A supply chain crunch that was meant to be temporary now looks like it will last well into next year as the surging delta variant upends factory production in Asia and disrupts shipping, posing more shocks to the world economy.
Manufacturers reeling from shortages of key components and higher raw material and energy costs are being forced into bidding wars to get space on vessels, pushing freight rates to records and prompting some exporters to raise prices or simply cancel shipments altogether.
China’s determination to stamp out Covid has meant even a small number of cases can cause major disruptions to trade. This month the government temporarily closed 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. Earlier this year, wharves in Shenzhen were idled after the discovery of a handful of coronavirus cases.
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, according to the Drewry World Container Index. The global supply chain has become so fragile that a single, small accident “could easily have its effects compounded,” HSBC Holdings Plc. said in a note.
At the heart of the price pressures is the transportation bottleneck.
Big retailers tend to have long-term contracts with container lines, but Asian production relies on networks of tens of thousands of small and medium-sized producers who often arrange shipping through logistics firms and freight forwarders. They in turn have been struggling to secure space for clients as vessel owners sell to the highest bidders.
Some 60% to 70% of shipping deals on the Asia-America route are done through spot or short-term deals, according to Michael Wang, an analyst at President Capital Management Corp. He said auction-style pricing may continue until Chinese New Year in February 2022.
Buyers agree. In Germany, more than half of the 3,000 firms polled by the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce expected widespread supply-chain problems to persist into next year.
For Asian factories outside China, the problem is even worse. Many Chinese companies are willing to pay above-market rates to load their cargo, said a spokesman at HMM Co., South Korea’s biggest container line. So when the ships call at ports outside China, they’re already almost full.
Chinese companies that spent decades shifting production of lower-value components to cheaper labor markets in South and Southeast Asia now face the headache of trying to get those parts to factories where they can be assembled into finished products.