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    Supply Chain Shortages Help a North Carolina Furniture Town

    The furniture capital of the state is ground zero for inflation, labor shortages, hot demand and limited supply. It’s debating how to cope.HICKORY, N.C. — Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of workers lost their jobs and companies fretted about their economic future, something unexpected happened at Hancock & Moore, a purveyor of custom-upholstered leather couches and chairs in this small North Carolina town.Orders began pouring in.Families stuck at home had decided to upgrade their sectionals. Singles tired of looking at their sad futons wanted new and nicer living room furniture. And they were willing to pay up — which turned out to be good, because the cost of every part of producing furniture, from fabric to wood to shipping, was beginning to swiftly increase.More than a year later, the furniture companies that dot Hickory, N.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have been presented with an unforeseen opportunity: The pandemic and its ensuing supply chain disruptions have dealt a setback to the factories in China and Southeast Asia that decimated American manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s with cheaper imports. At the same time, demand for furniture is very strong.In theory, that means they have a shot at building back some of the business that they lost to globalization. Local furniture companies had shed jobs and reinvented themselves in the wake of offshoring, shifting to custom upholstery and handcrafted wood furniture to survive. Now, firms like Hancock & Moore have a backlog of orders. The company is scrambling to hire workers.“Not to sound trite, but it’s unprecedented,” said Amy Guyer, vice president for human resources and benefits for the parent company that includes Rock House Farm furniture brands such as Hancock & Moore and Century Furniture.Yet the same forces that are making it difficult for overseas manufacturers to sell their goods in the United States — and giving American workers a chance to command higher wages — are also throwing up obstacles.Many of the companies are dependent on parts from overseas, which have been harder — and more expensive — to obtain. Too few skilled workers are seeking jobs in the industry to fill open positions, and businesses are unsure how long the demand will last, making some reluctant to invest in new factories or to expand to towns with bigger potential labor pools.“We would love to expand capacity,” Ms. Guyer said, “but we’re the furniture mecca of North Carolina — every other furniture company is in the same boat we are.”Even if there were enough workers, said Alex Shuford, the chief executive of the company that owns Rock House Farm furniture brands, “the surge isn’t going to last as long as it would take to go to a completely trained work force and get them up to speed.”The current moment, he added, “is abnormal in every way, and not sustainable in any way.”For now, companies in Hickory are seeing a huge upswing thanks to strong demand and limited supply. Prices for couches, beds, kitchen tables and bedding have shot up this year, climbing by 12 percent nationally through October. Furniture and bedding make up a small slice of the basket of goods and services that the inflation measure tracks — right around 1 percent — so that increase has not been enough to drive overall prices to uncomfortable levels on its own. But the rise has come alongside a bump in car, fuel, food and rent costs that have driven inflation to 6.2 percent, the highest level in 31 years..css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-1kpebx{margin:0 auto;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1kpebx{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1gtxqqv{margin-bottom:0;}.css-19zsuqr{display:block;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}The question for policymakers and consumers alike is how long the surge in demand and the limitations in supply will last. A key part of the answer lies in how quickly shipping routes can clear up and whether producers like the craftsmen in Hickory can ramp up output to meet booming demand. But at least domestically, that is proving to be a more challenging task than one might imagine.The production floor at Century Furniture’s case goods factory in Hickory.Travis Dove for The New York TimesA Century Furniture upholstery plant in Hickory. Demand for furniture is booming, and domestic producers are raising prices.Travis Dove for The New York TimesOn a wet morning in late October, the sound of electrical sanders whirring and the steady thunks of a craftsman planing a chair leg echoed through one of Century Furniture’s cavernous warehouses. The factory once housed 600 workers tending assembly lines. Now about 250 busily construct tables, chairs and desks.The plant typically has 2,000 orders in the pipeline, but these days that is more like 4,000, said Brandon Mallard, its manager. Deliveries of ordered furniture used to happen within six to eight weeks; now they can take six months.The same supply chain problems afflicting nearly every industry are also hitting Century. Dresser drawer handles are trapped on container ships somewhere between Vietnam and North Carolina. For some products, imported wood has faced delays.Component delivery dates “just keep moving out,” Mr. Mallard said.Labor has also been a challenge. Employees at Century have been working overtime to catch up with the backlog, but workers burn out, and furniture margins are so thin that paying overtime labor rates can eat into profits. Several of Mr. Shuford’s brands have been raising prices, but because pieces are preordered weeks or months in advance, they have sometimes failed to increase them quickly enough to keep up. The experience in Hickory is a microcosm of what is playing out on a larger scale across the global economy.Jonathan Smith is studying upholstering at the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy. Too few young people are entering the furniture industry to replace those who are retiring. Travis Dove for The New York TimesDemand has bounced back after falling early in the pandemic, fueled by government stimulus checks and savings amassed during the pandemic. Spending has lurched away from services and toward goods, and that mix is only slowly normalizing.The sudden change has thrown a finely balanced global supply chain out of whack: Shipping containers have struggled to get to stockyards where they are needed, container ships cannot clear ports quickly enough, and when imported goods get to dry land, there are not enough trucks around to deliver everything. All of that is compounded by foreign factory shutdowns tied to the virus.With foreign-made parts failing to reach domestic producers and warehouses, prices for finished goods, parts and raw materials have shot higher. American factories and retailers are raising their own prices. And workers have come into short supply, prompting companies to lift their wages and further fueling inflation as they increase prices to cover those costs.Chad Ballard, 31, has gone from making $15 per hour building furniture in Hickory at the start of the pandemic to $20 as he moved into a more specialized role.Mr. Ballard said he came to town four years ago after working construction jobs and at tree services in Florida. He was ready for something more stable and less weather-exposed, and he found it in furniture making. The job has provided stability and enough financial security that he was able to pay off his Jeep and make plans to buy a house with his wife, who also works in the industry.But there is a flip side to some of the factors that are helping to buoy workers like Mr. Ballard: If inflation continues to rise in the hot-demand economy, it will mean rising costs for them and other consumers that eat into paychecks and make it harder to afford everyday necessities like food and shelter. Already, the heating economy means that Mr. Ballard’s goal of buying a house will be slightly tougher. The typical price for a house in Hickory has shot up 21 percent over the past year to $199,187, according to data from Zillow.Fabric and leather templates for furniture designs at a Hancock & Moore factory in Taylorsville, N.C.Travis Dove for The New York TimesBeverly Houston organized pieces of leather as they came off the cutting machine at the Hancock & Moore factory.Travis Dove for The New York TimesAs price increases drag on, economic policymakers worry that consumers and businesses might come to expect sustained inflation and demand steadily higher pay, resulting in a spiral where wages and prices push each other up.There is reason to believe that such a dire outcome can be avoided. Many economists, including those in the Biden administration, believe that demand will eventually moderate as life shifts back toward more normal patterns and consumers spend down their savings, allowing supply to catch up — possibly by the end of next year.Understand the Supply Chain CrisisCard 1 of 5Covid’s impact on the supply chain continues. More

