The fight against inflation starts at sea

“the cost of sending goods across the Pacific is still more expensive than it was before the pandemic. This price surge is a product of not only the delays and bottlenecks in the supply chain created by Covid-19 but also the huge increase in demand for consumer goods that followed. This demand was far greater than what shipping companies or American ports could handle. As a result, the price of shipping went up, creating increases in costs for importers and retailers within the United States. Those costs have now been passed on to consumers, which is partly why many everyday items are more expensive lately. (Surging gas prices, the war in Ukraine, and pandemic-era financial policies may also be driving inflation.)

Experts told Recode it’s unlikely that Biden’s crackdown on the shipping industry will significantly reduce the cost of products, even if it will make some meaningful improvements to operations at America’s ports. The small group of companies that dominate the shipping industry remain extremely powerful: They still benefit from longtime exemptions from antitrust laws and continue to wield enormous power.

The situation serves as a reminder that, while specific segments like the ocean shipping industry can play a massive role in influencing the prices of everyday goods, they’re also participating in the much larger economic system of supply and demand. This system involves everyone from the companies that build ocean vessels that shipping companies use to parents desperately trying to buy Barbie Dreamhouses for their kids. This complexity can make price increases extremely hard to rein in, even if you’re the president.”

“Factories, understandably, closed because of Covid-19, and that created manufacturing delays, threw schedules off course, and ultimately led to shortages of all sorts of products. The pandemic also meant that people spent more time at home, stopped buying services, and cut back on travel. As a result, they started to spend a lot more on consumer goods, goods that typically needed to be shipped to the US from abroad, primarily from countries in Asia. Shipping became harder to provide and much more in demand — which sent shipping prices skyrocketing.

Now these shipping companies are facing a lot more scrutiny as well as growing concern that they’ve used their longtime antitrust immunity to profit during a crisis. Before the pandemic, these carriers had an average operating margin of just under 4 percent, but during the third quarter of last year, that margin grew to more than 50 percent. This has made importing goods in the US much more expensive: At the end of June, it costs nearly $7,600 to rent a 40-foot shipping container traveling across the Pacific compared to about $1,300 in early 2020, according to one shipping industry index.

“Today, the top nine companies control 85 percent of the trade. Go back 15 years ago, the top 10 companies controlled 50 percent of the trade. They basically ran companies out of business and bottom up,” Sal Mercogliano, a maritime history professor at Campbell University, said. “They were in a pretty vicious rate war, and then all of a sudden Covid happens and rates go through the roof.””

“Enter the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which the president claims will lower costs and help fight inflation. The law, which was signed by Biden in June, empowers the Federal Maritime Commission, the agency that regulates shipping into the US, to investigate carriers’ practices and help craft new rules. The government will also create a more formalized way to track chassis, the metal frames that are used to carry shipping containers at the ports, and expand the commission’s powers when the ports are extremely congested. Finally, the law targets the increasingly common practice of ocean carriers transporting empty containers back across the Pacific instead of waiting to fill their cargo with American exports, including agricultural products that American farmers have sold to customers in Asia.”

“The global supply chain is made up of many different countries, companies, and people, which means that the price of a single good is influenced by myriad factors that are incredibly hard to control. That means that, for now, you shouldn’t expect Joe Biden’s mounting effort to regulate the shipping industry to have an immediate impact on the price of the stuff you buy.

In reality, the best way to lower the cost of shipping is for people to stop buying so many things that need to be shipped. Given that the economy doesn’t seem to be in a great place right now, that just might happen sooner rather than later. For what it’s worth, imports to the US seem to be declining, and American consumers appear to be returning to their pre-Covid spending habits.”

What’s killing the world’s biggest fish?

“The largest fish on Earth is a shark. Capable of reaching a length of up to 60 feet — roughly the height of a four-story building — whale sharks, named for their size, are so large that they make great whites look like minnows.

But even giants can disappear. Over the last several decades, more than half of all whale sharks have vanished from the ocean. Some populations have fallen by more than 60 percent.”

“A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that cargo ships are likely a leading cause of whale shark deaths. Often, where you find high densities of these endangered fish, you also find shipping traffic, the authors found, and ships are already known to strike and kill these animals.”

