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Global Shortages: How the World Ran Out of Everything

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EDITOR NOTE: Paring orders to remain flexible in industries that may have sudden shifts in supply and demand is nothing new. Toyota introduced this efficient practice half a century ago. It worked, and almost all companies followed. But this practice only works when the deviation from the norm is within or close to average expectations. Pandemics don’t fall within this range of expectations. So, orders were limited, to begin with, then lockdowns prevented the production and delivery of more products and orders, and now, with demand and consumption ticking up, supply across a wide swathe of sectors is incredibly low. The result is inflation due to supply chain disruption. Everything from certain grocery items to semiconductors used in cars and gadgets is in short supply. Even physical gold and silver supplies are rapidly depleting relative to their “paper” counterparts. One thing that’s not in short supply is paper money. That can help ramp up spending, but in the process, it dilutes the value of money, meaning that the value backing the dollar is now in short supply, so to speak. The Fed believes the outcome of these global shortages is manageable and predictable. We think the Fed is experiencing an “oversupply” in confidence and based on its own historical track record, that, especially, is something to fear, and something to “hedge” with sound money solutions.

Global shortages of many goods reflect the disruption of the pandemic combined with decades of companies limiting their inventories.

In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.

Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.

But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.

In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.

“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”

The most prominent manifestation of too much reliance on Just In Time is found in the very industry that invented it: Automakers have been crippled by a shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.

But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.

Just In Time has amounted to no less than a revolution in the business world. By keeping inventories thin, major retailers have been able to use more of their space to display a wider array of goods. Just In Time has enabled manufacturers to customize their wares. And lean production has significantly cut costs while allowing companies to pivot quickly to new products.

These virtues have added value to companies, spurred innovation and promoted trade, ensuring that Just In Time will retain its force long after the current crisis abates. The approach has also enriched shareholders by generating savings that companies have distributed in the form of dividends and share buybacks.

Still, the shortages raise questions about whether some companies have been too aggressive in harvesting savings by slashing inventory, leaving them unprepared for whatever trouble inevitably emerges.

“It’s the investments that they don’t make,” said William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.

Intel, the American chip-maker, has outlined plans to spend $20 billion to erect new plants in Arizona. But that is less than the $26 billion that Intel spent on share buybacks in 2018 and 2019 — money the company could have used to expand capacity, Mr. Lazonick said.

Some experts assume that the crisis will change the way companies operate, prompting some to stockpile more inventory and forge relationships with extra suppliers as a hedge against problems. But others are dubious, assuming that — same as after past crises — the pursuit of cost savings will again trump other considerations.

The shortages in the world economy stem from factors beyond lean inventories. The spread of Covid-19 has sidelined port workers and truck drivers, impeding the unloading and distribution of goods made at factories in Asia and arriving by ship to North America and Europe.

The pandemic has slowed sawmill operations, causing a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.

Winter storms that shut down petrochemical plants in the Gulf of Mexico have left key products in short supply. Andrew Romano, who runs sales at a chemical company outside Philadelphia, has grown accustomed to telling customers they must wait on their orders.

“You have a confluence of forces,” he said. “It just ripples through the supply.”

Steep increases in demand made pet food scarce and Grape-Nuts cereal all but disappear from American store shelves for a time.

Some companies were especially exposed to such forces given that they were already running lean as the crisis began.

And many businesses have combined a dedication to Just In Time with a reliance on suppliers in low-wage countries like China and India, making any disruption to global shipping an immediate problem. That has amplified the damage when something goes awry — as when an enormous vessel lodged in the Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.

“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”

Just In Time was itself an adaptation to turmoil, as Japan mobilized to recover from the devastation of World War II.

Densely populated and lacking in natural resources, Japan sought to conserve land and limit waste. Toyota eschewed warehousing, while choreographing production with suppliers to ensure that parts arrived when needed.

By the 1980s, companies around the globe were emulating Toyota’s production system. Management experts promoted Just In Time as a way to boost profits.

“Companies that run successful lean programs not only save money in warehouse operations but enjoy more flexibility,” declared a 2010 McKinsey presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.

Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.

“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”

Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.

“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.

Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.

Read more at TheNewYorkTimes

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