On my copy of the first article on this topic I saw, Cindy Wang and Enda Curran’s “The World Economy’s Supply Chain Problem Keeps Getting Worse” (Bloomberg.com, August 25th), which quoted a Hong Kong CEO as saying “we can’t get containers” and “costs have been driven up tremendously,” I wrote that the root causes were not enough infrastructure, reluctance by businesses to raise prices, and foot-dragging on paying workers more. That was a start, but much has happened since. This piece, though, hit the main problems, such as the Chinese government closing “part of the world’s third-busiest container port at Ningbo for two weeks after a single dockworker was found to have the delta variant,” “the cost of sending a container from Asia to Europe is about 10 times higher than in May 2020, while the cost from Shanghai to Los Angeles has grown more than sixfold,” and a prediction from a Taiwan company president that the capacity shortage could last into the middle of next year.
From there, Costas Paris saw “shipping options dry up as businesses try to rebuild from pandemic” (Fox Business, September 12th). Here we learned that as “the shipping industry consolidated between 2016 and 2018,” “a handful of big shipping players control the majority of containers via giant vessels, leaving the world with fewer routes, fewer smaller ships and fewer ports.” A variety of infrastructure shortages, including not “enough manpower, trains, trucks and warehouses” along with too few unloading places, resulting in “forty or more loaded ships… waiting at anchor off the coast of Los Angeles on any given day in recent weeks.” Among others, Walmart and Home Depot, later joined by Costco and Target, have themselves chartered smaller ships able to dock elsewhere. Fourteen days later, The Wall Street Journal reported in “Cargo Piles Up as California Ports Jostle Over How to Resolve Delays” (Costas Paris and Jennifer Smith) that the average 40 waiting ships was now “more than 60,” worsened by the “port complex” closing “for hours on most days” and throughout Sunday in contrast with Asian and European 24/7 operations, and, due to insufficient warehouse capacity, becoming cluttered with empty containers.
On October 10th, Peter S. Goodman documented “’It’s Not Sustainable’: What America’s Port Crisis Looks Like Up Close” in the New York Times. He discussed the Savannah port, where the 80,000 containers “stacked in various configurations” there are half again the usual amount, and 700 of them “have been left… by their owners for a month or more.” There, though, they are improving, with “a $600 million expansion” involving “swapping out one berth for a bigger one to accommodate the largest container ships,” “extending the storage yard across another 80 acres, adding room for 6,000 more containers,” and expanding the “rail yard to 18 tracks from five to allow more trains to pull in, building out an alternative to trucking”
Some relief was announced on Wednesday, as “Biden Announces Measures at Major Ports to Battle Supply Chain Woes” (Ana Swanson et al., The New York Times), as “the Port of Los Angeles will operate around the clock.” That day saw only 25 container ships there waiting to unload, an improvement, though that still meant they were sitting for an average of “more than 11 days.”
How, beyond what Savannah and Biden are doing, can we free up the container port snarls? In “Liz Peek: Biden’s economy is stalled. Here’s what he must do now to unfreeze our supply chain” (Fox News, October 12th), the author recommends the president “bring together union bosses, transportation industry CEOs, medical authorities, and other interested parties,” and, maybe most importantly, consumers will need to accept more outages and higher prices. I endorse those, and add the need for longer port hours all over, higher pay for truck drivers and others in positions without enough employees, ample premium-rate overtime for union longshoremen and others already willing to take it on, a faster track to warehouse building, assessment and possible removal or shrinking of business regulations contributing to the jam, easing up on Covid-19-related outages, and quickly passing an infrastructure bill containing only the most urgently needed assistance. As companies see the demand and can manufacture what is needed, including ships suitable for smaller ports, the problem will go away with time, but for now, many of our jobs and a good chunk of our prosperity depend on getting past the worst of the current situation. We can do it – why don’t we?