Global shipping was in chaos even before the Suez blockage – Shortages and higher prices loom

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One of the world’s most vital trade arteries has been blocked by a quarter-mile-long container ship, creating a traffic jam that has ensnared over 200 vessels and could take weeks to clear.

But even before the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal earlier this week, global supply chains were being stretched to the limits, making it much more expensive to move goods around the world and causing shortages of everything from exercise bikes to cheese at a time of unprecedented demand.

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A prolonged closure of the key route between West and East could make matters much worse. Costly delays or diversions to longer routes will heap pressure on businesses that are already facing container shortages, port congestion and capacity constraints.

The grounding of the Ever Given is delaying shipments of consumer goods from Asia to Europe and North America, and agricultural products moving in the opposite direction. As of Friday, some 237 vessels, including oil tankers and dozens of container ships, were waiting to transit the canal, which handles about 12% of global trade.

“There’s been a great convergence of constraints in supply chains like I’ve never seen before,” said Bob Biesterfeld, the CEO of C.H. Robinson, one of the world’s largest logistics firms. The bottlenecks are widespread, affecting transport by air, ocean and road, Biesterfeld told CNN Business in an interview. “It really has been unprecedented.”

Suez Canal Authority via AP

Freight costs soaring

More than 80% of global trade by volume is moved by sea, and the disruptions are adding billions of dollars to supply chain costs. Globally, the average cost to ship a 40-foot container shot up from $1,040 last June to $4,570 on March 1, according to S&P Global Platts.

Those costs add up. In February, container shipping costs for seaborne US goods imports totaled $5.2 billion, compared to $2 billion during the same month in 2020, according to S&P Global Panjiva.

These expenses could soon mean higher prices for consumers, adding upward pressure to rising inflation — a nightmare scenario for Wall Street, which is already fearful that a spike in prices could force the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates sooner than expected.

“At the moment a lot of these costs are within the supply chains,” said Chris Rogers, a research analyst at S&P Global Panjiva. “I think it’s inevitable that it will be passed on to consumers — it’s just going to take time,” he added.

The coronavirus wreaked havoc on global supply chains last year, as lockdowns temporarily closed factories and disrupted the normal flow of trade. Economic activity slowed dramatically at the start of the pandemic, and the rapid rebound in trade volumes that followed caught companies off guard.

The import surge in the United States and elsewhere has led to a worldwide container shortage. Everything from cars and machinery to apparel and other consumer staples are shipped in these metal boxes. The factories that make them are mostly in China and many of them closed early in the pandemic, slowing down the rate at which new capacity was coming on stream, according to Rogers.

Containers are in all the wrong places

China’s exports recovered fairly quickly compared to the rest of the world. At the same time, major shipping lines had canceled dozens of sailings to respond to the earlier lull in trade. The result was that empty containers piled up in all the wrong places and couldn’t meet the sudden demand in Europe and North America for Asia-made goods.

The influx of imports has compounded problems at choked up ports, which are contending with labor shortages due to Covid-19 and a slowdown in operations caused by social distancing measures and quarantines.

Higher prices on the way

Companies have so far said very little about how they plan to respond to soaring freight rates but there are early signs that import prices are rising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US import prices experienced their largest monthly increase in January since March 2012.

“We anticipate strong demand from consumers to continue over the next couple of months and don’t see meaningful change in capacity over that short time period,” said Biesterfeld.

The cost to move goods by air, ocean, truck and train is now “structurally up” on 2019 and contracts reflect that, he added. “I do think the costs are real and eventually will manifest themselves for consumers,” he said.

The extent to which this feeds through to consumer prices will vary from one product to the next. Goods that rely more heavily on imported components will likely cost more. At the same time, if the cost of imported goods rises significantly or these products become less readily available, that could give domestic producers more leeway to increase prices, said Joanna Konings, a senior economist at ING.

Commerzbank analysts said in a note to clients on Friday that the Suez snarl up could cause oil to become more expensive for consumers because of higher tanker rates as a result of the incident.