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  July 7th, 2021 | Written by

3 Reasons Why it’s Going to Take Longer to Unravel the Current Global Logistics Mess

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  • Manufacturing and distribution capacity declined, but consumer demand didn’t.
  • Retailers will be buying more than what they need in the short-term to build their stocks to larger acceptable levels.

If you’re involved in global shipping or even a consumer who recently purchased furniture or other bulky items, you’re well aware of the sorry state of global logistics. The pandemic and its knock-on effects have created global shipping chaos and driven astronomical shipping costs. While we are all enduring the consequences, the big question now is when will global logistics return to normal? Will it happen after peak season this year? I am less optimistic about a quick turnaround. Here are three data points that highlight why I believe the current situation will drag on longer than anticipated.

Inventories are way down and retailers want to hold more of it in the future.

The pandemic created a unique situation. Manufacturing and distribution capacity declined, but consumer demand didn’t. Retailers have seen their inventories cut as consumers continue buying, but they cannot replenish their stocks. According to the US Census Bureau, the inventory to sales ratio is down more than 25% since the beginning of the pandemic (see Figure 1).

The chart also shows a general decline over 2 decades in the inventory to sales ratio, which is a testament to retailers and their logistics partner continually improving their supply chain performance. That trend is about to change as many retailers are deciding to hold more inventory as a hedge against greater supply chain uncertainty. So, what does that mean? Retailers will be buying more than what they need in the short-term to build their stocks to larger acceptable levels. This will continue to put more pressure on supply chains and logistics operations—not reduce it—even after the peak season ends this year.

Figure 1: Retail Inventory to Sales Ratio

Inflation is up, but still viewed as manageable and history says it can go higher before stunting demand.

The Federal Open Market Committee (the Fed) just released its revised forecast for inflation. The forecast did rise by 1% to 3.4% for the year; however, that is more than manageable and unlikely to suppress consumer demand as longer-term inflation is being forecasted at 2%. In addition, if inflation were to go higher, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that US import volumes would decline and take pressure off the current situation. The last time inflation breached 5%, as it did in May, was in August 2008 when it reached 5.8%. As you can see from the US maritime import chart (see Figure 2), import volumes continued to increase.

Figure 2: US Maritime Import Volume

Source: Descartes Datamyne

The economy continues to reopen and the Fed expects robust job creation through the fall. This is a good news/bad news story. As states continue to relax or eliminate COVID-19 related restrictions, parts of the economy such as restaurants, tourism and other service industries will return to more normal capacity, increasing demand for goods many of them import. The Fed is also predicting robust job growth into the fall. The continued opening up of business will drive job growth and consumer spending as those hit hardest by the pandemic have more cash to spend. Again, more pressure on global supply chains.

The protracted situation means that short-term plans that increase costs but get goods to market may make more sense than waiting for the global shipping situation to get better on its own. However, retailers and other importers should evaluate their supply chains now for the alternate sources and paths their goods take to get to market. This evaluation should take into account the impact that highly concentrated and congested trade lanes have on the risk to fulfilling customer demand. For example, the concentration of manufacturing in countries such as China and the use of ports like LA/Long Beach. We can see today the delays that are happening and it won’t take much to see additional delays at some level with disruptions in the future. Now is the time for importers to engineer the risk out of the supply chain.