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    Chip Shortage Creates New Power Players

    SAN FRANCISCO — Since 1989, Microchip Technology has operated in an unglamorous backwater of the electronics industry, making chips called microcontrollers that add computing power to cars, industrial equipment and many other products.Now a global chip shortage has elevated the company’s profile. Demand for Microchip’s products is running more than 50 percent higher than it can supply. That has put the company, based in Chandler, Ariz., in an unfamiliar position of power, which it began wielding this year.While Microchip normally lets customers cancel a chip order within 90 days of delivery, it began offering shipment priority to clients that signed contracts for 12 months of orders that couldn’t be revoked or rescheduled. These commitments reduced the chances that orders would evaporate when the scarcity ended, giving Microchip more confidence to safely hire workers and buy costly equipment to increase production.“It gives us the ability to not hold back,” said Ganesh Moorthy, president and chief executive of Microchip, which on Thursday reported that profit in the latest quarter tripled and that sales rose 26 percent to $1.65 billion.Such contracts are just one example of how the $500 billion chip industry is changing because of the silicon shortage, with many of the shifts likely to outlive the pandemic-fueled dearth. The lack of the tiny components — which has pinched makers of cars, game consoles, medical devices and many other goods — has been a stark reminder of the foundational nature of chips, which act as the brains of computers and other products.Chief among the changes is a long-term shift in market power from chip buyers to sellers, particularly those that own factories that make the semiconductors. The most visible beneficiaries have been giant chip manufacturers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which offer services called foundries that build chips for other companies.But the shortage has also sharply bolstered the influence of lesser-known chip makers such as Microchip, NXP Semiconductors, STMicroelectronics, Onsemi and Infineon, which design and sell thousands of chip varieties to thousands of customers. These companies, which build many products in their own aging factories, now are increasingly able to choose which customers get how many of their scarce chips.Longer-term purchase commitments from customers “gives us the ability to not hold back,” said Ganesh Moorthy, chief executive of Microchip Technology, at the company’s headquarters.Tomás Karmelo Amaya for The New York TimesMany are favoring buyers who act more like partners, by taking steps like signing long-term purchase commitments or investing to help chip makers increase production. Above all, the chip makers are asking clients to share more information earlier about which chips they will need, which helps guide decisions about how to lift manufacturing.“That visibility is what we need,” said Hassane El-Khoury, chief executive of the chip maker Onsemi, a company previously known as ON Semiconductor.Many of the chip makers said they were using their new power with restraint, helping customers avoid problems like factory shutdowns and raising prices modestly. That’s because gouging customers, they said, could cause bad blood that would hurt sales when shortages end.Even so, the power shift has been unmistakable. “Today there is no leverage” for buyers, said Mark Adams, chief executive of Smart Global Holdings, a major user of memory chips.Marvell Technology, a Silicon Valley company that designs chips and outsources the manufacturing, has experienced the change in power. While it used to give foundries estimates of its chip production needs for 12 months, it began providing them with five-year forecasts starting in April.“You need a really good story,” said Matt Murphy, Marvell’s chief executive. “Ultimately the supply chain is going to allocate to who they think are going to be the winners.”It’s a substantial change in psychology for a mature industry where growth has generally been slow. Many chip makers for years sold largely interchangeable products and often struggled to keep their factories running profitably, particularly if sales slumped for items like personal computers and smartphones that drove most chip demand.But the components are essential for more products now, one of many signs that rapid growth may linger. In the third quarter, total chip sales surged nearly 28 percent to $144.8 billion, the Semiconductor Industry Association said.Years of industry consolidation has also wrung out excess manufacturing capacity and left fewer suppliers selling exclusive kinds of chips. So buyers that could once place and cancel orders with little notice — and play one chip maker off another to get lower prices — have less muscle. More

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    How the Pandemic Has Added to Labor Unrest

