#57 – Inside Our Industry – How ‘Chaos’ In The Shipping Industry Is Choking The EconomyPosted on
If you have done much shopping lately, you have seen increased prices in nearly all product areas. Inflation surged in June at its fastest pace in nearly 13 years, as shown in the Labor Department’s announcement last week that the CPI (Consumer Price Index) rose 0.9% in June and 5.4% for the 12 months ending June. Chaos at America’s ports is certainly adding to the price surge, as shown in the following excerpts from an NPR post.
How ‘Chaos’ In The Shipping Industry Is Choking The Economy
June 15, 2021 | Greg Rosalsky | NPR.org
Whidbey Island is a lovely place about 30 miles north of Seattle on the Puget Sound. Most days the tranquil sounds of rolling waves and chirping birds provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. But these days, all is not so serene. Residents are complaining about the ruckus created by humongous container ships anchored off their shore.
Whidbey Islanders are getting a front row seat to the growing U.S. trade deficit, which is hitting record highs. It’s fueled by a surge in demand for imports, mostly from East Asia. There’s so much cargo being shipped to the U.S. from Asia right now that the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are chock-full of container ships.
On both land and at sea, the entire supply chain is struggling to keep up. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s become such a clusterfest that the U.S. Coast Guard has been redirecting boats to anchor off the coast of Whidbey Island and other places they typically don’t park. Ship crews are having to wait days, even weeks, for the chance to dock at the ports and offload their precious goods.
It’s the same story up and down the West Coast. In San Francisco Bay, the traffic jam of container ships has gotten so bad that the U.S. Coast Guard has been asking ships not to enter the bay at all.
The maiden voyage of the first container ship set sail from Newark, N.J., back in 1956. …these metal boxes enabled ships to carry dramatically more cargo, and, by standardizing shipping practices and using new machines to handle the boxes, shippers were able to slash costs and the time it takes to load, unload and transport that cargo. Economists credit these metal boxes with increasing the efficiency of shipping so much that it stitched the modern global economy together more than anything else — more than all free-trade agreements put together.
Now economists are concerned that the plumbing provided by these miracle boxes and the vessels that transport them is clogged. It’s making it more difficult for stores to restock their shelves, manufacturers, carmakers and builders to get the parts they need, and farmers to export their products. It’s an important reason, analysts say, that we’re seeing consumer prices surge.
How did shipping get topsy-turvy?
In the early days of the pandemic, global trade hit an iceberg and sank into the abyss. The decline of maritime shipping was so dramatic that American scientists saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study what happened to whales in the absence of a constant deluge of vessels. The noise from the ships apparently stresses them out — kind of like they’re currently stressing out the residents of Whidbey Island.
Greater tranquility for whales in the first half of 2020 was the result of shipping companies canceling their trips and docking their ships. Then the economy rebounded, and American consumers unleashed a tidal wave of demand that swept through the shipping industry when they started shifting their spending patterns. Unable to spend money on going out, many started spending their money (and their stimulus checks) on manufactured goods — stuff that largely comes from China on container ships.
At first, it wasn’t the ships that were the problem; it was the containers. When the buying spree began, Chinese exporters struggled to get their hands on enough empty boxes, many of which were still stranded in the U.S. because of all the canceled trips at the beginning of the pandemic. More importantly, processing containers here has been taking longer because of all the disruptions and inefficiencies brought about by the pandemic. Containers have been piling up at dockyards, and trains and trucks have struggled to get them out fast enough.
It’s been all hands on deck to supply ravenous consumers and businesses with the stuff they want. The resulting traffic jams at West Coast ports means it takes longer to unload stuff, which then extends the time it takes for ships to get back across the Pacific to reload.
The effects on the American economy
With so much shipping capacity bogged down, importers and exporters have been competing for scarce containers and vessels and bidding up the price of shipping. The cost of shipping a container from China/East Asia to the West Coast has tripled since 2019, according to the Freightos Baltic Index. Many big importers pay for shipping through annual contracts, which means they’ve been somewhat insulated from surging prices, but they are starting to feel the pain as they renegotiate contracts.
Rising shipping costs and delays are starving the economy of the stuff it needs and contributing to shortages and inflation. It’s not just consumers and retailers that are affected: American exporters are complaining that shipping companies are so desperate to get containers back to China quickly that they’re making the return trip across the Pacific without waiting to fill up containers with American-made products. That’s bad news for those exporters — and for America’s ballooning trade deficit.