“Whale sharks are not the only roadkill. Vast cargo vessels harm many species of marine giants, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whales, and some smaller creatures, like sea turtles. Ships also emit loud noises that disrupt marine life and spew planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Shipping is a serious problem for giants of the sea,” said Robert Harcourt, a marine ecologist at Macquarie University in Australia who was not affiliated with the study. “We have an economy that’s derived from moving things around the world in a way that’s not taking into account the cost to the environment.””

“A good step toward decreasing collisions is figuring out where animals are most at risk, and that’s where this new whale shark study comes in. Large ships are required to report their locations, and the authors compared those points to the movement of hundreds of whale sharks, which they had previously tagged with satellite trackers. (This is no easy feat: “You’ve gotta have some nice long fins, a good pair of lungs, and sprint after it underwater,” said David Sims, a marine ecologist at the University of Southampton and a study co-author.)

The results revealed just how vulnerable these fish are: More than 90 percent of the ocean’s surface area that whale sharks use overlaps with the routes of tankers, passenger ships, and fishing vessels. Whale sharks tend to congregate near the coast, where shipping is especially busy”

“many of the sharks’ tracking devices stopped working when the animals entered busy shipping lanes, perhaps because they were killed by ships. (Some trackers even showed sharks swimming into dense shipping routes and then sinking slowly to the seafloor — “the smoking gun for a lethal ship strike,” as Womersley and Sims wrote in The Conversation.)”

“Making oceans safer for marine giants is conceptually simple, and one option is to route ships away from animal hot spots.”

“Even just slowing ships down can make a huge difference. The chance that a cargo ship will kill a whale falls to below 50 percent when it’s moving at around half speed (10 knots, or 11.5 miles per hour), compared to nearly 100 percent when it’s moving more quickly, according to one 2006 study.”

“there’s a big drawback to ships slowing down or going on a different route: It takes longer to deliver goods. That’s one reason studies like this don’t always translate into shipping restrictions. That drawback also makes alternative approaches, such as designing quieter ships or adding wildlife deterrents or propeller guards, appealing (although the benefits of these technologies aren’t well established).”

Biden Administration Deflects Blame on America’s Self-Inflicted Ocean Shipping Problems

“The Jones Act, more formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, places extremely strict, deliberately protectionist rules in place that can help explain why shipping prices are high.

The Jones Act requires that goods traveling between U.S. ports be carried by ships constructed in the U.S. and owned and operated by U.S. companies and workers. The ostensible purpose of this old law was to give U.S. maritime companies a domestic advantage over foreign competitors. In reality, the law has backfired magnificently. The domestic shipbuilding industry has collapsed because it’s just cheaper to build ships in other countries, giving a handful of companies complete market dominance. This means that most new ships are not compliant with the Jones Act, and attempting to break into the domestic market is oppressively expensive. Only 2 percent of the United States’ own domestic freight is transported by sea due to this law.

It also means it’s incredibly costly to import goods to isolated parts of the U.S. like Hawaii, Alaska, and territories like Puerto Rico. Ships compliant with the Jones Act cost three times more to build and up to five times more to operate than foreign counterparts. These calculations, Cato Institute Policy Analyst Colin Grabow notes, originate from our own federal government’s analyses.

The Jones Act has essentially created the exact same noncompetitive domestic environment that the Biden administration is blaming on foreign companies. In response to the administration’s complaints, Grabow observes that just two domestic carriers are responsible for almost all Jones Act–compliant ocean shipping to Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Guam. And consumers there have to pay through the nose for goods.”

Supply chain havoc is getting worse — just in time for holiday shopping

“Gadgets are particularly vulnerable to shortages because they include many different components. Consider all the parts that go into a PlayStation 5 or a new laptop, including their chips, outer shells, and screens. Many of these components require their own specialized manufacturing facilities, which are typically in different factories and often in different countries. For a device to be delivered on time, all of these parts need to be made in sync. Right now, that’s not happening.”

“Demand for these components has run up against efforts to contain Covid-19 in the countries where the production and assembly of many goods actually take place. Amid a recent delta variant outbreak and nationwide lockdown in Malaysia, the government designated electronics manufacturers critical businesses so that production could continue. In May, Vietnam directed vaccines directly to factory workers, while urging smartphone manufacturers working in the country, like Samsung, to do the same. (Vietnam’s Covid-19 challenges haven’t gone away: This past weekend, tens of thousands of workers fled the country’s commercial center after the government, which is still struggling to access vaccines, lifted pandemic lockdown restrictions.)”