    While big companies wield considerable power, Covid’s economic disruption has given workers new leverage, contributing to a recent upturn in strikes.When 420 workers at the Heaven Hill spirits bottling plant near Louisville went on strike in September, they were frustrated that the company’s proposed contract could reduce their overtime pay. Many had earned extra income working seven days a week during the pandemic.“We were essential,” said Leslie Glazar, recording secretary of the local union representing spirits workers. “They kept preaching, ‘You get us through that, we’ll make it worth your time.’ But we went from heroes to zero.”The recent strike at Heaven Hill, which ended in late October after the company softened its overtime proposal, appears to reflect the current moment: Buoyed by shortages in labor and supplies that leave employers more vulnerable, and frustrated by what they see as unfair treatment during the pandemic, workers are standing up for a better deal.Data collected by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University shows the number of workers on strike increased in October, to more than 25,000, versus an average of around 10,000 in the previous three months.“Labor market leverage and the fact that workers have been through incredibly difficult working conditions over the past year and a half with the pandemic are combining to explain a lot of this labor activism now,” said Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. student and the project director of Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker.Large companies continue to have considerable power, and it is not clear that the recent job actions point to a new era of widespread strikes. Many workers who were nearing a strike appear to have pulled back from the brink, including 60,000 film and television production workers, whose strike threat was at least temporarily defused when their union reached tentative agreements with production studios. And even a doubling or tripling of strike activity would fall well below levels common in the 1960s and 70s.But the fitful economic recovery from the pandemic has eroded management’s advantages. Employers are having unusual difficulty in filling jobs — this summer, the Labor Department recorded the highest number of job openings since it began keeping such data in 2000. And for some companies, supply-chain disruptions have taken a toll on the bottom line.In a recent survey by IPC, a trade association representing the electronics industry, nine out of 10 manufacturers complained that the time it takes to make their goods had increased. Nearly one-third reported delays of eight weeks or more.Workers at Kellogg in Battle Creek, Mich., have been on strike since early October.Nicole Hester/The Grand Rapids Press, via Associated PressMany workers also contend that their employers have failed to share enormous pandemic-era profits, even as they sometimes risked their lives to make those earnings possible. Striking workers at John Deere, whose union announced a tentative agreement with the company over the weekend, have pointed out that Deere is on pace to set a record profit of nearly $6 billion this fiscal year even as it sought to end traditional pensions for new hires. The United Automobile Workers said a vote on the contract was expected this week.Workers say that when companies do offer raises, the increases are often limited and don’t make up for the weakening of benefits that they have endured for years.That helps explain why the upturn in labor action dates back to 2018, when tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job in states like West Virginia and Arizona, though the lockdowns and layoffs of the pandemic initially suppressed strike activity. With workers in both Democratic and Republican states feeling wronged, the strike impulse tends to transcend partisan divides.One increasingly common complaint is the so-called two-tier compensation structure, in which workers hired before a certain date may earn a higher wage or a traditional pension, while more recent hires have a lower maximum wage or receive most of their retirement benefits through a variable plan like a 401(k).Frustration with the two-tier system helped propel a six-week strike at General Motors in 2019, and has loomed over several strikes this year, including Kellogg and Deere. Deere workers hired after 1997 have much smaller traditional pensions.In some cases, workers have even grown skeptical of their union leadership, worrying that negotiators have become too remote from the concerns of the rank and file.This is particularly true at the United Automobile Workers, which has been wracked by a corruption scandal in which more than 15 people have been convicted, including two recent presidents. Some Deere workers cited discontent with their union’s leadership in explaining their vote against the initial contract the union had negotiated.It is also a feeling that some Hollywood crew members have expressed about negotiations handled by their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “They’re not bad people, they’re working in good faith,” said Victor P. Bouzi, a sound mixer and IATSE member based in Southern California. “But they’re not seeing what’s happening to people and how we’re getting squeezed down here.”The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees prepared for a strike before negotiators reached tentative agreements with film and television studios.Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York TimesYet for every force pushing workers toward a strike, there are others that push in the other direction.Union leaders can be reluctant to strike after having negotiated a deal for workers. IATSE leaders are endorsing the tentative agreements they reached with the studios in October, and even those who oppose them believe it will be a long shot for the membership to vote them down.Matthew Loeb, the IATSE president, said that 36 locals were closely involved in developing the union’s bargaining objectives and that “our members demonstrated incredible union solidarity that stunned the employers and helped us to achieve our stated goals.”For their part, companies often pre-empt a labor action by improving compensation, something that appears to be happening as employers raise wages, though that is also to attract new workers. (It’s less clear if the wage increases are keeping up with inflation outside leisure and hospitality industries.)Manufacturing workers contemplating strikes may have jobs that are relatively sought-after in their cities and towns, making workers less keen to risk their jobs in the event of a strike, and potentially easier to fill than a quick glance at the number of local openings would suggest.And the mere act of striking can exert an enormous psychological and financial toll in an economy where workers have a limited safety net. When unionized workers receive strike pay, it’s typically a fraction of their usual pay, and they must often picket outside their workplace to receive it.Companies can use the legal system to place restrictions on them — as with Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, where about 1,000 workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America have been on strike for seven months. The company recently won a court order prohibiting picketing within 300 yards of entrances..css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-1kpebx{margin:0 auto;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1kpebx{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1gtxqqv{margin-bottom:0;}.css-1g3vlj0{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1g3vlj0{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-1g3vlj0 strong{font-weight:600;}.css-1g3vlj0 em{font-style:italic;}.css-1g3vlj0{margin-bottom:0;margin-top:0.25rem;}.css-19zsuqr{display:block;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}As difficult as a strike can be when workers are unionized, it is far more difficult when they’re not. Nonunionized workers often find strikes harder to organize and harder to endure because of the lack of pay. They are typically more vulnerable to potentially unlawful responses by employers, which unions have the legal muscle to resist.It is perhaps no surprise that as the rate of union membership has fallen, so has the number of strikes. Until the early 1980s, the country typically saw more than 200 a year involving 1,000 or more workers, versus 25 in 2019, the highest in almost two decades. Far fewer than 20 began this year.Striking workers outside a John Deere plant near Des Moines. The company’s pension system has been an issue in the strike.Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register, via Associated Press“The volume is quite minimal,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “That’s partly because only 6 percent of the private sector is organized.”The recent strike at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Ky., illustrates the complicated calculus facing workers. An analysis by the employment site ZipRecruiter showed that when the strike vote was taken in September, job postings in the Louisville area had increased by almost twice the percentage they had nationwide during the pandemic.After the company threatened to bring in replacement workers, the employees were dismissive. “No one can find workers now — where do they think they’ll find 400?” Ms. Glazar, the local union official, said shortly before the strike ended. “That’s the only thing that keeps us smiling out there.”There were also indications that Heaven Hill was running low on inventory as the strike wore on, crimping the company’s ability to age and bottle alcohol that it produced in Louisville. “We could see the truck movement had slowed down from week one to week six — there were not near as many trucks in and out,” Ms. Glazar said.Josh Hafer, a company spokesman, said, “There may have been some small-scale products impacted, but not to any large degree.”Still, the workers were under enormous stress. Their health benefits ended when their contract expired, and some workers found their insurance was no longer valid while trying to squeeze in a final doctor’s appointment.And while jobs in the area appeared plentiful, many workers preferred to stay in the whiskey-making business. “I like what I do, I enjoy everything about bourbon,” said Austin Hinshaw, a worker who voted to strike at the Heaven Hill plant. “I have worked at a factory before, and it’s not my thing.” In late October, Mr. Hinshaw accepted a job at a distillery in town where he had been applying for months.A few days earlier, Heaven Hill management had worked out a new agreement with the union. The proposed contract included a commitment to largely maintain the existing overtime pay rules for current workers, though it left open the possibility that future workers would be scheduled on weekends at regular pay, which grated on union members. The company also offered a slightly larger pay increase than it had offered just before the workers’ contract expired in September.In a statement, Heaven Hill pointed to the generous health benefits and increased wages and vacation time in the new contract.The company’s proposal divided the members, many of whom wanted to keep fighting, but more than one-third voted in favor of the contract, the minimum needed to approve it and end the strike.“There are a lot of mixed emotions,” Ms. Glazar said. “Some of them are just disappointed. They thought that it would have been better.”Peter S. Goodman More

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    Global Shipping Delays Loom Over Retailers for the Holidays

