What an Adult Tricycle Says About Bottleneck Problems Around the World

Catrike has 500 of its three-wheeled bikes in its Orlando, Florida workshop almost ready to ship to future dealers. Recumbent trikes ha...


Catrike has 500 of its three-wheeled bikes in its Orlando, Florida workshop almost ready to ship to future dealers. Recumbent trikes have been waiting for months for rear derailleurs, a small but crucial part that is built in Taiwan.

“We’re sitting on a $ 2 million inventory for a $ 30 coin,” said Mark Egeland, general manager of the company.

The business issues provide a window into how supply chain disruptions are rocking businesses in the United States and around the world, driving up inflation, delaying deliveries and exacerbating economic uncertainty.

It’s unclear when the growls will go away – and it is possible that they will get worse before they get better. The holiday season is fast approaching, American businesses are running light on inventory, and coronavirus epidemics continue to close factories around the world. Request for goods remains strong, as households use the money saved during months spent at home to buy sports equipment, sofas and clothes.

This could keep the pressure on global producers of goods and the transportation routes that serve them, even as consumers begin to shift spending toward dinner parties and theater tickets – a change that many analysts hoped would help the chains. supply to return to normal.

Crucial questions for economic policymakers are how long the problems will last and to what extent they will impact consumer prices, which have risen sharply this year, both due to data quirks and bottlenecks. ‘strangulation. Federal Reserve officials routinely say they expect faster price gains to be “transient,” but are careful to point out that supply chains are a major source of lingering uncertainty. which doesn’t tell how fast the quick wins will fade.

“I’m less in this ‘transitional’ camp,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, which tracks ocean shipments and helps importers plan so their parts can come in on desired dates. “And more in the ‘we have reason to worry’ camp.”

Container costs have exploded. Earlier this month, container shipping rates from China and East Asia to the U.S. east coast topped $ 20,000, down from around $ 4,000 a year ago. year. according to data from freight tracking company Freightos. These attractive high prices cause ships to abandon other routes, causing the problem to spread. And the navigation problems have been exacerbated by the associated imbalances: the boats are backup in ports, and as the demand for goods explodes in the United States, empty shipping containers were unable to return to China quickly enough.

Some suppliers consume higher production and transportation costs. Full Speed ​​Ahead, which produces cranksets for Catrike, saw its expenses increase as the demand for raw aluminum increased. Shipping costs are also four to five times what they were a year ago, said Mark Vandermolen, chief executive of the company.

Full Speed ​​Ahead has passed on “very little, if any,” of those cost increases to customers, he said, and he hopes “to keep prices as long as possible until they are no longer sustainable “.

But not all of Catrike’s suppliers have absorbed the rising costs, and whether higher prices for components make consumer products more expensive – actual inflation, as conventionally measured – depends on the how companies like Catrike and the dealers they work with decide to adapt.

Catrike increased its prices by $ 200 earlier this year, its first adjustment since 2010, to cover costs. But the company is at a “sweet spot” where it is outperforming its competitors by offering affordable products, so it would prefer to keep prices stable now, Mr. Egeland said.

He’s also cautious: Catrike didn’t print the prices in its latest catalog, in case the increase in spending made another increase necessary.

The Fed – which has primary responsibility for keeping inflation stable – has made it clear that it is content to look beyond a recent rise in inflation. If companies raise prices once or twice amid reopening challenges, the central bank can tolerate this as a one-time change.

Officials would be more worried if the price increases continued for months or years. If this happens, consumers and businesses could expect consistently higher prices. They could demand higher wages and a cycle of inflationary increases could start.

It will take time to find out if the bottlenecks will cause more permanent damage. Supply chains are still badly scolded. The time it takes for parts for one of Catrike’s suppliers to arrive by sea in North America from a factory in Indonesia has dropped to three months, and sometimes it takes four – double what he was taking before. Flexport estimates confirm that the problem is widespread along this sea route.

For Full Speed ​​Ahead, average transit times have dropped from about a month to seven weeks.

“There have been bottlenecks at, I would say, every step of the supply chain,” Vandermolen said. “Even though these are small bottlenecks, it adds up throughout the process.”

Mr Egeland believes it could take 12 to 18 months to sort out issues between Catrike’s suppliers, he said, and he doesn’t think the company will ever revert to the type of manufacturing process at most. just – with limited stocks – that she used to use. .

“It will be a hybrid until we are comfortable,” he said. “It’s probably the new normal.”

Consumer businesses, suppliers and transportation companies were unsure whether permanent adjustments were needed to deal with what could be temporary disruptions. And if they decide to grow, it takes time.

Companies are increasing their shipping capacity by more than 20%, but much of that won’t take effect until 2023 or later, based on new fleet orders being tracked by Ocean Shipping Consultants. The White House wants improve port capacity – which could reduce shipping costs and therefore prices in the long run – but that, too, is not a silver bullet.

In the meantime, the arrears are piling up.

“It’s there for the rest of the year, and it will only get worse because of the Christmas season,” said Ryan Petersen, CEO of Flexport.

Mr. Levy, the company’s economist, suggested that around the Chinese New Year in early February – when factories and shipping typically experience a lull – was probably the first thing that could start to normalize.

It might also help if, as stimulus check money is spent in the United States, consumer demand for goods begins to cool further. Retail sales data for July, released last week, showed the first signs of declining demand for furniture, cars and clothing.

And the future depends in part on the virus. Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University, predicted that the highly contagious Delta variant would most likely delay the return to normal until at least 2023. Since many parts of the world still have large unvaccinated populations, hot spots across the world could lead to more factory and port closures, she said.

“There is no doubt that we will continue to see stops,” said Dr Sanders.

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