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"We’ve Never Seen Anything Like This": Chaos Strikes Global Shipping

Off the coast of Los Angeles, more than two dozen container ships filled with mattresses, exercise bikes, electronics and other highly sought imports have been idling for as long as twelve weeks.

In Kansas City, farmers are struggling to ship soybeans to buyers in Asia. In China, furniture destined for North America piles up on factory floors.

Around the planet, the pandemic has disrupted trade to an extraordinary degree, driving up the cost of shipping goods and adding a fresh challenge to the global economic recovery. The virus has thrown off the choreography of moving cargo from one continent to another.

At the center of the storm is the shipping container, the workhorse of globalization.

Americans stuck in their homes have set off a surge of orders from factories in China, much of it carried across the Pacific in containers — the metal boxes that move goods in towering stacks atop enormous vessels. As households in the United States have filled bedrooms with office furniture and basements with treadmills, the demand for shipping has outstripped the availability of containers in Asia, yielding shortages there just as the boxes pile up at American ports.

Containers that carried millions of masks to countries in Africa and South America early in the pandemic remain there, empty and uncollected, because shipping carriers have concentrated their vessels on their most popular routes — those linking North America and Europe to Asia.

And at ports where ships do call, bearing goods to unload, they are frequently stuck for days in floating traffic jams. The pandemic and its restrictions have limited the availability of dockworkers and truck drivers, causing delays in handling cargo from Southern California to Singapore. Every container that cannot be unloaded in one place is a container that cannot be loaded somewhere else.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lars Mikael Jensen, head of Global Ocean Network at A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company. “All the links in the supply chain are stretched. The ships, the trucks, the warehouses.”

Economies around the globe are absorbing the ripple effects of the disruption on the seas. Higher costs for transporting American grain and soybeans across the Pacific threaten to increase food prices in Asia.

Empty containers are piled up at ports in Australia and New Zealand; containers are scarce at India’s port of Kolkata, forcing makers of electronics parts to truck their wares more than 1,000 miles west to the port of Mumbai, where the supply is better.

Rice exporters in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia are forgoing some shipments to North America because of the impossibility of securing containers.

The chaos on the seas has proved a bonanza for shipping companies like Maersk, which in February cited record-high freight prices in reporting more than $2.7 billion in pretax earnings in the last three months of 2020.

No one knows how long the upheaval will last, though some experts assume containers will remain scarce through the end of the year, as the factories that make them — nearly all of them in China — scramble to catch up with demand.

Since they were first deployed in 1956, containers have revolutionized trade by allowing goods to be packed into standard size receptacles and hoisted by cranes onto rail cars and trucks — effectively shrinking the globe.

Containers are how flat panel displays made in South Korea are moved to plants in China that assemble smartphones and laptops, and how those finished devices are shipped across the Pacific to the United States.

Any hitch means delay and extra cost for someone. The pandemic has disrupted every part of the journey.

“Everybody wants everything,” said Akhil Nair, vice president of global carrier management at SEKO Logistics in Hong Kong. “The infrastructure can’t keep up.”

The pandemic is affecting people and businesses in ways we didn't expect. It's been a stress bomb for everyone -- suppliers, retailers and customers alike.