    The travails of a Chicago fishing company’s advent calendar highlight the supply chain hurdles for businesses trying to deliver items in time for the holidays.WASHINGTON — It was 73 days until Christmas, and the clock was ticking down for Catch Co.The Chicago-based fishing company had secured a spot to sell a new product, an advent calendar for fishing enthusiasts dubbed “12 Days of Fishmas,” in 2,650 Walmart stores nationwide. But like so many products this holiday season, the calendars were mired in a massive traffic jam in the flow of goods from Asian factories to American store shelves.With Black Friday rapidly approaching, many of the calendars were stuck in a 40-foot steel box in the yard at the Port of Long Beach, blocked by other containers stuffed with toys, furniture and car parts. Truckers had come several times to pick up the Catch Co. container but been turned away. Dozens more ships sat in the harbor, waiting their turn to dock. It was just one tiny piece in a vast maze of shipping containers that thousands of American retailers were trying desperately to reach.“There’s delays in every single piece of the supply chain,” said Tim MacGuidwin, the company’s chief operations officer. “You’re very much not in control.”Catch Co. is one of the many companies finding themselves at the mercy of global supply chain disruptions this year. Worker shortages, pandemic shutdowns, strong consumer demand and other factors have come together to fracture the global conveyor belt that shuffles consumer goods from Chinese factories, through American ports and along railways and freeways to households and stores around the United States.American shoppers are growing nervous as they realize certain toys, electronics and bicycles may not arrive in time for the holidays. Shortages of both finished products and components needed to make things like cars are feeding into rising prices, halting work at American factories and dampening economic growth.The disruptions have also become a problem for President Biden, who has been vilified on Fox News as “the Grinch who stole Christmas.”The White House’s supply chain task force has been working with private companies to try to speed the flow of goods, even considering deploying the National Guard to help drive trucks. But the president appears to have limited power to alleviate a supply chain crisis that is both global in nature and linked to much larger economic forces that are out of his control. On Sunday, Mr. Biden met with other world leaders at the Group of 20 in Rome to discuss supply chain challenges.On Oct. 13, the same day that Catch Co. was waiting for its calendars to clear the port, Mr. Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles and companies like FedEx and Walmart would move toward around the clock operations, joining the Port of Long Beach, where one terminal had begun staying open 24 hours just weeks before.Shipping containers stacked up at the Port of Long Beach in California in October. One terminal has begun operating 24 hours. Allison Zaucha for The New York TimesMany of Catch Co.’s advent calendars were stuck in the yard at the Port of Long Beach. Allison Zaucha for The New York Times“This is a big first step in speeding up the movement of materials and goods through our supply chain,” Mr. Biden said. “But now we need the rest of the private sector chain to step up as well.”Mr. MacGuidwin praised the announcement but said it had come too late to make much difference for Catch Co., which had been working through supply chain headaches for many months.The company’s problems first began with the pandemic-related factory shutdowns in China and other countries, which led to a shortage in the graphite used to make fishing poles. A worldwide scramble for shipping containers soon followed, as Americans began spending less on movies, travel and restaurants, and more on outfitting their home offices, gyms and playrooms with products made in Asian factories.Shipping rates soared tenfold, and big companies turned to extreme measures to deliver their goods. Walmart, Costco and Target began chartering their own ships to ferry products from Asia and hired thousands of new warehouse employees and truck drivers.Smaller companies like Catch Co. were struggling to keep up. As soon as Apple launched a new iPhone, for example, the available shipping containers vanished, diverted to ship Apple’s products overseas.The timing could not have been worse for Catch Co., which was seeing demand for its poles, lures and other products surge, as fishing became an ideal pandemic hobby. The company turned briefly to air freighting products to meet demand, but at five or six times the cost of sea freight, it cut into the company’s profits.The supply chain woes became an even bigger problem for Catch Co.’s “12 Days of Fishmas” calendar, which featured the company’s plastic worms, silver fish hooks and painted lures hiding behind cardboard windows. The calendar, which retails for $24.98, was a “big deal” for the company, Mr. MacGuidwin said. It would account for more than 15 percent of the company’s holiday sales and introduce customers to its other products. But it had an expiration date: Who would buy an advent calendar after Christmas?Mr. MacGuidwin thought briefly about storing late arrivals for next year before realizing the calendar said “2021.”Catch Co. had secured a spot to sell a new product, an advent calendar dubbed “The 12 Days of Fishmas,” in 2,650 Walmart stores nationwide.Chase Castor for The New York TimesBoxes of the calendars were prepared for distribution in Kansas City.Chase Castor for The New York Times“It cannot be sold after Christmas,” he said. “It is a scrapped product after that.”Like many American companies, Catch Co. had tried to prepare for the global delays.The Chinese factories the company works with began manufacturing the calendar in April, before Walmart had even confirmed its orders. On July 10, the calendars were shipped to the port at Qingdao. But a global container shortage kept the calendars idling at the Chinese port for a month, awaiting for a box to be shipped in.On Sept. 1, nearly three weeks after setting sail across the Pacific Ocean, the vessel anchored off the coast of Southern California, alongside 119 other ships vying to unload. Two weeks later Catch Co.’s containers were off the ship, where they descended into the maze of boxes at the Port of Long Beach.Inside the BoxThe twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles — which together process 40 percent of the shipping containers brought into the United States — have struggled to keep up with the surge in imports for many months.Together, the Southern California ports handled 15.3 million 20-foot containers in the first nine months of the year, up about a quarter from last year. Dockworkers and truckers had worked long hours throughout the pandemic. More than 100 trains, each at least three miles long, were leaving the Los Angeles basin each day.But by this fall, the ports and warehouses of Southern California were so overstuffed that many cranes at the port had actually come to a standstill, without space to store the containers or truckers to ferry them away.On Sept. 21, the Port of Long Beach announced that it had started a trial to keep one terminal open around the clock. A few weeks later, at Mr. Biden’s urging and with the support of various unions, the Port of Los Angeles and Union Pacific’s nearby California facility joined in.So far, few truckers have arrived during the expanded hours. The ports have pointed to bottlenecks in other parts of the supply chain — including a shortage of truckers and overstuffed warehouses that can’t fit more products through their doors.“We are in a national crisis,” said Mario Cordero, the executive director of the port of Long Beach. “It’s going to be an ongoing dynamic until we have full control of the virus that’s before us.”Worker shortages at warehouses have led to delays.Chase Castor for The New York TimesTruckers, who have worked long hours throughout the pandemic, are also in short supply.Chase Castor for The New York TimesIn the past, Catch Co. would often ship products from West Coast ports by rail. But longer travel times on rail lines — as well as the high demand for containers at Chinese ports — mean shipping companies have been loath to let their containers stray too far from the ocean.So instead, the Catch Co. calendars were moved by truck to a warehouse outside the port owned by freight forwarder Flexport. There, they were placed on another truck to be shipped to Catch Co.’s Kansas City distribution center, where workers would repack the calendars for Walmart. Mr. MacGuidwin estimated that the calendars would arrive in Walmart stores by Nov. 17 — just in time for Black Friday. The calendar’s entire trip from factory to store shelves would take about 130 days this year, compared with the typical 60.Mr. MacGuidwin said he believes supply chain difficulties may ease next year, as ports, rails and trucking companies gradually work through their backlogs. Asia remains the best place to manufacture many of their goods, he said. But if shipping costs remain high and disruptions continue, they may consider sourcing more products from the United States and Latin America.Catch Co. has already started designing its calendar for next year and is still deciding whether it should say “2022.”“It’s an open question,” said Mr. MacGuidwin. More