““What will happen is that a phone will be delayed because they’re waiting on their plastic supplier, and the plastic supplier is waiting on the ingredient,” Penfield, the Syracuse professor, said. “It just takes one supplier — and it could be the base ingredient supplier — to fully screw up your supply chain.””

“All these problems mean that consumers are seeing rising prices and shipping delays for a wide range of products. So those looking ahead to the holiday shopping season might want to get an early start, and not just on consumer electronics.”

No, the supply chain mess is not a war on Christmas

“these shortages and delays are the product of many cross-cutting problems that have existed for years, including the Covid-19 pandemic, rising consumer demand, and a global and highly optimized manufacturing network that doesn’t adapt to change quickly.”

“What the pandemic did do was cause factories to shut down, usually because there weren’t enough workers, and that created shortages of products and components. Those shortages led to bottlenecks and delays in product manufacturing (if factories don’t have the parts to build something, it doesn’t get made and doesn’t get shipped).

As more shortages lead to more bottlenecks, the disruption causes problems in other parts of the supply chain, creating even more shortages, new delays, and higher prices. For example, automotive manufacturers haven’t been able to make cars and trucks, because they can’t get their hands on enough computer chips. Ikea can’t ship furniture parts from its warehouses to its stores thanks to the trucker shortage. A supply crunch for petrochemicals has driven up the cost of making anything that includes plastic, including children’s toys.”

“US companies have been moving more and more manufacturing abroad for decades, which means a growing amount of the stuff American consumers want to buy needs to be imported. Meanwhile, worsening conditions for truck drivers in the US have made the job incredibly unpopular in recent years, even though the demand for drivers has gone up as e-commerce has become more popular. That means that as Americans relied more on online shopping during the pandemic, getting goods from ports to doorsteps has been challenging.”

“Covid-19 has also affected consumer demand — namely, which products they want to buy and how much — creating constant changes that the supply chain just hasn’t been able to keep up with, especially lately.”

“This record number of imports is slowing down product deliveries. Cargo ships carrying holiday merchandise are waiting to unload their stock along the California coast, but there aren’t enough port workers to do the job. Those delays mean there are fewer containers available for manufacturers trying to send more products to the US, which only sets the supply chain back even more.”

“Pushing the Port of Los Angeles to operate 24/7 is Biden’s most direct action to date, and it’s supposed to ensure that an additional 3,500 cargo ships are unloaded each week. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which expanded its operations last month, are responsible for 40 percent of the containers brought into the US, so expanding their operations is supposed to speed up shipping nationwide, the White House says.”

“it’s not clear what Biden can do to fix the bottlenecks occurring higher up in the supply chain, like manufacturers running low on components and factories getting shut down abroad. While the White House has convened task forces to address these underlying problems, those efforts probably won’t bear fruit in time for the holidays.”

“In the long run, it’s possible that the US government can change policies that contributed to this situation in the first place. Politicians could shift their approach to trade, which has historically encouraged US companies to manufacture products abroad. Improving labor standards might boost working conditions for truckers and factory workers to make those jobs more appealing — boost global vaccine manufacturing and ensure that workers in other countries are safer from Covid-19 outbreaks. Admitting more people into the US could address a shortage of delivery and port workers.”

The great book shortage of 2021, explained

“Right now, distribution networks across the world are massively congested.

“Los Angeles — which is a major port of entry for the United States — New York, and New Jersey are all pretty full up,” says O’Leary. “We’re hearing reports of delays of weeks for getting things cleared.”

“Containers are not moving out of ports and onto trains quickly enough,” explains Chris Tang, a UCLA business professor specializing in global supply chain management. “And on top of that, all of the warehouses in the Midwest are full. So everything is stuck.”

An increase in online shipping in part of what’s driving the congestion. Meanwhile, the complications of Brexit and the internet’s beloved container ship Ever Given — both of which dramatically disrupted global supply chains — certainly aren’t helping ports empty themselves out faster.

Even more pressing, however, is a shortage of truck drivers. There just aren’t enough trucks on the road to pick up as much stuff as we’re currently shipping around the world. “We’re talking tens of thousands fewer truck drivers than we need,” says O’Leary.

