Tag Archives: Manufacturing

Information and Competition

It seems that competition regulators at the European Union are looking into whether “Big Data” is a potential threat to competition. The concern, apparently, is that a company may be able to use a trove of proprietary data about consumers in ways that foreclose competition — and that the assets changing hands in a merger could include enough data to give the merged firm an insurmountable advantage over would-be competitors.

There’s no doubt that control over data can affect competition. But it’s not so obvious how to ensure that consumers benefit.

Consider the logistics business. Every containership line publishes a schedule with the rate for moving one container from, say, Shanghai to Los Angeles. In practice, though, almost all ocean freight moves under confidential contracts between shippers and carriers. These contracts may be filled with contingencies providing for bonuses and penalties if the parties exceed or fail to meet their respective commitments. A large retailer, manufacturer, or freight forwarder has many such contracts in force at any one time, and it is always negotiating new ones. This means that big shippers have lots of up-to-date information about current shipping rates.

Now, imagine a small shipper, a modest retail chain rather than a Walmart or a Carrefour. Because of its size, this firm has only a handful of contracts with ship lines, and it may go months without negotiating a new one. It therefore lacks the current rate information its bigger competitors possess, so it will have a tougher time bargaining for the best rates. It may use a freight forwarder to get better rates, but then must pay the forwarder for its trouble. Either way, the smaller company’s information deficit will force it to pay more to move its goods than its larger competitors do.

This information disadvantage is one reason smaller retailers and manufacturers have been having such a difficult time. Their supply chains are comparatively costly to operate, on a per-container basis, and their higher costs make it hard for them to match their competitors’ prices. I suspect this is one reason we’ve been seeing increased concentration in so many industries. The big benefit from their control of big data about shipping costs; the small are harmed by their lack of information.

Is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is: it could be made mandatory to publicly disclose information about shipping costs. We actually tried such a policy in the United States in the early days of railroad deregulation. What happened? Railroads were reluctant to offer discounts to individual shippers when they knew that publicity would lead other shippers to demand similar discounts. Little freight moved under contract and rates remained relatively high. Only after confidential agreements were permitted did railroads’ freight rates fall and their service improve.

I think there’s a lesson here. Control of information can be anti-competitive, no question. But public disclosure of information can be anti-competitive as well, potentially raising costs for consumers. The EU will face a challenge getting the balance right.


Boxed In

There may be few business decisions more treacherous than buying a new containership. These aren’t purchased off the shelf; a ship line must make educated guesses about size, engine characteristics, propellers, and dozens of other factors—and then hope that its choices prove wise over a useful life of three decades or more. Once constant since the start of container shipping 60 years ago is that ship lines that guess wrong about which vessels to buy end up dead.

One of the questions shipping executives now ask their crystal balls is, “How fast should our ships go?” This was not a great concern in 2008, when the high price of oil and a slump in the amount of cargo first led ship lines to slow down their vessels, as it was assumed that speeds would be raised once business returned to normal. Since then, though, most of the dozens of new containerships that have come on line have been built to steam at 18 or 19 knots (roughly 33-35 kilometers per hour) rather than 24. This slashes fuel consumption and reduces emissions. It also sops up the excess capacity that ship lines have created by ordering mammoth new vessels, since more ships are required to provide the same frequency of service on each route.

Ship lines may love slow steaming and ships that carry 10,000 containers apiece, but their customers don’t. Megaships can take longer to load and unload than smaller vessels, and slow steaming means that it takes three to five more days to move a container across the Pacific than it did a decade ago. All of this increases longer transit times, which means that shippers must hold on to their goods for a longer period before selling them, raising costs. For companies moving time-sensitive products, such as apparel, longer transit times also increase the risk of losing sales when a product becomes “hot” and consumers are hungry for more.

Slow steaming looked brilliant when oil sold for more than $100 per barrel, as it did in 2008 and again from 2010 to 2014. Megaships seemed attractive when the demand on key containership routes was growing six or seven percent per year. With oil below $40 and the world economy heading into what looks like a prolonged period of slow growth, neither circumstance applies today. Which leads to the question of whether ship lines will again pay the price for having guessed wrong.

The World’s New Workshop

Sometimes a single number can reveal a great deal about economic change. Last week, I learned of one such number from Tsuyoshi Yoshida, the head of the American business of the Japanese ship line MOL: in 2013, more than half the waterborne cargo from Asia to the U.S. East Coast passed through the Suez Canal.

Why is this important? For the past 20 years or so, China has been the world’s workshop, shipping out tens of millions of containers stuffed with everything from acrylic resins to zippers. If they are destined for the Eastern United States and traveling by ship, almost all of those containers cross the Pacific Ocean and pass through the Panama Canal to ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Cargo from China to North America doesn’t move via Suez, because the Pacific route is much faster.

But now, China’s manufacturing sector is struggling, with factory output at an eight-month low. As wages in China rise and credit gets harder to come by, makers of labor-intensive goods such as clothing and toys are relocating to cheaper locations in Southeast and South Asia. From newly industrializing countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the fastest route to the U.S. East Coast is through Suez, not across the Pacific. In just four years, according to Mr. Yoshida, the proportion of East Coast-bound cargo from Asia that transits the Suez Canal has risen from 39% to 52%, indicating how quickly the shift away from China has proceeded.

This shift has to be worrying to the Panama Canal Authority, whose ongoing expansion project will allow larger ships to pass through the canal by 2015 or 2016. The canal widening, which may end up costing $6 billion or so, is premised on an increasing flow of cargo from Asia to the East Coast. But if other Asian countries supplant China as sources of U.S. imports, the Panama Canal may face a challenge meeting its traffic forecasts.


Where was the value added?

Folks are finally coming to understand that a lot of the value of things we buy represents the fruit of intellectual effort, not physical transformation. This is important, because it changes the way we think about things like the balance of trade in goods and the loss of jobs in manufacturing. Apple was one of the first companies to suggest that where its products are engineered, designed, and marketed matters much more than where they are put together, which is why the words “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” are stamped into the aluminum case of computer on which this post is being written.  On a holiday trip to Canada I noticed that Lazl, the company that made my ski poles, is pushing the same idea. The company wants you to know that its poles are “Designed in Canada.” The words “Made in China” are almost an afterthought.

SkiPolesDesignedinCanada SkisMadeinChina