If You Though The Ever Given Blocking The Suez Canal Was Bad, What’s Coming Could Be Worse

The container ship Ever Given blockage of the Suez Canal earlier this year attracted global attention to how disruptions to maritime trade routes could impact global supply chains. But recent Covid-19 outbreaks in southern China, Southeast Asia, and Taiwan are threatening to cause more pain as their effects ripple through supply chains over the next few week and months.

A Covid-19 outbreak led to a five-day traffic halt for inbound container deliveries to the Yantian International Container Terminal in Shenzhen at the end of May. Yantian is the largest container terminal in the Pearl River delta, and one of the largest in the world. It has natural deep-water berths that can handle the largest container ships like the Ever Given, which almost certainly has called there numerous times. It is the dominant port in South China for exports destined for North America and Europe. When we visited there in January 2020, we were told that the terminal handled 20,000 trucks a day, dropping export containers destined for loading on ships or picking up imports or empties. The Port is operated by Hutchison Ports of Hong Kong.

The outbreak led to a shutdown of the west side of the terminal, though it continued to operate at around 30% of its overall capacity. Last year they told me that their worst truck backup stretched 20 kilometers. Recent reports of extensive traffic backups suggest that this time it might have been even worse. At times as many as 40 container ships were waiting for a berth, which reminds us of the back-ups this year on inbound ships at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Yantian started up a new e-commerce export consolidation center last fall. They are a critical link in more supply chains than most people realize.

There are several other ports in the area, notably Hong Kong, Nansha in Guangzhou, and Shekou and Dachan Bay in western Shenzhen. But rerouting trucks and congestion at those ports make it hard to replace the lost capacity from Yantian. Many of the container lines even skipped port calls at Yantian to try to keep their ships running at some semblance of a schedule, but the overall lost capacity exceeded the losses from the closure of the Suez Canal for six days, capacity that is impossible to replace. Because of normal ship transit times, the ripple effects won’t be felt on the West Coast of the U.S. for two or three weeks, and perhaps a month in Northern Europe. But it’s coming.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia have shuttered factory production during lockdowns. A surge in cases in Malaysia with a case rate per million people more than double that of India triggered a two week lockdown. This has slowed production at many factories, forcing them to operate at reduced capacity. Outbreaks at factories in northern Vietnam and a soaring case rate there suggest more troubles lie ahead. Bac Giang, Hai Duong, and Bac Ninh provinces have a large number of foreign invested industrial parks, and some chip and semiconductor production have had to close temporarily as a preventative measure. With the situation coming under control, they have started to partially reopen with enhanced safety measures.

In Taiwan, a country that handled the pandemic exceptionally well, a Covid-19 outbreak at King Yuan Electronics Company (KYEC) is a big problem for the semiconductor supply chain. KYEC is the world’s largest chip testing service provider, and it had to shut down all operations over the past weekend. The Taiwan government ordered it to stop foreign migrant workers, who made up 30% of the labor force, from working. KYEC is a little know company outside of the semiconductor industry, but they provide a service known as wafer probing. After a semiconductor wafer is processed by a foundry like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) or United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), the wafers have to be tested to identify all the good chips and any that are defective. The good chips are then selected, sliced from the wafer, and put in packages. Sometimes foundries do the wafer probing, but sometimes they outsource testing because specialists like KYEC are very flexible and can handle certain types and batches of chips more easily. I wrote a case on KYEC’s competitor Ardentec a number of years ago, and I was amazed at the level of granularity on display in the complex value chain of making a semiconductor chip.

All this news tells us that the world’s supply chain woes are not over, and more broadly, that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over. Until all the world is vaccinated and gets the contagion under control, we can expect continued disruption and surprises. Sometimes, it just takes a little longer to feel the effects.

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