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‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This’: Chaos Strikes Global Shipping

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

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.

Peloton outlined plans to invest $100 million in air shipping and expedited ocean freight.

But even in normal times, airfreight is roughly eight times the cost of sea shipment. Most airfreight is carried in the cargo holds of passenger jets. With air travel severely constrained, so are available cargo slots.

Some shippers have rearranged their schedules, stopping off in Oakland, Calif., 400 miles to the north, before continuing to Los Angeles. But containers are stacked on ships in configurations set by their destinations. A sudden change in plans means moving the stacks around like a Jenga game.

And the port in Oakland is dealing with its own pandemic problems. Dockworkers are home tending to children who are not in school, said Bryan Brandes, the port’s maritime director.

“In normal times, vessels come directly into Oakland,” Mr. Brandes said. “Right now, we’re ranging anywhere from seven to 11 vessels at anchorage.”

The dysfunction on the American West Coast has caused problems thousands of miles away.

Scoular, one of the largest agricultural exporters in the United States, loads grain and soybeans into containers at terminals like Chicago and Kansas City, and then sends them by rail to Pacific ports en route to Asia.

Given the prices fetched by containers in Asia, shipping carriers are increasingly unloading in California and then immediately putting empty boxes back on ships for the return leg to Asia, without waiting to load grain or other American exports. That has left companies like Scoular scrambling to secure passage.

Delays at the ports frequently bump Scoular’s containers to different vessels, forcing the company to redo its customs paperwork — another delay.

“It’s the schedule reliability that is a problem,” said Sean Healy, Scoular’s carrier relations manager. “It’s a global issue.”

In recent weeks, shipping carriers have aggressively moved empty containers to Asia, increasing availability there, according to data from Container xChange, a consultant in Hamburg, Germany.

Some experts assume that as vaccinations increase and life returns to normal, Americans will again shift their spending — from goods back to experiences — reducing the need for containers.

But even as that happens, retailers will begin building up inventories for the holiday shopping binge.

The stimulus spending plan moving through Congress may generate hiring that could prompt another wave of buying, as previously jobless people replace aging appliances and add to their wardrobes.

“There could be a whole other subset of consumers out there that haven’t been able to consume,” said Michael Brown, a container analyst at KBW in New York. “You are potentially looking at some shortages for quite some time.”

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