How ‘Chaos’ In The Shipping Industry Is Choking The Economy

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.

“We’ve never seen them this close before,” a Whidbey Islander told a local news station. “We’re hearing the throbbing noise at night. … It’s a nuisance.” The noise has been so loud that residents have been complaining to the county sheriff’s office about it.

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.

“We are seeing a historic surge of cargo volume coming into our ports,” says Tom Bellerud, the chief operations officer of The Northwest Seaport Alliance, which manages all cargo processing at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. “The terminals are having a difficult time keeping up with processing all the cargo off these vessels fast enough.”

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. Robert Blomerth, director of the USCG’s San Francisco Vessel Traffic Service, said last week that there were 16 container ships waiting in the open ocean outside the Golden Gate to get in and unload their cargo. He says it’s “completely abnormal.”

When we spoke to Gene Seroka, the head of the Port of Los Angeles, he said his port had 19 ships waiting to dock and they’re now waiting, on average, about five days to get in. In normal times, they don’t have to wait at all.

Lars Jensen, CEO of Vespucci Maritime, has spent 20 years studying the industry and he says what’s going on is unprecedented. “The container shipping industry is in a state of chaos that I don’t think it has ever been since it was invented,” he says.

The maiden voyage of the first container ship set sail from Newark, N.J., back in 1956. It may be hard to fathom just how big a deal this innovation was. It was just a big ship that carried containers, literally metal boxes. But 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.

“The pandemic has exacerbated longstanding problems with the nation’s supply chain, not just at the ports but in the warehouses, distribution centers, railroads, and other places that need to run smoothly in order for Longshore workers to move cargo off of the ships,” says Cameron Williams.

He’s an official at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dock workers, primarily on the West Coast. Dock workers have been working through the pandemic to handle the increased cargo volume, he says, and at least 17 ILWU workers lost their lives to COVID-19. “We continue to work hard and break records month after month to clear the cargo as quickly as the supply chain allows,” Williams says.

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.

That congestion was already creating massive delays on both ends of the shipping supply chain, tying up large numbers of containers and ships and leading to growing backlogs and shortages. Then, in March 2021, the Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, got stuck in the Suez Canal in Egypt. While the blockage didn’t directly affect the Asia-West Coast shipping corridor, it added to the global shortage of ships and containers by stranding even more of them out at sea.

As if all this weren’t enough, last month there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the Yantian International Container Terminal in China, which is normally one of the busiest ports in the world. The Chinese government implemented stringent measures to control the outbreak, and as a result, more than 40 container ships had to anchor and wait. “In terms of the amount of cargo, what’s going on in South China right now is an even larger disturbance than the Suez canal incident,” Jensen says.

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.

As for when it’s going to get better, none of the people we spoke to believes it’ll be anytime soon. And it’s not even considered peak season for the shipping industry yet. That typically begins in August, when American stores start building their inventories for the back-to-school and holiday seasons. The residents of Whidbey Island may have to continue dealing with the nuisance of gigantic, noisy ships cluttering up the horizon for the foreseeable future.

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Source: How ‘Chaos’ In The Shipping Industry Is Choking The Economy : Planet Money : NPR

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References:

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China’s GDP Surge Is Chance To Reboot Country’s Image On World Stage

China’s economy had a great 12 months, leading the globe out of the Covid-19 era. Yet the last year has damaged something equally important: Beijing’s soft power.

Beijing’s handling of questions about what happened in Wuhan—and why officials were so slow to warn the world about a coming pandemic—boggles the mind. If China’s handling of the initial outbreak was indeed the “decisive victory” that it claims, why overreact to Australia’s call for a probe?

Harvard Kennedy School students might one day take classes recounting how China’s leaders squandered the Donald Trump era. As the U.S. president was undermining alliances, upending supply chains, losing allies, and playing down the pandemic, Beijing had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase the country’s influence at Washington’s expense.

And now, many in Beijing appear to understand the extent to which they blew it. Earlier this month, Xi Jinping urged the Communist Party to cultivate a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image globally. It’s the clearest indication yet that the “wolf warrior” ethos espoused in recent times by Chinese diplomats was too Trump-like for comfort—and backfiring.

The remedy here is obvious: being the reliable economic engine leaders from the East to West desire.

The Trump administration’s policies had a vaguely developing-nation thrust—favoring a weaker currency, banning companies, tariffs of the kind that might’ve worked in 1985, assaulting government institutions. They shook faith in America’s ability to anchor global finance. The last four years saw a bull market in chatter about replacing the dollar as reserve currency and the centrality of U.S. Treasury debt.

