A Christmas with barnacles and crabs but with far fewer toys than usual? With an abundance of nougats but a shortage in the malls of clothes at affordable prices? Welcome to the Christmas version of the Great Shortage, the disruptive global disaster that has followed catastrophes of the caliber of the Great Recession and the Pertinent Pandemic that survives vaccines. If we neglect ourselves, it will end up coinciding in time with that Great Electric Blackout with which they have threatened us for months, apparently with little or no basis.
Unlike the last of these biblical catastrophes, the great shortage is already a reality. It does not depend on whether or not an improbable thunderstorm takes us back to the stone age. The New York Times Last summer he dedicated a couple of articles to him, the first cautious, the second frankly apocalyptic. By then, the shortage in the first world of basic supplies, from silicon chips to production materials, was already quite evident, and it was assumed that this generalized shortage problem was leaving a large number of importing companies without stocks and with few possibilities. to recover them in the medium term.
Experts such as Willy C. Shih, a specialist in International Trade at Harvard Business School, attribute the shortage in part to the so-called Hibernation Syndrome: “As of the spring of 2020, with the COVID-19 crisis and the successive confinements, Many human beings acquired the habit of stockpiling, like polar bears, products that they might need in the medium term, from computer equipment to basic necessities such as flour or toilet paper, and this bubble of preventive consumption has laid the foundations of the current scarcity ”.
Those peaks of compulsive consumption (sometimes, as in the much publicized crisis of the toilet paper, close to mass hysteria) joined to a fundamental problem that was beginning to manifest itself in all its crudeness: the (relative) collapse of the maritime trade due to lack of containers. It is explained by the academic Jesús E. Martínez Marín, coordinator of the degree in Logistics and Maritime Business at TecnoCampus, an integrated center at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF): “The lack of containers has multiplied the price of maritime freight up to ten times, affecting to the entire supply chain ”. In mid-2020, the average cost of bringing a container from China was below 1,200 euros. Today it is close to 15,000, “which has created a completely unsustainable scenario for maritime trade and its main players.”
The ocean routes conspire against Christmas
Sea transport moves around 80% of the goods worldwide. Martínez explains that this is due “to the low relative cost compared to other means of transport.” In recent years, the routes between the large Asian ports in the Pacific Ocean and the importing economies of North America and Europe have established themselves as the main arteries of global trade. On March 23, the Ever Given, a container ship traveling from the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas to the Dutch port of Rotterdam, ran aground in the Suez Canal, blocking it for several weeks and creating a monumental bottleneck. The incident demonstrated, according to Shih, “how fragile our economies of scale are and how much we depend logistically on an intercontinental transportation system that can suddenly collapse with relative ease.”
Following the canal jam, periodic COVID outbreaks arrived in Chinese ports. And, above all, came the crisis of semiconductor chips, the first essential product to suffer the effects of the great shortage. Its extremely low availability forced industries such as automotive to take a sudden stop in their business plans. Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler or Ford began to close assembly lines and recalculate their production expectations downward until well into 2022.
It felt like the perfect storm was brewing. Some analysts began to consider plausible the hypothesis that a generalized collapse in supplies occurred in advanced economies already around Black Friday and, very especially, during the Christmas shopping period. Consumer expert Bradford Betz stated in Fox Business that “we are looking at the most expensive Christmases in recent history as a result of the breakdown of the supply chain.” Jennifer Blackhurst, professor of business analysis at the University of Iowa, predicted “a panic crisis” among consumers that would incite them “to buy more and do it as soon as possible, thus contributing to the breakdown of stocks and exacerbating the crisis of catering”. Journalist Anna Russell spoke at The New Yorker of “a Christmas ruined by scarcity”, with “prohibitive prices” and difficulties in finding “products as basic as milk.”
Without cars or plasma screens, but with prawns and Iberian ham
In Spain, lists of everything that, supposedly, we will not be able to find in stores from mid-December have proliferated for weeks. Cars, televisions, computers and mobile phones lead the majority of rankings on impending shortages, but products that we have become accustomed to importing, such as coffee or butter, are also expected to be conspicuous by their absence. Even bread would be severely affected by poor harvests in Russia, the world’s largest wheat importer.
Meanwhile alarmism, voices such as that of Fernando Bretón, professor of the Master’s degree in Logistics Management at the International University of La Rioja, invite caution. In statements to Europa Press, the academic recalled that “there have always been occasional stock breaks” and that the imminent collapse of world trade continues to be, to this day, a very unlikely scenario. In Breton’s opinion, consumers should be “restless but not worried” and, above all, plan their purchases with foresight and good sense.
Martínez Marín is of the same opinion, although he clarifies that news such as the arrival in Spain of the Ómicron variant of the coronavirus could change the trend, which right now is “back to normality”. The expert highlights that “the ports have already begun to decongest, the emergency policies that have been applied are working and freight rates are beginning to drop.” Martínez takes into account that “as explained by the theory of queues [un modelo matemático que estudia interacciones complejas entre procesos de producción y tiempos de espera y que se aplica en campos como la industria, los negocios o el comercio], the most severe effect will be seen in times of greater demand, such as the Christmas season ”, because the underlying problem, the delay in containers from Asia, persists.
By contrast, the shortage of alcoholic beverages that was predicted a few weeks ago now seems less likely. And Martínez believes that “local products and those produced in nearby countries, whether in Europe or North Africa, will not be in short supply and will be more competitive than usual given the scarcity of alternatives from Asia.” A high percentage of food products fall into this category, including those in high demand during the Christmas period, such as shellfish or nougats. We will also have Iberian ham, a product of high seasonal consumption that is abundant in our country and is also imported from European countries such as Hungary or Romania.
Looking to the future, Martínez considers that it is reacting against the excess of dependence on containers from the Asian Pacific: “A business relocation project is already underway. The market learns quickly, the closure of the Suez Canal has already sent a very clear message that has been taken into account ”. Many companies “will relocate factories to countries closer to or belonging to the European Union” so that their business model is not compromised “by uncontrollable external factors.” In particular, they are looking for places that offer “certain tax benefits and, above all, that allow them to guarantee transport to consumers in a faster, cheaper way and with the best possible quality.”
That is to say, that in future Christmases we may increasingly enjoy handmade toys made not only in China, but also in Albania, Ukraine or Morocco, and garments sewn in factories in Algeria, Serbia or Turkey. In the meantime, may the good topdressing ham from the Carpathian slopes serve us as consolation if in the end we cannot find a laptop these days at a more or less reasonable price.
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