Supply Chains – The NEVER EVER, NEVER AGAIN, Pick One

In the previous column, I opined that the good ship EVER GIVEN (a/k/a Never Ever, Never Again, or <pick one>) would be dislodged after three days. It took a few days extra, so the big boat was stuck for six days. The analysts were having a field day, again- intrepid writers expecting moderate (but not severe) disruptions are counting their lucky stars. In this season of religious holidays, at least some of my observant friends pointed out that there was again some heavenly intervention- with an extreme “King Tide”- which goes with a Blue Moon, helping out. The supply chains, generally, got very lucky. On a personal note, “my crystal ball broke quite a while ago,”, as I’ve said… hence no more forecasting hires and stock prices. Well, I got lucky re the disruption’s tenor. Clearly there would be egg on my face, or far worse, if the big vessel remained stuck for a week, or longer, as forecasting supply chain disruptions is fraught with all kinds of “yes but” considerations. So, religiosity notwithstanding, I count lucky stars for the overall supply chains (and for my batting average on the forecasting front).

The EVER GIVEN gave shipping an unimaginable amount of exposure, including “Memes” on social media; one of my favorites was an Egyptian style pyramid constructed out of containers, reminiscent of my visit to LegoLand back in the day. Some of the pundits out there suggested that a Covid-weary population was looking for a humorous (and not life-threatening) distractions from resurgences, spikes, and outbreaks. At least some of the coverage evoked piracy, adding a thrilling aspect to the story, and possible “human error”- adding some management (or not!) angles. But, ultimately, the various articles about the vessel grounding, in mainstream outlets and in specialized non-shipping media got into the $billions of dollars at stake for each day of shipping delays- a function of the sheer enormity in money, tons and pairs of sneakers (and Peloton workout machines) moving around all over the world. That’s a hugely important message. Unfortunately, as the vessels begin moving normally though the Canal, and perhaps speeding up to get closer to their original schedules, containerships and supply chains will move from the front pages (like the cover of “THE ECONOMIST” with a story called “Message in a bottleneck”) to the back pages, or maybe out of the news, completely. That would be a real shame.

THE ECONOMIST points to the importance of supply chains- saying “Global supply chains are still a source of strength, not weakness.” Through the years, there have been various feeble attempts for shipping to gain positive public exposure, though Denmark-centric efforts in the past two years (with an Environmental focus, so far) represent a wholesale improvement in telling the story. My suggestion is to infuse some supply chain angles into some of this messaging, with some not-so- subtle reminders of damage that might be done if big vessels were not plying the seas. By the way, most non-industry folks don’t know the difference between vessels described in TEUs versus those described in tons; that may be advantageous in crafting stories.

The investment side may also be a useful channel for such visibility. Shipping companies are becoming larger. As this is being written, a merger was announced in the tanker sector which will bring about 100+ vessel company with a market capitalization that takes it into the “mid cap” region. Most of the press stuff for listed companies has been formulaic and perfunctory. Again, it’s a legitimate communications channel that could (and should) be spiced up, and be used to paint a positive, and ongoing (yes, repeat exposure sells products)  picture of shipping’s importance.