America isn't running out of everything just because of a supply-chain crisis. America is running out everything because Americans are buying so much stuff.
Container ships in the congested port of Los Angeles in September. Mike Blake / Reuters
Disruptions in global supply chains have created the term "everything is tight".
But US imports are at record levels in some ports, and Americans are breaking purchasing records too.
Supply chain professionals plan to reduce the backlog container by container.
Americans buy everything they can get their hands on and they'd buy more if it weren't for those pesky supply chain growls, the National Retail Federation said.
"Spending might have been higher had it not been for the shortage of items that consumers would like to buy," said Jack Kleinhenz, the NRF's chief economist, in a statement released on Friday.
This scarcity seems so ubiquitous that the term "scarcity" is now used liberally to describe the frustration of consumers trying to get goods of all kinds: paper towels, milk, toys and more.
But the claims that the country is running out of everything overlook an important point. In fact, America has imported an immense amount of material in the past eight months. And that's one of the reasons we're in the midst of an epic supply chain congestion.
We imported more things ... then we bought them
To understand the situation, consider the country's inventory to sales ratio. This metric, tracked by the US Census Bureau, compares how many products sellers have available to how many products consumers are buying. The ratio is at a 10-year low, which suggests we are low on material.
But the Port of Los Angeles reported a 30% increase in inbound cargo for the first nine months of this year. (Important note, most of the non-food products sold in the US are overseas.) The Port of Charleston, South Carolina, has been breaking all records since March. Prologis, a major provider of industrial real estate, the warehouse space is "effectively sold out".
All of this means that the inventory to sales ratio is not low as the US is short of materials. It's low because sales are completely nuts.
In the first nine months of 2021, retail sales grew 14.5 percent over the same period in 2020 - a year when retail sales increased 8% from 2019. The NRF expects to end the year with a 10.5% to 13.5% increase in sales. Lots of imports, and even more spending, caused the inventory-to-sales ratio to drop because companies imported a lot and Americans bought it.
"Today's retail sales data confirms consumer purchasing power and we expect this to continue," said Matthew Shay, CEO of NRF, in a statement.
What do we do now
That doesn't mean there aren't any real bottlenecks. Semiconductor supply is likely to lag behind demand for years. Furniture manufacturers have little foam.
But most of the products that shoppers want to buy this holiday season don't have a real shortage of any of their basic components. Instead, they have transportation problems somewhere on the long journey from Asia to the US.
Warehouses are full, ports clogged, transport prices at record levels. The Biden administration has been forced to work out additional hours of operation in America's busiest port (which supply chain experts expect to have limited effect).
There are two solutions to this. The first is what supply chain professionals are doing now: clean up the backlog, container by container. The other possible solution is mostly jokingly mentioned by supply chain professionals.
If the supply chain were a bathtub with a clogged drain, turning off the tap would help prevent overflow, right?
If demand for products slowed or production slowed at the source, it would take hours or days to fill the tub instead of minutes. Supply chain experts joke about power outages in Chinese factories helping the current situation as it is the only plausible decrease in water pressure in the near future at this point. It's partly a joke because it's one of the few things that could realistically, if temporarily, hold the American consumer on hold right now.
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