Sectoral and sequential implications of disruptions
Economic and financial disruptions are recurring events impacting supply chains, with pandemics considered low probability and high impact events (Luke and Rodrigue 2008). The most common are recessions that have a severity ranging from light, where economic decline (e.g., GDP) may last a short period (a few months), to severe, where economic decline is steep and may last several years (commonly known as a depression). There is an abundance of economic literature assessing the impacts of recessions on trade, industrial production, and consumption patterns, particularly at the onset of the 2008/2009 financial crisis (e.g., Hoff and Stiglitz 2001; Bems et al. 2010). This severity will imply various levels of decline in consumption, trade, and transportation activity (Fig. 1).
Changes (declines) in consumption patterns (demand) are related to the type of goods and related services. In an advanced economy, expenditures on consumer goods typically account for two-thirds of the GDP. Basic goods (also labeled essential goods such as food and household items) and luxury goods (fashion items) tend to be the most resilient. Respective supply chains are thus impacted marginally by recessions. However, recessionary forces can have significant impact on the demand for durable goods (e.g., cars, appliances, computers), discretionary goods (e.g., electronics, apparel), and capital equipment (e.g., ships, trucks, machinery, and port infrastructure). During recessions, consumers lose a significant share of their discretionary spending capacity, implying the postponement in spending, particularly for durable goods. Corporations, seeing a decline in the demand, reduce their spending on capital equipment accordingly. Further, to reduce risks, they also reduce their inventory levels.
Trends observed in global ports since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic confirm the resilience of the demand for basic goods, particularly foodstuff and medical products (Fig. 2). Similar was the impact of the 2008/2009 financial crisis on goods shipped in containers (Pallis and de Langen 2010). The effect on containerized food (such as fruit, dairy products, canned food, and perishables such as seafood, vegetables, fruit, and meat) was somewhat limited, as the consumption of (supermarket) food provisions was noticeably impacted by the recession (Mintel International 2009). During the lockdowns, even supermarkets in some countries had to switch to online sales of non-essential goods such as electronics or clothing. Governments wanted to guarantee a level playing field with retailers that were ordered to close. The quantities of consumer goods shipped were moderate, influenced by changes in both consumption and reduced inventory levels. Flows of intermediate goods, such as chemical products and parts used in products such as paint, plastics, medical equipment, capital goods (e.g., machinery), and durable consumer goods (e.g., cars, televisions), declined dramatically (Pallis and de Langen 2010).
Changes in production, transportation, and trade (supply) are taking place along a sequence of events. The first of these events concerns future indexes such as stock market valuations, commodity prices, and freight rates—indicators that quickly react to changing market conditions. Interpreting these indicators (repricing of inputs and assets and the anticipated drop in demand), manufacturers are incited to curtail their production and the related demand for parts and raw materials. These adjustments occur differently in different sectors, depending on whether these are supplying discretionary goods or capital equipment. Afterwards, container volumes and global trade confirm the subsequent collapse of the material economy with a substantial decline in merchandise trade.
Figure 3 depicts key indicators allowing for a comparison between the financial crisis of 2009 and COVID-19. The financial crisis was an internal shock caused by a misallocation of capital and investments that led to massive cross-defaults when assets were repriced. This implies that indicators such as oil pricesFootnote 2 and the PMI were the first to decline. As repricing and demand changes spread through the economic system, durable goods orders declined, closely followed by container volumes and international trade. As the economic shock was absorbed, the leading indicators recovered, but recessionary conditions endured for over 2 years.
For COVID-19, the situation is very different since it concerns an external shock that rapidly impacted all elements of the supply chain roughly at the same time. Thus, the main difference between the financial crisis of 2008–2009 and COVID-19 concerns the high level of synchronism of the indicators at the onset of the pandemic. All of them declined at the same time and to a similar extent. However, unlike the financial crisis, there was a fast rebound of the indicators within 3 months, supporting the thesis of temporary disruptions and deferred demand. With economic trends in Europe heading in a different direction from the positive trends in other parts of the world (i.e., China), it remains to be seen whether the pandemic may recreate financial crisis conditions, creating a countershock and a recession resulting from internal conditions such as high unemployment and low demand. The economic aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis will partly be shaped by the effectiveness of government aid packages and their longer-term impacts on government budgeting and taxes.
Supply chain implications of disruptions
Supply chains can be very complex, composed of a series of stages, from the provision of intermediate goods to final goods consumption in consumer markets. Disruptions within supply chains take place in three fundamental ways (Fig. 4).
Supply shocks represent an unexpected sudden change in the availability of raw materials, parts, and manufacturing capabilities. It is not just that prices may surge, but the availability of essential components can vanish because of a lack of raw materials, parts, or lack of labor necessary for their procurement. Depending on the existing buffer, such as stockpiles of energy, grain, parts, or raw materials, the supply shock can take some time to be felt across a supply chain.
