Disconnect

If you believe what you read, 2022 will be a banner year for the freight industry. Wall Street analysts are bullish on container shipping. Logistics experts foresee strong demand for goods leading to continued supply-chain chaos. Ship lines, enjoying profits that were unimaginable only a year or two ago, are ordering new vessels at a record pace. Trucking companies are poaching one another’s drivers. Ports are rushing to deepen their channels and make space for bigger terminals, and new distribution centers seem to be under construction everywhere.

I don’t understand, though, how anyone could have a view about the prospects for trade and supply chains without having a view about the world economy. There’s a disconnect between the optimism about trade and shipping and the current economic reality.

Two years ago, as I like to remind people, ports, ship lines, land transporters, and even distribution centers on several continents were mired in excess capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Governments, fearful of a deep depression, massively stimulated their economies by handing out money to businesses and families. Central banks pushed short-term interest rates close to zero and loaded up on bonds to push long-term interest rates down as well; millions of homeowners took advantage of the opportunity to reduce their monthly payments by refinancing their mortgages, freeing up even more money for other purposes. Consumers in the wealthy countries, their incomes largely intact but their favorite restaurants and vacation destinations out of reach, abruptly shifted their spending to goods, especially durable goods.

But take a look now.

-Central banks, led by the Federal Reserve, are starting to tighten monetary policy by scaling back their bond portfolios and pushing interest rates up; even the Bank of Japan, which has kept its short-term interest rate at or below zero since 2011, is preparing to change course. As rates tick higher, the wave of mortgage refinancing that bolstered so many U.S. households’ buying power has crested, while the air is coming out of the property bubble that has supported the Chinese economy over the past several years.

-Governments are becoming more cautious about pumping money into their economies as inflation-fighting becomes a priority. Inflation is already eroding buying power, and less generous payments to workers who lose their jobs will further crimp consumer spending.

-Many of the families that binged on exercise bikes and lounge chairs and extra-wide-screen televisions over the past year are done with durables. They’re ready to return to their normal, services-heavy spending habits, and the impending drop in COVID cases will encourage them to do so.

All of these factors are likely to retard spending on the sorts of products that fill container ships and freight trains and over-the-road trucks. All along the supply chain, the return to normalcy may come as an unpleasant surprise.

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