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    China's GDP Growth Slows as Property and Energy Take a Toll

    Growth of 4.9 percent shows the country’s huge industrial sector has run into trouble. But exports and services are looking strong.BEIJING — Steel mills have faced power cuts. Computer chip shortages have slowed car production. Troubled property companies have purchased less construction material. Floods have disrupted business in north-central China.It has all taken a toll on China’s economy, an essential engine for global growth.The National Bureau of Statistics announced on Monday that China’s economy increased by 4.9 percent in the third quarter, compared to the same period last year; the period was markedly slower than the 7.9 percent increase the country notched in the previous quarter. Industrial output, the mainstay of China’s growth, faltered badly, especially in September, posting its worst performance since the early days of the pandemic.Two bright spots prevented the economy from stalling. Exports remained strong. And families, particularly prosperous ones, resumed spending money on restaurant meals and other services in September, as China succeeded once again in quelling small outbreaks of the coronavirus. Retail sales were up 4.4 percent in September from a year ago.Chinese officials are showing signs of concern, although they have refrained so far from unleashing a big economic stimulus. “The current international environment uncertainties are mounting, and the domestic economic recovery is still unstable and uneven,” said Fu Linghui, the spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics.The government’s own efforts, though, are part of the current economic challenges.In recent months, the government has unleashed a raft of measures to address income inequality and tame businesses, in part with the goal of protecting the health of the economy. But those efforts, including penalizing tech companies and discouraging real estate speculation, have also weighed on growth in the current quarter.The government had also imposed limits on energy use as a part of a broader response to climate change concerns. Now, the power shortages are hurting industry, and the country is rushing to burn more coal.“The economy is sluggish,” said Yang Qingjun, the owner of a corner grocery store in an aging industrial neighborhood of shoe factories in Dongguan, near Hong Kong. Power cuts have prompted nearby factories to reduce operations and eliminate overtime pay. Local workers are living more frugally.“Money is hard to earn,” Mr. Yang said. Trying to Solve the Real Estate QuestionUrbanization was once a great engine of growth for China. The country built spacious apartments in modern high-rises for hundreds of millions of people, with China producing as much steel and cement as the rest of the world output combined, if not more.Now, real estate — in particular, the debt that developers and home buyers amassed — is a major threat to growth. The country’s biggest developer, China Evergrande Group, faces a serious cash shortage that is already rippling through the economy.Construction has ground to a halt at some of the company’s 800 projects as suppliers wait to be paid. Several smaller developers have had to scramble to meet bond payments.This could create a vicious cycle for the housing market. The worry is that developers may dump large numbers of unsold apartments on the market, keeping home buyers away as they watch to see how far prices may fall.“Some developers have encountered certain difficulties, which may further affect the mood and confidence of buyers, causing everyone to postpone buying a house,” said Ning Zhang, a senior economist at UBS.The fate of Evergrande has broader import for the long-term health of the economy.Officials want to send a message that bond buyers and other investors should be more wary about lending money to debt-laden companies like Evergrande and that they should not assume that the government will always be there to bail them out. But the authorities also need to make sure that suppliers, builders, home buyers and other groups are not badly burned financially.These groups “will get made more whole than the bondholders, that’s for sure,” predicted David Yu, a finance professor at the Shanghai campus of New York University.Addressing Difficulties in Heavy IndustryAs electricity shortages have spread across eastern China in recent weeks, regulators have cut power to energy-intensive operations like chemical factories and steel mills to avoid leaving households in the dark. It has been a double whammy for industrial production, which has also been whacked by weakness in construction.Industrial production in September was up only 3.1 percent from a year earlier, the lowest since March of last year, when the city of Wuhan was still under lockdown because of the pandemic.“The power cuts are more concerning to some extent than the Evergrande crisis,” said Sara Hsu, a visiting fellow at Fudan University in Shanghai.Power lines in Dongguan, China. The government has imposed limits on energy use, as a part of a broader response to climate change concerns. Gilles Sabrié for The New York TimesThe Energy Bureau in Zhejiang Province, a heavily industrialized region of coastal China, reduced power this autumn for eight energy-intensive industries that process raw materials into industrial materials like steel, cement and chemicals. Together, they consume nearly half the province’s electricity but account for only an eighth of its economic output.Turning down the power to these industries risks creating shortages in industrial materials, which could ripple through supply chains.Understand China’s New EconomyCard 1 of 6An economic reshaping. More

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    Biden to Announce Expansion of Port of Los Angeles's Hours

