“Ship Happenings: The Miniseries” is a podcast that would not have existed without the epidemic, which persuaded consumers to start ordering couches and computer screens so indifferently that factories and ports around the world could not move.
But as furniture delays and car shortages began to dominate the headlines last year, Aitan Buchman and his colleagues saw an opportunity on the global shipping platform Freights.
“You never pay attention to anything until it breaks down,” said Mr. Buchman, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Part of it was the instability that, hey, people care.”
Freights, which began its podcast about the supply chain in November, is among the many data providers whose surprise and once-mysterious offers have been caught in the spotlight by a new epidemic of global trade and economy rules.
Not that Mr. Buchman was happy that everything was broken. But he saw that the freights could help. He and his colleagues had a wealth of shipping data and skills at their disposal, and they began to think of ways to share it with the world, creating an index of sea voyage times, publishing audio programs and increasing media presence.
What could be a small moment in 2022 is well settled. Nothing – not shipping routes, not consumer spending, not labor markets and certainly not inflation – seems to have behaved the way the coronavirus did before it hit early 2020.
Inflation is at its fastest rate in 40 years, and next week’s data will show that prices are up more than 8 percent year-over-year until March. Supply chains remain, employers desperate to fill open jobs, and Americans have surprised economists by spending right through rapid price increases and widespread uncertainty.
Researchers and policymakers are going blind, and both they and the general public are turning to experts like Mr. Buchman as they try to map out a new map of the changing economic landscape.
“A very select circle of enlightened people previously thought the supply chain was attractive, but it was not a widely shared emotion,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, a freight forwarding and customs brokerage company – which showcases the larger supply chain Deadpan. The audience, by comparison, is enjoying it now.
According to a profile kept by Bloomberg, Mr. Levy has mentioned 26 unique media outlets so far this year, after 26 in 2021 and 15 in 2020. Suddenly, every economist and economist writer seems to be a trade analyst, trying to figure out what could happen to supply and price.
Understand inflation in the United States
“Usually, when someone makes a prediction, you look at past experience,” Mr Levy said. “It has changed with the epidemic.”
The revolution began in the toilet paper isle. At the onset of the epidemic, consumers suddenly start shopping differently. Someone needs to go or manicure coffee; Everyone wants new home-office furniture.
As governments have repeatedly sent stimulus checks and offered more generous unemployment insurance and families have spent more time at home, Americans have spent a large portion of their budgets on products rather than consuming services before the epidemic. Although aid has faded and business has returned to normal, demand for things has remained unusually strong.
In the early days of the epidemic the world’s ships, ports, and factories fell behind and were unable to catch up completely. The situation is exacerbated by unexpected obstacles such as a large cargo ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal. The Ever Given has spent six idle days, drawing worldwide attention to the uncertainties of the supply chain and maritime trade – and the growing demand for experts who can explain it.
“It was a turning point in freight fame,” Mr. Butchman recalled fondly.
For Mr. Levy and his colleagues, the situation was not funny, the constant – the blockage was ready to cause problems for customers – but it did create a storm of memes on Flexport’s internal slack messaging channels. (One of the pictures stuck in his memory was a picture of a stranded ship with the caption “I told you not to listen to Waz’s instructions.”)
The Ever Given epidemic stands as a symbol of a larger event in the economy: disruptions continue to occur, throwing an already struggling system out of further disaster. The discrepancy between supply and demand has stifled inflation, which has surprised both policymakers because it has been so fast and because it has proven to be so long lasting.
And the rise of shipping extends beyond the world.
Companies are not finding enough workers, as the epidemic seems to have accelerated population change. Baby Boomers, who are entering retirement age, have left the labor market in large numbers – and it is unclear if they will return. Parents who have dealt with unexpected childcare have also left the workforce. Employers are battling the possibility that workers are in the midst of a “great resignation”, probably motivated by savings saved during the epidemic. Labor market deficits have given them the opportunity to ask for higher wages and better working conditions.
As we enter the third year of the coronavirus era, there are many economic mysteries: Will those workers return? Will America’s appetite for new couches ever be satisfied? Are there any prices that consumers don’t have to pay for the car?
Fiona Gregg doesn’t know all the answers. But he has data that allows him – and others – to come closer than they otherwise.
“I am now receiving inward requests from German asset managers, from all quarters – our own Federal Reserve Bank, the White House, etc.,” said Mrs. Gregg, director of consumer research and vice president of the JPMorgan Chase Institute.
At the beginning of the epidemic, the institute focused on a metric that was of great interest to many people: what people could spend. Now widely used graphic chase data shows how much cash families of different income bands have in their checking accounts in almost real time, and policymakers and Wall Street economists have been using it to measure the spending power of different groups of customers alike.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, which means your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it does today. It is usually expressed as an annual change in the prices of everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, clothing, transportation and toys.
“We now have a ‘Request Data’ button, and people are requesting it from all quarters,” said Mrs. Gregg.
He and his team have also written about the small impact that has extended the benefits of unemployment over keeping job seekers at home – a task that has found its way into major news outlets. Mrs. Gregg can feel the effects of her growing epidemic reputation: “The friends I haven’t contacted in a long time say, ‘Hey, it’s nice to see you at my breakfast.'”
Surprising information celebrities are reacting to the attention in different ways. Ms. Gregg, who has been at the institute since 2014, believes that increasing public awareness of its data will encourage new academic research, even if the epidemic is reduced.
At Freights, Mr Buchman thinks mainstream interest in shipping will fade, but he believes economists and companies will be more aware of the supply chain problem than ever before.
“We are in a part of the economy that we think of as the nuts and bolts of society,” he said, adding that it was a moment of “spreading the good news”.
And for Mr. Levy at Flexport, whose team was formed at the beginning of the epidemic, to somehow return to normalcy – whatever that means, and whenever it comes – would be welcomed.
“We’re keen to get to the point where we’re thinking about the supply chain,” he said. Fade, when container backlog will be normal or to update Flexport’s sea delivery timeliness index.
However, it is not clear when some version of normalcy will return. The supply chain goes from a mess. Labor shortages have shown no clear signs of easing, and policymakers are eagerly awaiting signs that inflation has cooled, but so far it has only accelerated.
Port stops and delays have shown signs of easing, but Ukraine’s war is pushing up oil and other commodity prices. It is also disrupting air travel, as planes fly around Russian airspace and carry light cargo to make long trips more affordable, threatening to disrupt global food supplies, especially grain supplies.
Mr Buchman said it could take six months to a year for supply chains to return to normal in any form – “the shipwreck” is not over yet.
In fact, it is possible that once power recovery begins, the ship will still happen.
Companies can invest so much in new ships and planes that the world ends in a new era of oversupply, Mr. Buchman said – what people like to call the “bullwhip effect.” If so, listeners may only need a podcast for it.