Key Indicator: is the global supply chain too vulnerable to shocks?

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global supply chainFor years, businesses have seen the global supply chain as a means of keeping down costs through sourcing goods and services from low-wage countries and importing them often from across the globe.
This may work as a business model for manufacturers seeking to keep their prices as low as possible, and for retailers’ cash management where payment terms and just in time delivery often meant only having to pay for goods after they have been sold. Indeed, stock ties up cash in inventory and storage as well as incurring the cost of warehousing, storage and administering stock, the less stock needed then the less cash needed.
But what happens if events cause a disruption to the smooth flow of the global supply chain causing shortages of finished goods or the essential elements for their production?
The current Coronavirus outbreak that originated in China and is now spreading across the globe provides the perfect illustration of the knock-on effects of such disruption.
According to an Economist article this week, by using a just in time model “multinationals have left themselves dangerously exposed to supply-chain risk owing to strategies designed to bring down their costs”.
Furthermore, it argues that in the last 20 or so years, large multinationals have become much more reliant on China. “China now accounts for 16% of global GDP, up from 4% back then. Its share of all exports in textiles and apparel is now 40% of the global total. It generates 26% of the world’s furniture exports.”
Chinese manufacturing activity fell to 35.7 from 50 in January, according to the PMI index where above 50 is a measure of anticipated growth and below is decline.
Among the industries significantly hit by China’s containment efforts, from isolating regions of the country to closing down factories, have been the electronics, car and clothing industries but they are not likely to be the only ones.
Companies that have already reported significant negative effects have included Apple, Diageo, Jaguar Land Rover and Volkswagen. But the impact is not just on manufacturing but also is on services with BA owner IAG and EasyJet forecasting significant reductions in bookings and cancelling flights.
The reduction in manufacturing output will also hit freight with both shipping and airfreight experiencing lower volumes that in turn impact oil prices that have fallen significantly to below $50 a barrel for the first time since the summer of 2017, according to an article in the Guardian.
Efforts to restrict the movement of people have already caused the cancellation of the Motor Show in Geneva, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and MIPIM, the annual real estate jamboree in Cannes.
All this has worried investors with stock markets plummeting around the world, in the case of the FTSE100, down 13% by the end of last week – a decline only last seen during the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Is it time to rethink business’ reliance on the global supply chain?
The current situation with Coronavirus illustrates the vulnerabilities in an over-reliance on the global supply chain and particularly the disproportionate sourcing of inventory from East Asia and China.
However, there are other potential sources of disruption to the supply chain. They include the ongoing tariff wars between China and USA, extreme weather events such as the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and armed conflicts.
Notwithstanding all these factors, arguably the greatest factor is global warming and environmental damage. The mood around the world is changing and people are becoming increasingly worried about this.
The fall-out from Coronavirus may be heightening awareness but demands from consumers and investors for a more ethical and socially conscious sourcing is beginning to concentrate the minds of CEOs on their businesses’ vulnerabilities to the global supply chain.
Indeed a knitwear manufacturer based in Leicester, UK, is reporting an increase in orders from more local retailers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Will others follow suit?