China is enjoying a burst of good press for its gross domestic product trends. Not just for the pace of GDP, but the way Xi’s team appears to be seeking a more balanced and sustainable mix of growth sources. Though some pundits were disappointed by news that industrial production rose just 6.6% in May on a two-year average basis, it essentially gets Asia’s biggest back to where it was pre-Covid-19.

China is getting there, slowly but surely. Far from disappointing, though, data suggest Xi’s party learned valuable lessons from the myriad boom/bust cycles that put China in global headlines since 2008. That was the year the “Lehman shock” devastated world markets and threatened to interrupt China’s meteoric rise.

Instead, Beijing bent economic reality to its benefit. Yet the untold trillions of dollars of stimulus that then-President Hu Jintao’s team threw at the economy caused as many long-term headaches as short-term gains. It financed an unproductive infrastructure boom—one prioritizing the quantity of growth over quality—that fueled bubbles. It generated a moral-hazard dynamic that encouraged greater risk and leverage.

Unfortunately, Xi’s government doubled down on the approach in 2015, when Shanghai stocks went into freefall. The impulse then, as in the 2008-2009 period, was to throw even more cash at the problem—treating the symptoms, not the underlying ailments.

The ways in which Team Xi restored calm—bailouts, loosening leverage and reserve requirement protocols, halting initial public offerings and suspending trading in thousands of companies—did little to build a more nimble and transparent system. The message to punters was, no worries, the Communist Party and People’s Bank of China have your backs. Always.

Yet things appear to be changing. In 2020, while the U.S., Europe and Japan went wild with new stimulus schemes, Beijing took a targeted and minimalist approach. Japan alone threw $2.2 trillion, 40% of GDP, at its cratering economy. The Federal Reserve went on an asset-buying tear.

The PBOC, by sharp contrast, resisted the urge to go the quantitative easing route. That is helping Xi in his quest to deleverage the economy. It’s a very difficult balancing act, of course. The will-they-or-won’t-they-default drama unfolding at China Huarong Asset Management demonstrates the risks of hitting the stimulus brakes too hard.

The good news is that so far China seems to be pursuing a stable and lasting 2021 recovery, not the overwhelming force of previous efforts. And that’s just what the world needs. A 6% growth rate year after year will win China more soft-power points than the GDP extremes. So will China accelerating its transition from exports to an innovation-and-services-based power.

It’s grand that President Joe Biden rapidly raised America’s vaccination game. That means the two biggest economies are recovering simultaneously, reinforcing each other.

China’s revival could have an even bigger impact. Look at how China’s growth in recent months is lifting so many boats in Asia. In May alone, Japan enjoyed a 23.6% surge in shipments to China. Mainland demand for everything from motor vehicles to semiconductor machinery to paper products is helping Japan recover from its worst downturn in decades. South Korea, too.

The best thing Xi can do to boost China’s soft power is to lean into this recovery, and provide the stability that the rest of the globe needs. Xi should let China’s GDP power do the talking for him.

I am a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” My journalism awards include the 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary.

Source: China’s GDP Surge Is Chance To Reboot Country’s Image On World Stage

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Critics:

The economy of China is a developing market-oriented economy that incorporates economic planning through industrial policies and strategic five-year plans. Dominated by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and mixed-ownership enterprises, the economy also consists of a large domestic private sector and openness to foreign businesses in a system described as a socialist market economy.

State-owned enterprises accounted for over 60% of China’s market capitalization in 2019 and generated 40% of China’s GDP of US$15.66 trillion in 2020, with domestic and foreign private businesses and investment accounting for the remaining 60%. As of the end of 2019, the total assets of all China’s SOEs, including those operating in the financial sector, reached US$78.08 trillion. Ninety-one (91) of these SOEs belong to the 2020 Fortune Global 500 companies.

China has the world’s second largest economy when measured by nominal GDP, and the world’s largest economy since 2014 when measured by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which is claimed by some to be a more accurate measure of an economy’s true size.It has been the second largest by nominal GDP since 2010, which rely on fluctuating market exchange rates.An official forecast states that China will become the world’s largest economy in nominal GDP by 2028.Historically, China was one of the world’s foremost economic powers for most of the two millennia from the 1st until the 19th century.

The Chinese economy has been characterized as being dominated by few, larger entities including Ant Group and Tencent. In recent years there has been attempts by the Xi Jinping Administration to enforce economic competition rules, and probes into Alibaba and Tencent have been launched by Chinese economic regulators.

The crackdown on monopolies by tech giants and internet companies follows with recent calls by the Politburo against monopolistic practices by commercial retail giants like Alibaba. Comparisons have been made with similar probes into Amazon in the United States.

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