The Pandemic’s Nerd Celebrities – The New York Times

on Apr12
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“Ship Happens: The Miniseries” is a podcast that would not exist if not for the pandemic, which prompted consumers to begin ordering couches and computer screens so voraciously that the world’s factories and ports could not keep up.

But as furniture delays and car shortages began to dominate the headlines last year, Eytan Buchman and his colleagues at Freightos, a global shipping platform, saw an opportunity.

“You never really pay attention to something until it’s broken,” said Mr. Buchman, chief marketing officer at the company. “Part of it was giddiness that, hey, people care.”

Freightos, which started its podcast about supply chains in November, is among a spate of data providers whose wonks and once esoteric offerings have been catapulted into the spotlight by a pandemic that has rewritten the rules of global commerce and economics.

Not that Mr. Buchman was happy that everything felt broken. But he saw that Freightos could help. He and his colleagues had a wealth of shipping data and expertise at their disposal, and they began to think of ways to share it with the world, producing an index of ocean container travel times, releasing the audio program and ramping up media appearances.

What could have been a short moment of prominence has lasted well into 2022. Nothing — not shipping routes, not consumer spending, not the labor market and definitely not inflation — seems to be behaving the way it did before the coronavirus struck in early 2020.

Inflation is running at its fastest rate in 40 years, and data next week is likely to show that prices climbed more than 8 percent over the year through March. Supply chains remain roiled, employers are desperate to fill open jobs, and Americans have surprised economists by spending right through the rapid price increases and rampant uncertainty.

Researchers and policymakers are flying blind, and both they and ordinary people are turning to experts like Mr. Buchman as they try to sketch out a new map of a changed economic landscape.

“A very select circle of enlightened individuals found supply chains interesting before, but it was not a widely shared passion,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, a freight forwarding and customs brokerage company — displaying the sort of supply chain deadpan that bigger audiences, relatively speaking, are now enjoying.

According to a profile kept by Bloomberg, Mr. Levy has racked up 26 unique media mentions so far this year, after 26 in all of 2021 and 15 in 2020. Suddenly, every economist and economics writer seems to be a trade analyst, trying to suss out what might happen to supplies and prices.

“Normally, when one does forecasting, you look at past experiences,” Mr. Levy said. “That changed with the pandemic.”

The revolution started in the toilet paper aisle. At the onset of the pandemic, consumers abruptly started to shop differently. Nobody needed coffee to go or manicures; everyone wanted new home-office furniture.

As the government sent out repeated stimulus checks and offered more generous unemployment insurance and families spent more time at home, Americans spent the money on goods rather than the services that consumed a big chunk of their budgets before the pandemic. Even as the aid has faded and business has returned to something approaching normal, demand for things has remained unusually strong.

The world’s ships, ports and factories fell behind early in the pandemic, and they have been unable to fully catch up. The situation has only been intensified by unanticipated disruptions like a giant cargo ship’s getting stuck in the Suez Canal. The Ever Given spent six immobile days, drawing global attention to the precariousness of supply chains and ocean commerce — and increasing demand for experts who could explain it.

“That was a turning point in freight fame,” Mr. Buchman recalled fondly.

For Mr. Levy and his colleagues, the situation was not funny, per se — the blockage was poised to cause problems for customers — but it did spark a flurry of memes in Flexport’s internal Slack messaging channels. (One that sticks in his memory was a photo of the stranded ship superimposed with the words “I told you not to listen to the Waze directions.”)

Ever Given stands as a symbol of a larger phenomenon in the pandemic economy: Disruptions keep surfacing, throwing an already struggling system even further out of whack. The mismatch between supply and demand has stoked inflation, which has surprised policymakers both because it has been so rapid and because it has proved long-lasting.

And the upheaval extends beyond the world of shipping.

Companies cannot find enough workers, in part because the pandemic appears to have accelerated a demographic shift. Baby boomers, who were entering retirement age, left the labor market in large numbers — and it is unclear if they will return. Parents coping with unpredictable child care also left the work force. Employers are grappling with the possibility that workers are in the midst of a “Great Resignation,” possibly encouraged by savings amassed during the pandemic. The labor market shortages have given them a chance to ask for higher pay and better workplace conditions.

As the coronavirus era enters its third year, the economic mysteries are many: Will those workers come back? Will America’s appetite for new couches ever be sated? Is there any price that consumers will not pay for cars?

Fiona Greig doesn’t know all of the answers. But she has data that might allow her — and others — to come closer than they otherwise would.

“I’m now receiving inbound requests from asset managers in Germany, from all walks — our own Federal Reserve Bank, the White House, et cetera,” said Ms. Greig, director of consumer research and co-president at the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

She and her team have also written on the minor influence that expanded unemployment benefits had on keeping job seekers at home — work that found its way into major news outlets. Ms. Greig can feel the effect of her heightened pandemic fame: “Friends I haven’t been in touch with in a long time have said, ‘Hey, great to see you in my morning feed.’”

The surprise data celebrities are reacting to the attention in different ways. Ms. Greig, who has been at the institute since 2014, thinks increased public familiarity with its data will spur new academic research even when the pandemic wanes.

Mr. Buchman at Freightos thinks the mainstream interest in shipping will fade, but he believes that economists and companies will remain more aware of supply chain issues than they were before.

“We are in a part of the economy that we think of as the nuts and bolts of society,” he said, noting that this has been a moment to “spread the freight gospel.”

And for Mr. Levy at Flexport, whose team was just being built up at the start of the pandemic, a return to some sort of normal — whatever that means, and whenever it comes — would be welcome.

“We’re eager to get to the point where we’re the ones thinking about supply chains,” he said, instead of having hedge funds, central banks, major international organizations and governments regularly asking for his team’s assessment of when port backups will fade, when container backlogs will normalize or for updates of Flexport’s ocean delivery timeliness indicator.

But it is not clear when some version of normalcy will return. Supply chains remain a mess. Labor shortages have shown no clear sign of fading, and policymakers are waiting eagerly for signs that inflation is cooling down, but so far it has only accelerated.

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