Supply chain problems have gotten so bad that Derek Thompson at The Atlantic deigns to notice them:
The coronavirus pandemic has snarled global supply chains in several ways. Pandemic checks sent hundreds of billions of dollars to cabin-fevered Americans during a fallow period in the service sector. A lot of that cash has flowed to hard goods, especially home goods such as furniture and home-improvement materials. Many of these materials have to be imported from or travel through East Asia. But that region is dealing with the Delta variant, which has been considerably more deadly than previous iterations of the virus. Delta has caused several shutdowns at semiconductor factories across Asia just as demand for cars and electronics has started to pick up. As a result, these stops along the supply chain are slowing down at the very moment when Americans are demanding that they work in overdrive.
The most dramatic expression of this snarl is the purgatory of loaded cargo containers stacked on ships bobbing off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Just as a normal traffic jam consists of too many drivers trying to use too few lanes, the traffic jam at California ports has been exacerbated by extravagant consumer demand slamming into a shortage of trucks, truckers, and port workers. Because ships can’t be unloaded, not enough empty containers are in transit to carry all of the stuff that consumers are trying to buy. So the world is getting a lesson in Econ 101: High demand plus limited supply equals prices spiraling to the moon. Before the pandemic, reserving a container that holds roughly 35,000 books cost $2,500. Now it costs $25,000.
The container situation is even weirder than it looks. With demand surging in the United States, shipping a parcel from Shanghai to Los Angeles is currently six times more expensive than shipping one from L.A. to Shanghai. J.P. Morgan’s Michael Cembalest wrote that this has created strong incentives for container owners to ship containers to China—even if they are mostly empty—to expedite the packing and shipping of freights in Shanghai to travel east. But when containers leave Los Angeles and Long Beach empty, American-made goods that were supposed to be sent across the Pacific Ocean end up sitting around in railcars parked at West Coast ports. Since the packed railcars can’t unload their goods, they can’t go back and collect more stuff from filled warehouses in the American interior.
And what about the truckers who are needed to drive materials between warehouses, ports, stores, and houses? They’re dealing with a multidimensional shortage too. Supply-chain woes have backed up orders for parts, such as resin for roof caps and vinyl for seats. But there’s also a crucial lack of people to actually drive the rigs. The Minnesota Trucking Association estimates that the country has a shortage of about 60,000 drivers, due to longtime recruitment issues, early retirements, and COVID-canceled driving-school classes.
In short, supply chains depend on containers, ports, railroads, warehouses, and trucks. Every stage of this international assembly line is breaking down in its own unique way. When the global supply chain works, it’s like a beautifully invisible system of dominoes clicking forward. Today’s omnishambles is a reminder that dominoes can fall backwards too.
However, there are two important words missing from Thompson’s analysis: “vaccine” and “mandate.”
- The latest industry to suffer shortages: paints and plastics.
Like other manufacturers, petrochemical companies have been shaken by the pandemic and by how consumers and businesses responded to it. Yet petrochemicals, which are made from oil, have also run into problems all their own, one after another: A freak winter freeze in Texas. A lightning strike in Louisiana. Hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.
All have conspired to disrupt production and raise prices.
“There isn’t one thing wrong,” said Jeremy Pafford, managing editor for the Americas at Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), which analyzes energy and chemical markets. “It’s kind of whack-a-mole — something goes wrong, it gets sorted out, then something else happens. And it’s been that way since the pandemic began.’’
The price of polyvinyl chloride or PVC, used for pipes, medical devices, credit cards, vinyl records and more, has rocketed 70%. The price of epoxy resins, used for coatings, adhesives and paints, has soared 170%. Ethylene — arguably the world’s most important chemical, used in everything from food packaging to antifreeze to polyester — has surged 43%, according to ICIS figures.
The root of the problem has become a familiar one in the 18 months since the pandemic ignited a brief but brutal recession: As the economy sank into near-paralysis, petrochemical producers, like manufacturers of all types, slashed production. So they were caught flat-footed when the unexpected happened: The economy swiftly bounced back, and consumers, flush with cash from government relief aid and stockpiles of savings, resumed spending with astonishing speed and vigor.
Suddenly, companies were scrambling to acquire raw materials and parts to meet surging orders. Panic buying worsened the shortages as companies rushed to stock up while they could.
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