    The expansion of the Port of Los Angeles’s hours comes as the administration has struggled to untangle kinks in global supply chains and curb the resulting inflation.WASHINGTON — President Biden will announce on Wednesday that the Port of Los Angeles will begin operating around the clock as his administration struggles to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.Product shortages have frustrated American consumers and businesses and contributed to rising prices that are hurting the president politically. And the problems appear poised to worsen, enduring into late next year or beyond and disrupting shipments of necessities like medications, as well as holiday purchases.Mr. Biden is set to give a speech on Wednesday addressing the problems in ports, factories and shipping lanes that have helped produce shortages, long delivery times and rapid price increases for food, televisions, automobiles and much more. The resulting inflation has chilled consumer confidence and weighed on Mr. Biden’s approval ratings. The Labor Department is set to release a new reading of monthly inflation on Wednesday morning.Administration officials say that they have brokered a deal to move the Port of Los Angeles toward 24/7 operations, joining Long Beach, which is already operating around the clock, and that they are encouraging states to accelerate the licensing of more truck drivers. UPS, Walmart and FedEx will also announce they are moving to work more off-peak hours.Mr. Biden’s team, including a supply chain task force he established earlier this year, is working to make tangible progress toward unblocking the flow of goods and helping the retail industry return to a prepandemic normal. On Wednesday, the White House will host leaders from the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to discuss the difficulties at ports, as well as hold a round table with executives from Walmart, UPS and Home Depot.But it is unclear how much the White House’s efforts can realistically help. The blockages stretch up and down supply chains, from foreign harbors to American rail yards and warehouses. Companies are exacerbating the situation by rushing to obtain products and bidding up their own prices. Analysts say some of these issues may last into late next year or even 2023.Administration officials acknowledged on Tuesday in a call with reporters that the $1.9 trillion economic aid package Mr. Biden signed into law in March had contributed to supply chain issues by boosting demand for goods, but said the law was the reason the U.S. recovery has outpaced those of other nations this year.Consumer demand for exercise bikes, laptops, toys, patio furniture and other goods is booming, fueled by big savings amassed over the course of the pandemic.Imports for the fourth quarter are on pace to be 4.7 percent higher than in the same period last year, which was also a record-breaking holiday season, according to Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.Meanwhile, the pandemic has shut down factories and slowed production around the world. Port closures, shortages of shipping containers and truck drivers, and pileups in rail and ship yards have led to long transit times and unpredictable deliveries for a wide range of products — problems that have only worsened as the holiday season approaches.Home Depot, Costco and Walmart have taken to chartering their own ships to move products across the Pacific Ocean. On Tuesday, 27 container ships were anchored in the Port of Los Angeles waiting to unload their containers, and the average anchorage time had stretched to more than 11 days.Jennifer McKeown, the head of the Global Economics Service at Capital Economics, said that worsening supplier delivery times and conditions at ports suggested that product shortages would persist into mid- to late next year.“Unfortunately, it does look like things are likely to get worse before they get better,” she said.Ms. McKeown said governments around the world could help to smooth some shortages and dampen some price increases, for example by encouraging workers to move into industries with labor shortages, like trucking.President Biden is set to give a speech on Wednesday addressing the problems in ports, factories and shipping lanes that have helped create shortages.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times“But to some extent, they need to let markets do their work,” she said.Phil Levy, the chief economist at the logistics firm Flexport and a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said a Transportation Department official gathering information on what the administration could do to address the supply chain shortages had contacted his company. Flexport offered the administration suggestions on changing certain regulations and procedures to ease the blockages, but warned that the problem was a series of choke points “stacked one on top of the other.”“Are there things that can be done at the margin? Yes, and the administration has at least been asking about this,” Mr. Levy said. However, he cautioned, “from the whole big picture, the supply capacity is really hard to change in a noteworthy way.”The shortages have come as a shock for many American shoppers, who are used to buying a wide range of global goods with a single click, and seeing that same product on their doorstep within hours or days.The political risk for the administration is that shortfalls, mostly a nuisance so far, turn into something more existential. Diapers are already in short supply. As aluminum shortages develop, packaging pharmaceuticals could become a problem, said Robert B. Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University.And even if critical shortages can be averted, slow deliveries could make for slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.“I think Johnny is going to get a back-order slip in his stocking this year,” Dr. Handfield said. Discontent is only fueled by the higher prices the shortages are causing. Consumer price inflation probably climbed by 5.3 percent in the year through September, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expected to show on Wednesday. Before the pandemic, that inflation gauge had been oscillating around 2 percent.Officials at the White House and the Federal Reserve, which has primary responsibility for price stability, have repeatedly said that they expect the rapid price increases to fade. They often point out that much of the surge has been spurred by a jump in car prices, caused by a lack of computer chips that delayed vehicle production.But with supply chains in disarray, it is possible that some new one-off could materialize. Companies that had been trying to avoid passing on higher costs to customers may find that they need to as higher costs become longer lived.Others have been raising prices already. Tesla, for instance, had been hoping to reduce the cost of its electric vehicles and has struggled to do that amid the bottlenecks.“We are seeing significant cost pressure in our supply chain,” Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, said during an annual shareholder meeting Oct. 7. “So we’ve had to increase vehicle prices, at least temporarily, but we do hope to actually reduce the prices over time and make them more affordable.”For policymakers at the White House and the Fed, the concern is that today’s climbing prices could prompt consumers to expect rapid inflation to last. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher wages — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more to cover the cost.What happens next could hinge on when — and how — supply chain disruptions are resolved. If demand slumps as households spend away government stimulus checks and other savings they stockpiled during the pandemic downturn, that could leave purveyors of couches and lawn furniture with fewer production backlogs and less pricing power down the road.If buying stays strong, and shipping remains problematic, inflation could become more entrenched.Some of the factors leading to supply chain disruptions are temporary, including shutdowns in Asian factories and severe weather that has led to energy shortages. Consumer habits, including spending on travel and entertainment, are expected to slowly return to normal as the pandemic subsides.But most companies have enormous backlogs of orders to work through. And company inventories, which provide a kind of insulation from future shocks to the supply chain, are extremely low.To get their own orders fulfilled, companies have placed bigger orders and offered to pay higher prices. The prospect of inflation has further encouraged companies to lock in large purchases of products or machinery in advance.“The customers that are willing to pay the most are most likely to get those orders filled,” said Eric Oak, an analyst at Panjiva. “It’s a vicious cycle.”Emily Cochrane More

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    World’s Growth Cools and the Rich-Poor Divide Widens

