A time of crisis, such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, exposes the weaknesses of inter-dependency and systems and in this case, the global supply chain.
There is perhaps also no better time to review things and perhaps change from the short term thinking that seems to have dominated economics and businesses, especially in those economies like the USA and UK that rely heavily on the purchase of foreign goods.
It is clear that it will be a long time before life returns to normal and it is not yet clear what that “normal” will look like.
In the previous “normal” it was possible to rely on adequate supplies of raw materials for the production of various types of goods, such as food stocks on supermarket shelves.
But one of the first signs of the disruption to come was the rapid emptying of supermarket shelves as people panicked and bought large supplies of various items, for example toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pasta, in anticipation of the coming lockdown.
Another sign of disruption is the price of oil which has plummeted leaving tankers around the world mooring off-shore waiting for prices to rise before offloading their oil.
There has also been the saga of medical equipment such as ventilators to treat those hospitalised seriously affected by the virus and of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers treating them.
Similarly, as various crops were ripening, it became clear that there might not be enough seasonal workers available to pick them, as many farmers had been relying on seasonal workers coming into the country from Eastern Europe.
All these examples provide lessons in the inter dependence of supply chains that support a “just in time” model of global business.
As Larry Elliot wrote in a Guardian opinion piece in mid-April: “The past 30 years have seen global markets – especially global financial markets – increase in both size and scope. Long and complicated supply chains have been constructed: goods moving backwards and forwards across borders in the pursuit of efficiency gains”, meaning that capital flowed in and out of countries equally quickly and there was no thought of building any capital reserves.
In an era of weak growth since the 2008 global financial crisis, he says, “What this amounts to is a world clinging on by its fingertips, even in what passes for the “good times”.
The global supply chain, just in time model effectively did away with large, local warehousing attached to manufacturing units as much as to food stores. It relies heavily on a continuous supply of materials and ingredients being delivered by a well-functioning international and national transport system.
In the UK, particularly, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking for years as the economy has pivoted to rely more heavily on the tech and financial services industries.
The reasons for the decline in manufacturing are myriad but largely down to the long-term investment needed and short-term expectations of investors of a swift return on their investment.
The lack of planning for a rainy day has also been highlighted. This observation is not just of the UK government that has failed to invest in the storage of equipment supplies but it also applies to businesses that have not built up capital reserves and consumers who do not have any savings.
In fairness, it has also brought out the best of those many businesses that have adapted to survive through agility by quickly re-designing their business models and production lines such as those who are now producing hand gel or selling goods outside their shops, restaurants or pubs.
While a short blog cannot hope to analyse all the flaws of a global supply chain model in detail, it has become clear that there are vulnerabilities both to businesses and to national economies that rely on international suppliers and the short term thinking that has driven it.
The return to ‘business as usual’ that is increasingly being demanded may not be possible given how long social distancing may have to continue. How many businesses will cease trading altogether as a result and how many people will lose their jobs will be major factors when we get round to reviewing our trading relationships.
This could therefore be a good time for businesses, economists and politicians to give some thought to creating more robust, longer-term, and perhaps more locally-based systems for the future.