And as stuff sits in warehouses, waiting to be picked up by increasingly scarce truck drivers, the price of storage goes up, adding to overall shipping costs. “It used to be around $3,000 per container,” Tang says. “Now the price is closer to $20,000.” The skyrocketing costs mean that companies selling luxury goods will take more warehouse slots, since they can afford them, while lower-priced goods, like books, compete for what’s left.

Barnes & Noble CEO Daunt notes that books do have one big advantage over other goods when it comes to shipping: They’re durable. “The reality is that books are fantastic because they don’t really perish, so you’re able to print lots of them in advance,” he says. “They’re incredibly robust, so you can send them through the most basic of supply chain routes. They’re not strawberries or peaches or delicate things.”

But right now, even the most basic of supply chain routes are finding themselves overwhelmed.”

“One of the big underlying problems when it comes to printing and shipping books is the same labor shortage that’s currently roiling the rest of the country. There aren’t enough press operators to get books printed, and then there aren’t enough truck drivers to get them to bookstores. Wages have gone up, but there still aren’t enough people working.

“In the whole national workforce, you’ve got 8.4 million unemployed but 10.9 million open jobs,” says Baehr. “That’s a two and a half million-person shortage, period, and that’s across all buckets. The book industry is getting hit with that just as much as the paper industry is getting hit with that just as much as the transportation industry is getting hit with that. It all just compounds on itself. It’s just a rough spot right now for the book business.”

“Simply put, the working-age population in the US has stopped growing,” says Gad Levanon, founder of the Labor Market Institute. “And the working-age population without a BA is shrinking quite rapidly.” That’s a major issue for the industries we’re discussing here because in general, people with college degrees prefer not to work in warehouses, as truck drivers, or in printing presses.”

Biden’s vaccine mandate has cargo giants in a pre-holiday panic

“A trade group for air cargo giants like UPS and FedEx is sounding the alarm over an impending Dec. 8 vaccine deadline imposed by President Joe Biden, complaining it threatens to wreak havoc at the busiest time of the year — and add yet another kink to the supply chain.”

“The deadline has been hailed by public health officials as a way of increasing vaccination rates as the country continues to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic. But business groups and conservatives have warned that it could have damaging economic impacts. The deadline brushes right up against the peak holiday season and as some of the biggest cargo distribution companies, including UPS and FedEx, are already battling unprecedented labor shortages.”

Biden Administration Affirms Support for Protectionist Jones Act, Throwing Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans to the Sharks

“Biden made it abundantly clear that he supports the Jones Act, a 1920 federal law that requires that cargo ships traveling between American ports be made in America and owned and crewed by American citizens”

“The Jones Act is an absolutely terrible law, designed purely for protectionist measures, that shields maritime companies and unions in the United States from competition. The consequence of the Jones Act is that a foreign commerce ship that goes to states like Hawaii or Alaska or to territories like Puerto Rico can engage in domestic trade in only one American port. It can travel to other American ports but cannot take on or deliver goods unless it goes to a foreign port and then returns. A vessel from Japan that’s heading to Los Angeles cannot also stop in Hawaii along the way and engage in commerce, despite the logical economic efficiencies in doing so.”

“The end result of this restrictive law is that only two percent of U.S. freight is transported by sea, despite our long coasts, our many ports, and island states and territories. It’s in part why we have to depend so much on trucks and trains for transporting goods, even along coastal regions. Cato notes that internal shipping is about half the volume it was in 1960, while rail and truck commerce both saw dramatic increases.

Nowhere are the burdens of the Jones Act more apparent than in places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. These restrictions distort market forces and significantly drive up the costs to transport goods to these places. The New York Fed calculated that it can cost twice as much to ship something from the American mainland to Puerto Rico as it does to nearby island nations like Jamaica. Puerto Rico actually imports jet fuel from other countries rather than the Gulf Coast because it’s just too expensive to get Jones Act-compliant vessels.

There’s no need to exaggerate the impact of the Jones Act on domestic transport costs because whenever a disaster comes around, like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, the government will temporarily waive the Jones Act’s requirements so that the costs of recovery aren’t quite as back-breaking.”

“”Among the obstacles to Jones Act reform is the complex web of special interests that benefit from preservation of the status quo. Among Jones Act supporters are U.S. shipbuilders, merchant mariners, various maritime unions, and those who actually believe the law is essential to national security.””