CORONAVIRUS

Supply chain shock going global

It started in China and became like 'a rolling natural disaster'

In the past few days, a supply chain crisis that began earlier this year with Chinese factories has spread into key indu
In the past few days, a supply chain crisis that began earlier this year with Chinese factories has spread into key industries elsewhere that had weathered the effects until now. (Dreamstime/TNS)
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The world’s supply chains are facing a root-to-branch shutdown unlike any seen in modern peacetime, as efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak hit everything from copper mines in Peru to ball-bearing makers in Germany’s industrial heartland.

In the past few days, a supply chain crisis that began earlier this year with Chinese factories has spread into key industries elsewhere that had weathered the effects until now.

The shutdowns are contributing to the growing conviction that the world has slipped into its first recession since the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

“This is kind of a rolling natural disaster,” said Ethan Harris, head of global economic research at Bank of America. “In terms of the impact on global production, the shutdown outside of China will likely become bigger than the impact from China.”

The shock to supply chains, Harris said, is deeper and more sprawling than the trade wars of the past two years and likely to be more prolonged than the storms, earthquakes or floods that have been a source of stress for major industries in the past.

He expects factory shutdowns will last into May and possibly longer.

Compounding the blow for companies, the initial supply shock has become interwoven with a demand crisis in Europe, the United States and other major economies as workers and consumers are ordered to stay home.

Suppliers

Apple, for example, is confronting the effects on component makers in Italy, Germany, Malaysia and South Korea after having weathered the February slowdown in Chinese factories that do the final assembly of products such as iPhones and AirPods.

In Malaysia, key suppliers such as Murata Manufacturing, Renesas Electronics and Ibiden have halted production as a result of restrictions on movements imposed by the government. Micron Technology is affected, too, but said an exemption allows “limited semiconductor operations to continue.”

Texas Instruments and On Semiconductor also have facilities there.

Peru’s state of emergency and nationwide lockdown have led major mining companies such as Freeport-McMoRan and Newmont to curb copper production there. The same is happening in other mining centers such as Chile, Canada and Mongolia, with economists at Scotiabank saying the initial result from the hit in Chile and Peru alone leading to the loss of some 325,000 metric tons of copper production, or about 1.7 percent of global annual output.

In Europe, industrial giants such as Volkswagen and Airbus have shut down assembly lines in an effort both to reduce the spread of the virus and to deal with parts shortages and bottlenecks due to restrictions on travel within Europe.

Bottlenecks

While governments in the region have pledged to safeguard the transport of goods as borders are shut to other nonessential travel, traffic disruptions have started to escalate.

Trucks lined up for 40 miles near Berlin after the German border to Poland was closed, and diverting passenger cars to alternatives routes brought little relief.

The car industry is particularly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. Its fine-tuned logistics are designed to keep storage times to only between one and two months.

The push into electric cars has added to complexity because production of battery cells requires a steady flow of materials like lithium and cobalt.

Germany’s Schaeffler Group, which employs 87,000 worldwide and is a major supplier to carmakers, joined peers on Thursday in hammering out emergency plans to cut capacity in Europe and avoid layoffs. Those include reducing working hours and cutting production on certain days.

Detroit Shutdown

Anton Posner, CEO of supply-chain management and consulting company Mercury Resources, said the move by General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to temporarily shut down their U.S. plants will reverberate not only through their suppliers of finished parts but in steel, aluminum and transportation.

“We have ships loading steel in Europe next week headed for the U.S., but will there be shipments beyond that with industry shutting down?” he asked. “Who’s going to hold inventory if there’s no consumption?”

U.S. steelmaker Commercial Metals said it’s still at work and facing postponements, not yet cancellations.

“So all these jobs are going to come back,” CEO Barbara Smith said.

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As her company is heavily dependent on infrastructure and other construction projects, she also is worried about job sites being shut down due to infections. All of that has left an enormous cloud of uncertainty hanging over her business, even as she continues to book contracts, such as one on Thursday related to a highway expansion in Dallas.

“How can I give guidance when I don’t know how long it’s going to last or what all the ripple effects will be?” she asked. “I think it’s irresponsible for anyone to make assumptions right now.”

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