    The International Monetary Fund says the persistence of the coronavirus and global supply chain crisis weighs on economies.As the world economy struggles to find its footing, the resurgence of the coronavirus and supply chain chokeholds threaten to hold back the global recovery’s momentum, a closely watched report warned on Tuesday.The overall growth rate will remain near 6 percent this year, a historically high level after a recession, but the expansion reflects a vast divergence in the fortunes of rich and poor countries, the International Monetary Fund said in its latest World Economic Outlook report.Worldwide poverty, hunger and unmanageable debt are all on the upswing. Employment has fallen, especially for women, reversing many of the gains they made in recent years.Uneven access to vaccines and health care is at the heart of the economic disparities. While booster shots are becoming available in some wealthier nations, a staggering 96 percent of people in low-income countries are still unvaccinated.“Recent developments have made it abundantly clear that we are all in this together and the pandemic is not over anywhere until it is over everywhere,” Gita Gopinath, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, wrote in the report.The outlook for the United States, Europe and other advanced economies has also darkened. Factories hobbled by pandemic-related restrictions and bottlenecks at key ports around the world have caused crippling supply shortages. A lack of workers in many industries is contributing to the clogs. The U.S. Labor Department reported Tuesday that a record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August — to take or seek new jobs, or to leave the work force.A street in São Paulo, Brazil, in July. Poverty in many nations is on the upswing.Mauricio Lima for The New York TimesIn the United States, weakening consumption and large declines in inventory caused the I.M.F. to pare back its growth projections to 6 percent from the 7 percent estimated in July. In Germany, manufacturing output has taken a hit because key commodities are hard to find. And lockdown measures over the summer have dampened growth in Japan.Fear of rising inflation — even if likely to be temporary — is growing. Prices are climbing for food, medicine and oil as well as for cars and trucks. Inflation worries could also limit governments’ ability to stimulate the economy if a slowdown worsens. As it is, the unusual infusion of public support in the United States and Europe is winding down.“Overall, risks to economic prospects have increased, and policy trade-offs have become more complex,” Ms. Gopinath said. The I.M.F. lowered its 2021 global growth forecast to 5.9 percent, down from the 6 percent projected in July. For 2022, the estimate is 4.9 percent.The key to understanding the global economy is that recoveries in different countries are out of sync, said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “Each and every economy is suffering or benefiting from its own idiosyncratic factors,” he said.For countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea, whose economies have large manufacturing sectors, “inflation hits them where it hurts the most,” Mr. Daco said, raising costs of raw materials that reverberate through the production process.The pandemic has underscored how economic success or failure in one country can ripple throughout the world. Floods in Shanxi, China’s mining region, and monsoons in India’s coal-producing states contribute to rising energy prices. A Covid outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City that shuts factories means shop owners in Hoboken won’t have shoes and sweaters to sell.South Africa has sent a train with vaccines into one of its poorest provinces to get doses to areas where health care facilities are stretched.Jerome Delay/Associated PressThe I.M.F. warned that if the coronavirus — or its variants — continued to hopscotch across the globe, it could reduce the world’s estimated output by $5.3 trillion over the next five years.The worldwide surge in energy prices threatens to impose more hardship as it hampers the recovery. This week, oil prices hit a seven-year high in the United States. With winter approaching, Europeans are worried that heating costs will soar when temperatures drop. In other spots, the shortages have cut even deeper, causing blackouts in some places that paralyzed transport, closed factories and threatened food supplies.In China, electricity is being rationed in many provinces and many companies are operating at less than half of their capacity, contributing to an already significant slowdown in growth. India’s coal reserves have dropped to dangerously low levels.And over the weekend, Lebanon’s six million residents were left without any power for more than 24 hours after fuel shortages shut down the nation’s power plants. The outage is just the latest in a series of disasters there. Its economic and financial crisis has been one of the world’s worst in 150 years.Oil producers in the Middle East and elsewhere are lately benefiting from the jump in prices. But many nations in the region and North Africa are still trying to resuscitate their pandemic-battered economies. According to newly updated reports from the World Bank, 13 of the 16 countries in that region will have lower standards of living this year than they did before the pandemic, in large part because of “underfinanced, imbalanced and ill-prepared health systems.”Other countries were so overburdened by debt even before the pandemic that governments were forced to limit spending on health care to repay foreign lenders.A power outage on Monday in Beirut. Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis has been one of the world’s worst in 150 years.Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIn Latin America and the Caribbean, there are fears of a second lost decade of growth like the one experienced after 2010. In South Africa, over one-third of the population is out of work.And in East Asia and the Pacific, a World Bank update warned that “Covid-19 threatens to create a combination of slow growth and increasing inequality for the first time this century.” Businesses in Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines lost on average 40 percent or more of their typical monthly sales. Thailand and many Pacific island economies are expected to have less output in 2023 than they did before the pandemic.Overall, though, some developing economies are doing better than last year, partly because of the increase in the prices of commodities like oil and metals that they produce. Growth projections ticked up slightly to 6.4 percent in 2021 compared with 6.3 percent estimated in July.“The recovery has been incredibly uneven,” and that’s a problem for everyone, said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust. “Developing countries are essential to global economic function.”The outlook is clouded by uncertainty. Erratic policy decisions — like Congress’s delay in lifting the debt ceiling — can further set back the recovery, the I.M.F. warned.But the biggest risk is the emergence of a more infectious and deadlier coronavirus variant.Ms. Gopinath at the I.M.F. urged vaccine manufacturers to support the expansion of vaccine production in developing countries.Earlier this year, the I.M.F. approved $650 billion worth of emergency currency reserves that have been distributed to countries around the world. In this latest report, it again called on wealthy countries to help ensure that these funds are used to benefit poor countries that have been struggling the most with the fallout of the virus.“We’re witnessing what I call tragic reversals in development across many dimensions,” said David Malpass, the president of the World Bank. “Progress in reducing extreme poverty has been set back by years — for some, by a decade.”Ben Casselman More

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    Retailers’ Latest Headache: Shutdowns at Their Vietnamese Suppliers

