The imperative for resilient supply chains in a volatile world

As the world grapples with the ripple effects of this conflict, from surging shipping costs to production halts, the necessity for building resilient supply chains emerges as a pivotal factor in driving sustainable global growth.

By Aditya Sinha

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The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023.  — Reuters file
The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. — Reuters file

Published: Sun 21 Jan 2024, 9:22 PM

The recent conflict in the Red Sea has significantly disrupted global supply chains, particularly affecting maritime trade routes vital for global commerce. Attacks on shipping by Houthi militants have led to a significant rerouting of vessels, with some choosing the much longer East-West route via the southern tip of Africa instead of passing through the Suez Canal. This rerouting adds up to two weeks to shipping schedules, reducing global container capacity and extending the time it takes for vessels to return to ports for reloading. The result is delays for goods that arrive in the West around April or May, exacerbating a container shortage at major Chinese ports like Ningbo-Zhoushan.

The impact is particularly felt in industries reliant on just-in-time manufacturing processes, such as the automotive sector, where delayed arrivals of components have halted some production lines. Companies across various sectors face surcharges as shipping lines attempt to recoup the costs of these diversions.

The situation has far-reaching economic implications. This situation also impacts Chinese companies, with increased freight rates resulting from the disruption, despite Beijing's neutral stance on the Houthi attacks. For instance, Chinese businesses are facing severe challenges due to the disruptions. Shipping costs have surged, with one business reporting an increase from $3,000 to $7,000 for shipping a container to Europe. This cost increase, along with higher insurance premiums, is eroding profits for many companies. Larger manufacturers are concerned about the snowball effect on smaller suppliers with tight margins, who are essential to the supply chain but often among the last to receive payments.

The crisis also highlights the vulnerability of supply chains to geopolitical events, underscoring the strategic importance of major trade routes like the Suez Canal, which accounts for about 12% of global trade. As a result, companies are now reassessing their supply chain strategies, considering alternatives like near-shoring and diversifying production locations.

Moreover, the conflict in the Red Sea has broader implications for global trade. It illustrates the increasing weaponization of supply chains in economic statecraft and the global economy's reliance on peaceful sea routes. Historically, direct attacks on ships are reminiscent of piracy, and recent events underscore how modern supply chains, which often operate on a just-in-time basis, are extremely vulnerable to such disruptions. Affected companies, particularly those with just-in-time supply chains, are facing significant challenges, with industries like automotive and fashion retail voicing concerns due to the delays and rerouting.

The Red Sea conflict has thrown a light on the vulnerabilities of global supply chains. At the firm level, building a resilient supply chain requires a holistic approach that integrates several key elements. A study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) emphasizes the importance of diversifying sourcing strategies. For instance, a North American auto parts supplier, initially dependent on China for over 70% of its raw materials, expanded its supplier base globally, thereby reducing dependence on a single country or region. This diversification is crucial for resilience in the face of supply chain disruptions. Additionally, companies should develop effective multi-echelon inventory strategies to create supply chain buffers, allowing them to respond flexibly to fluctuations and disruptions in supply.

According to McKinsey, essential components include visibility, scenario planning, and high-quality master data. Companies are increasingly implementing digital dashboards for comprehensive supply chain visibility, a move that has proven effective in averting supply chain issues. Complementing this, robust scenario planning allows firms to evaluate various potential impacts on the supply chain, preparing and mitigating risks more effectively. In parallel, the focus on digitization is shifting towards demand and supply planning. This shift involves accurately capturing demand signals and optimising inventory management, reflecting a broader market trend towards integrated technology platforms over specialized solutions. Additionally, an agile response to disruption is crucial. Resilient companies employ agile and cross-functional strategies to quickly adapt to disruptions. They manage deviations transparently, utilize simulations for forward-looking risk assessments, and maintain control over material flows, thereby enabling rapid responses to major disruptions. Managing the multi-enterprise supply chain and actively handling end-to-end risk are vital components of this agility.

This reliance on a single critical maritime route exposes Europe and South Asia to significant risks in the event of geopolitical tensions or disruptions. The need for diversification of trade routes is now more apparent than ever. Thus, at the global governance level, courtiers should be investing in alternative maritime routes, expanding rail networks, and improving road connectivity could provide crucial resilience.

The Indian Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC) emerges as a critical initiative in this context. IMEC's development could offer an essential alternative for trade flows between Europe and South Asia, reducing dependency on the Suez Canal. This corridor, aiming to enhance connectivity and economic integration between India and the Middle Eastern countries, could serve as a vital network, ensuring continuous and efficient trade in times of maritime route disruptions. Its operational success could bring economic benefits by facilitating market access, reducing transit times, and potentially lowering trade costs.

However, the realisation of IMEC heavily depends on the geopolitical stability of the Middle East. The ongoing conflicts pose challenges to developing such a trade corridor. A stable and secure environment is crucial for the corridor's development and operation. Without peace and stability, the risks and operational challenges associated with IMEC could deter investments and hinder its implementation. The success of IMEC, therefore, is inextricably linked to the establishment of a peaceful and cooperative geopolitical climate in the Middle East.

In the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time that tested the resilience of global supply chains like never before, the recent conflict in the Red Sea has brought a renewed urgency to this issue. Like a critical scene in a suspense film, this crisis highlights the delicate balance upon which global trade hinges. It underscores not just the fragility but also the interconnectedness of our global supply system. Firms worldwide must now embrace a holistic approach to supply chain resilience, integrating robust scenario planning, digital visibility, and diversified sourcing. As the world grapples with the ripple effects of this conflict, from surging shipping costs to production halts, the necessity for building resilient supply chains emerges as a pivotal factor in driving sustainable global growth. The development of alternative trade routes, such as IMEC, and the stabilisation of geopolitical climates become critical. These steps are essential not just for recovery but for forging a path to a more robust and adaptive global trade environment.

Aditya Sinha (@adityasinha004) is Officer on Special Duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views personal.

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