancy Maritime Strategies International suggests that a combination of fiscal stimulus and the economic rebound has supercharged US consumer spending, which rose 10.7% year on year in Q1 21, the second fastest pace of expansion since the 1960s and culminating in retail sales (excluding food) over Q1 21 surging 16.4% year on year.
“However, the fact that a greater proportion of the Biden administration’s stimulus cheques are being saved or used to pay down debt than previous stimulus packages may also improve household finances and prolong the uptick in consumption beyond the latest stimulus round,” it added.
The result of this exuberance has been to tie-up US West Coast ports to a record degree. Congestion levels at the major North America container gateways are now expected to persist until the summer as the consumer-driven import boom continues.
April 2021 saw 31% year-on-year growth in containerised imports to the US from Asia, a new record, with 1.57m teu arriving from Asia – the tenth consecutive month for year-on-year growth. “The container import boom shows no sign of slowing as lockdown eases. This high volume is set to stay with us for the months ahead as the economy recovers,” Brendan Neary, associate director PIERS by IHS Markit told The Loadstar.
The impact is felt beyond short term shortages and outages: the bigger question is whether a supply chain designed to operate on a just in time basis can flex sufficiently when presented with major disruption.
“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School told the New York Times recently. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, [we] have concentrated risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”
This new awareness might instead begin the process that the Pandemic paused; nations taking steps to secure their supply chains and using economic muscle to protect their economies. Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a review of the supply chains of four key products – semiconductor manufacturing and advanced packaging, large capacity batteries, critical minerals and materials, pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Its report suggests that a new approach is required to take back control. Instead of prioritising efficiency and low costs, the report urges that security, sustainability and resilience become the driving factors in supply chain decision-making in order to revitalise the US manufacturing base and secure strategic supply.
However, whilst it is true that the container market is behaving exuberantly, it is not the case that fundamentals-based analysis has broken down; the response of container lines has been entirely predictable.
MSI notes that in the first five months of 2020 more than 2.1 million TEU of new tonnage was contracted at the shipyards. Whilst many of the mega-max orders in the 24,000teu range at the end of last year were expected, the ferocious ordering of 15-16,000teu vessels for the surging Transpacific trade was not. Some things it seems, do not change.