    Factories in the country, a major apparel and footwear supplier to the U.S., have been forced by the pandemic to close or operate at reduced capacity, complicating the all-important holiday season.After a bruising 18 months of the pandemic, this fall represented a fresh start for the apparel company Everlane. It was preparing to release a slew of new products, with September marking the beginning of an ambitious marketing campaign around its denim.Instead, Everlane has spent this month scrambling just to get jeans — along with other products like bags and shoes — out of Vietnam, where a surge in coronavirus cases has forced factories to either close or operate at severely reduced capacity with staff living in on-site bubbles.“At this point, we have factories in 100 percent lockdown,” Michael Preysman, Everlane’s chief executive, said in an interview. “Do we fly things over? Do we move things? Do we adjust in the factory? It’s a nonstop game of Tetris.”The crisis in Vietnam, which has grown in recent years to become the second-biggest supplier of apparel and footwear to the United States after China, is the latest curveball to be tossed at the retail industry, which has been battered by the pandemic. Vietnam made it through the first part of the pandemic relatively unscathed, but now the Delta variant of the coronavirus is on a rampage, highlighting the uneven distribution of vaccines globally and the perils that new outbreaks pose to the world’s economy.With the holiday season fast approaching, many American retailers are anticipating delays and shortages of goods, along with higher prices tied to labor and already skyrocketing shipping costs. Everlane said it was facing delays of four to eight weeks, depending on when factories it worked with in Vietnam had closed. Nike cut its sales forecast last week, citing the loss of 10 weeks of production in Vietnam since mid-July and reopenings set to start in phases in October.The apparel company Everlane said that 40 percent of its wares came from Vietnam.Justin Kaneps for The New York Times“We weren’t anticipating a full lockdown,” said Jana Gold, a senior director with Alvarez & Marsal’s consumer and retail group, who has been helping retailers with supply chain issues. “We’re going to continue to see a high demand for goods from highly vaccinated countries or regions, but who are getting the goods from highly unvaccinated countries that could be struggling.”The logjam has put a spotlight on Vietnam’s key role in outfitting American consumers. Many retailers moved their manufacturing to the country from China over the past decade because of rising costs. New tariffs on China instituted under former President Donald J. Trump accelerated the shift.Contract factories in Vietnam manufactured 51 percent of total Nike brand footwear last year. Lululemon and Gap, which also owns Old Navy, have said a third of their merchandise comes from factories in Vietnam. Everlane said the country supplies 40 percent of its wares.As the coronavirus tore across the globe, Vietnam was hailed as a bright spot for its rock-bottom caseload and strong economy. Over 15 months, only 3,000 infections and 15 deaths were reported in the country. But during the summer, the Delta variant erupted among a population that was almost entirely unvaccinated. Now, the caseload has surged past 766,000 and the death toll is nearing 19,000.The densely packed industrial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s virus epicenter, has experienced a series of increasingly stringent lockdowns, with many factories temporarily closing in July. That paralyzed commercial activity and added stress to a strained global supply chain. Although new cases have started to decline, the government extended the lockdown through the end of September, as it struggles to vaccinate its residents.People waiting to receive their vaccination in Hanoi, Vietnam, this month.Linh Pham/Getty ImagesAt the beginning of September, only 3.3 percent of the country’s population was fully vaccinated, while 15.4 percent had received one shot.The American apparel and footwear industry has asked the Vietnamese government to prioritize shots among factory workers. Executives from roughly 90 companies, including Nike and Fruit of the Loom, asked the Biden administration in a letter in mid-August to accelerate vaccine donations, saying that “​​the health of our industry is directly dependent on the health of Vietnam’s industry.” The group said the industry employed about three million U.S. workers.On a visit to Vietnam last month, Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would send an additional one million vaccine doses, on top of the five million already donated, along with $23 million in emergency aid and 77 freezers to store the vaccine.“The situation in Vietnam is exactly why we need to be accelerating our efforts to provide donations of vaccines around the world,” said Steve Lamar, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group. Retailers have been setting up vaccination sites at factories to help administer shots once doses are obtained and are trying to keep manufacturing going through “three-in-one place” policy, where workers eat, sleep and work at factories, he said.According to the latest figures from the government, nearly everyone in Ho Chi Minh City has received the first shot.A garment factory in Hanoi in January, before the lockdown.Kham/ReutersJason Chen, chairman and founder of Singtex, a garment factory owner, said last week that the company’s 350-person factory in Binh Duong Province was down to 80 people, who were living on the premises to comply with government restrictions. The factory erected a tent to serve dinner to workers and has been shifting some retail orders to Singtex’s factories in Taiwan. Mr. Chen said he was prepared for the Vietnamese factories to remain closed until November.“This year in the U.S.A., everybody wants to go shopping,” Mr. Chen said. “Some goods cannot be delivered in the right time. So it really will affect the holiday.”He added that administrators at the factory were calling workers who were in lockdown to see if they needed financial and other assistance. But many are struggling.Le Quoc Khanh, 40, who assembles electronic home appliances at Saigon Hi-Tech Park, said the rigidity of the government lockdown had been “very hard” for him and his wife, who have three small children and rent their home in Ho Chi Minh City. His employer is not yet able to bring him back, even though he is vaccinated, and he said he had been forced to borrow money at high interest rates to pay for electricity, diapers and food.“On Sept. 15, when I heard that anyone who had two doses could go to work, my wife and I were so happy that we burst into tears, but now the government says to wait until the end of September,” he said. “My wife and I are so worried. It’s like we are sitting on fire — we really need money for living now.”The pandemic’s continuing impact on crucial supply chains may have a longer-lasting impact on future investment decisions in Vietnam and other emerging economies. Companies choosing where to invest abroad have always evaluated a broad slate of conditions, like taxes, regulatory requirements and labor force availability.“All of a sudden, they have to start thinking about the public health response,” said Chad P. Brown, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, added: “The Delta wave is just one of the variants. Vietnam, just like other countries, will have to prepare for the long game and potentially more outbreaks even after mass vaccination.”Hoping that restrictions will be eased in October, some factories in Ho Chi Minh City that have been closed since July are preparing to resume production.At the moment, though, American companies are looking outside Vietnam, often returning to Chinese factories that they worked with previously or finding partners in other countries that are not in the middle of a surge.Whether they will have enough time to shift before the holidays is questionable. “September is a bad time to reposition things,” said Gordon Hanson, an economist and urban policy professor at Harvard Kennedy School.Vietnam has been a regular topic on recent earnings calls for retailers, and concerns have probably ballooned as reopenings have been pushed. Adidas, based in Germany, said last month that delays that started with closings in mid-July were among issues that could cost the company more than 500 million euros in sales in the second half of the year.Restoration Hardware cited the shutdowns as a key factor in its decision to push the introduction of a new collection to next spring and to delay fall catalogs. Urban Outfitters said that while it would normally replenish best-selling products during the holiday season, its top concern now was simply getting products into the United States.The outbreak emerged just as the United States appeared to be regaining its economic footing and retailers were seeing a rebound in sales after a difficult 2020.Gihan Amarasiriwardena, right, with his Ministry of Supply co-founder Aman Advani, said the brand had paid about $1.50 per $125 shirt in transportation costs before the pandemic. Now, the cost is nearly $6.Tony Luong for The New York Times“In mid-June, the world looked like a pretty good place, at least in the U.S., and we anticipated this great recovery and here we are,” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, president and co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a small apparel brand.Production delays aren’t the only problem. Ocean freight costs have soared during the pandemic, ports are crowded and demand for air shipping has jumped so significantly that Ms. Gold of Alvarez & Marsal said some retailers had chartered their own airplanes to transport goods.Since last year, the cost of shipping a container from East Asia to the West Coast of North America has leapt to $20,000 from $4,000, according to the transportation company FreightCo.Mr. Amarasiriwardena said Ministry of Supply had paid about $1.50 in transportation costs for a $125 shirt before the pandemic. Now, the cost is nearly $6 per shirt.Macy’s chief executive, Jeff Gennette, said, “This is the one keeping me up at night,” referring to supply chain issues at ports and in Vietnam. For the company, “it’s a bigger potential problem in the near term than where Covid is right now,” he said.Retailers are already trying to prepare customers. L.L. Bean just added a banner to its website warning customers about holiday shipping delays and shortages and urging early shopping. Stephen Smith, the company’s chief executive, said that the messaging was “unprecedented” for mid-September and that the company normally started talking about holiday orders and shipping cutoffs “deep into October or even November.”Mr. Preysman of Everlane said he anticipated that the supply chain would not rebound to its prepandemic health for several years.“You have to live in a new normal where the stability of 2019 doesn’t come back for three to five years,” he said. “This is going to take a long time to sort out.”Chau Doan More