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Coronavirus Will Stretch, Not Break, Global Supply Chains

Coronavirus Will Stretch, Not Break, Global Supply Chains

Monday, 25 May, 2020 - 05:00

Here’s a vision of how coronavirus might change the world.

Governments devastated by the pandemic and the costs of supporting locked-down and unemployed workers will reverse decades of retreat to take a more muscular role in their economies. Businesses that for years have outsourced production to China and profits to tax havens will bring those activities home. In an echo of the years after World War II, a new era of egalitarianism will replace an age of private excess and public deprivation.

It’s an alluring picture. Don’t count on it coming to life.

“Assume that at some point we get a vaccine or herd immunity and we go back to normal a year from now,” said Yossi Sheffi, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in logistics. “The question is, will we go back to globalization as it was before, or will we start bringing stuff back home?”

Top-down attempts to reform the global trading system in the aftermath of shocks to the world’s supply chains have rarely succeeded. The post-coronavirus world is likely to be little different. The growth in international commerce may indeed slow as growth stagnates — but the share of trade going to China and tax havens is more likely to grow than shrink.

Modern supply chains are often likened to biological systems in their complexity and interdependence. As with the coronavirus itself, a weakness in one part can metastasize into a sickness that causes the entire organism to collapse. As the pandemic has spread, limits on exports of medical supplies grew from a few locations to near-global prevalence. Problems with food trade, such as the restrictions on rice exports that Vietnam imposed in March and the closure of some of America’s vast meatpacking plants after virus outbreaks among workers, threaten a seizure in the food supply chains on which billions of people depend.

Worldwide automotive sales will fall 22% this year, according to IHS Markit, a deeper drop than the industry suffered during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Already in March, demand for air freight fell 15.2% from a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association — and the capacity available to carry it fell 22.7%, threatening a cargo crunch where insufficient planes are available to carry even the current reduced level of goods trade.

After a severe systemic shock, many of the efficiencies that make “just-in-time” lean manufacturing processes so productive can look like vulnerabilities. Shrinking inventory levels helps a company deploy its capital more effectively, but also leaves it without a safety net if a supplier shuts down. Purchasing materials in huge volumes from a small number of partners can drive down costs, but reduces the diversity of suppliers that companies need to recover from disruptions. Global supply chains allow companies to benefit from lower labor costs in emerging economies, but leave them exposed if trade tensions or pandemics tighten border controls.

“Supply chains are running on fumes and inertia now,” said Nada Sanders, a professor at Boston’s Northeastern University. That means the full impact of what's happening is mostly yet to be felt: “The medium term is going to be the most dangerous. Once winter comes in, I’m not optimistic.”

The next shoe to drop is likely to be cash. A fall in merchandise trade by as much as a third this year, as projected by the World Trade Organization, will put severe pressure on the revenue of every company operating across borders. Businesses will be looking for bailouts from governments and clemency from lenders — but supply chains will bear a large share of the strain, as companies look to conserve cash by taking longer to pay their bills.

Such payment delays are one of the oldest forms of finance.

The pandemic’s economic impact will leave large companies with strong balance sheets and the ability to access financial and government funds in a relatively stronger position.

In spite of President Donald Trump’s trade wars and increasing global suspicion of Beijing’s more nationalistic turn, China is in a good position to benefit from that trend. In the mid-2000s, the country was mainly a location for the final assembly of products such as smartphones, whose sophisticated components and intellectual property were produced elsewhere.

Yet even before Trump’s election, that era was dead. The share of domestic value-add in Chinese exports increased from 75% in 2005 to 85% a decade later, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, bringing an extra $1.25 trillion into the economy annually. Even as it climbed the value chain, China has relinquished surprisingly little of its low-margin industry to other countries.

Incentives, such as favorable deals on tax rates and land-use, continue to lure foreign businesses. China has 2,543 of the world’s 5,383 special economic zones, whose main attractions center on such benefits, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. That’s turned it into a one-stop shop for manufacturing businesses. They end up more exposed to one country, but less at risk of generalized disruptions from multi-country supply chains.

Foreign investment data suggests that the trade war drumbeats from Washington have done little to diminish China’s attractions. While investment inflows in recent years have declined with a global slowdown, the country’s share of the global total in the most recent four quarters was about 11% — roughly in line with its level through the late 2000s.

Last December, China posted a greater sum of exports than in any month in history. Japan’s stimulus package is providing $2.2 billion in support to companies that move their production out of China, but the country’s industrial giants seem reluctant to take the offer.

Even in America the trade war doesn’t appear to have changed behavior much, with foreign direct investments from the US to China actually increasing in 2019 to $14 billion thanks to large new projects such as Tesla Inc.’s Shanghai factory, according to a report this month by Rhodium Group, a research consultancy. That’s roughly in line with levels that have been little changed since 2005.


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