Demand shocks imply a sudden change in demand due to unforeseen circumstances. For several items such as food, expectations can lead to hoarding which, in turn, may trigger a temporary surge in demand, with several items becoming unavailable. The consumption of discretionary items such as cars, clothing, furniture, or appliances is usually deferred, and the demand for energy declines on par with passengers and freight mobility. Notable exceptions include medical equipment and pharmaceuticals that see a surge during a pandemic. Consumers undertake a substitution of their consumption patterns towards essential goods and shift their consumption depending on the scarcity and price of items. Restaurants and caterers may be obliged to substitute their services to alternative forms such as takeouts and home deliveries, as was indeed the case with the European lockdowns during the second wave of November 2020. There were also unique surges and resilience in the consumption of specific product groups such as computers (surge in tele-working and tele-education).
Distribution capabilities can be impaired by restrictions on trade, the lack of a workforce, or the closing of key distribution facilities such as airports, ports, or distribution centers. This implies that existing inventory could be unavailable because of the lack of distribution capabilities. So, even if production capabilities could be present, the lack of distribution capabilities can create shortages irrespective of the demand. As last-mile distribution relies much more on labor than prior stages, there is a much higher risk of disruptions through labor absenteeism due to illness. Following substantial changes in demand, major distributors, such as e-commerce retailers, will modify their procurement strategies to focus on high demand items while discontinuing the procurement of discretionary items.
Shocks can propagate or backpropagate within supply chains, depending on where they occur. A single propagation is usually common, such as when a weather event or a strike takes place. Such events are well documented since they involve a readily identifiable component or segment of a supply chain. However, propagation and backpropagation mechanisms simultaneously take place on a vast scale in case of significant natural disasters (see, e.g., Todo et al. 2015 on the supply chain impacts of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011), political revolutions (e.g., the Arab Spring revolution or the break up of the Soviet Union), financial shocks (e.g., the Great Depression), or global health crises. During a pandemic, the coevolution of propagation and backpropagation mechanisms creates several concurrent shocks. For instance, the hoarding of food, paper goods, and cleaning supplies transfer the inventory from distribution centers to the final market (e.g., consumer homes) in such a short amount of time that the manufacturing and distribution capabilities cannot cope.
Sequential supply chain disruptions
From a supply chain perspective, COVID-19 is unfolding in several sequential phases. The first phase, in early 2020, consisted of a supply shock in China where lockdown measures resulted in a de facto extension of sharply decreased Chinese production during the New Year’s period. The lockdown affected most of the workforce and curtailed the industrial base between mid-January and early March 2020 (Knowler 2020a). Simultaneously, some sectors faced shortages (pharmaceuticals and medical equipment) due to a demand surge and the diversion of inventories (World Health Organization 2020).
The second phase began in mid-March 2020 and consisted of a (global) demand shock with backpropagation along supply chains (Baschuk 2020; World Trade Organization 2020). Various lockdown measures implemented across the world resulted in a decline in global (derived) demand because of lower consumer and industrial confidence and limited retail activity. Service activities associated with the provision of transport services, such as tourism, almost vanished in the first half of 2020. Except for the temporary hoarding shock on inventories, the demand for most consumer products saw a sharp decline. The lockdown of a large consumer base removed people from the workforce and shifted consumption patterns to essential goods (food and personal items). The collapse of travel, tourism (cruise industry), and the entertainment industry,Footnote 3 as well as the temporary closure of bars and restaurants, had additional depressing effects on demand.
Last-mile vulnerabilities in distribution became visible because of the lower availability of the workforce (e.g., absenteeism in trucking). The lower economic activity level and uncertainty about the path to economic recovery also contributed to a steep drop in the price of several commodities. The shift to e-commerce accelerated a process that was already taking place, pressuring online retailers with additional demands. Segments of the luxury sector vanished because of the lockdown, particularly tourism, creating severe disruptions in their supply chains.
The highly uncertain environment of fast-rising unemployment, government rescue packages, and market volatility in the first half of 2020 was followed by a recovery that took root in the third quarter of 2020, with highly uncertain conditions generated by a new wave of COVID-19 cases and restrictions in countries around the world. Every major forecasting institution (e.g., IMF, World Bank, OECD) revised their expectations about future growth, as was the case during the financial crisis of 2008–2009.
These observations suggest that we are far from reaching the final phase of a clear and consistent recovery and returning to normal demand patterns. Since September 2020, several parts of the world (such as North America) are witnessing a clear trend toward restocking inventories at distribution centers and stores. However, once this restocking is completed, there will be a rebalancing of supply and demand to a “new normal.” The recovery phase might go hand in hand with an increased risk of protectionism to support national production. Many economies will be in a situation of depressed demand and high unemployment. Moreover, nearshoring and reshoring strategies are being considered to reduce the dependence on overseas production, develop essential economic activities at a regional/local level, and increase supply chain resilience (Notteboom and Haralambides 2020). The singularity of COVID-19 remains to be assessed.