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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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    Inflation Drives Sharp Downturn in Consumer Sentiment

    Americans have turned decidedly gloomy about their financial outlook, and inflation is the main cause of the anxiety, according to a survey released Friday.The University of Michigan reported that its survey of consumer sentiment fell to its lowest level in a decade in early November. It attributed the decline to “the growing belief among consumers that no effective policies have yet been developed to reduce the damage from surging inflation.”Hampered by supply chain disruptions and labor shortages in some industries, the economy has been straining under rising prices. The government this week reported the steepest inflation in 31 years, with a 6.2 percent increase in prices in October from a year earlier.In the Michigan survey, “rising prices for homes, vehicles and durables were reported more frequently than any other time in more than half a century.” But inflation is hardly limited to big-ticket purchases — food items like meat are getting more expensive, driving up the cost of preparing Thanksgiving meals.Many policymakers have assumed that higher inflation would be transitory, a result of the uneven reopening of the economy after widespread shutdowns because of the coronavirus pandemic.Investors, too, have shrugged off the threat of inflation, even though it can erode the value of financial assets. Bond yields, which move higher in times of inflation, remain low by historical standards. And the stock market is near record highs, despite the uptick in prices lately.But the Michigan survey is a sign that consumers are beginning to feel pinched. The survey reflected a downturn in assessments of both current conditions and economic prospects.“Consumers are angry about inflation,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton in Chicago.“Inflation will get worse before it gets better,” Ms. Swonk said. “It could moderate by the spring of 2022, and it does affect how people feel about the economy.”But consumers in the United States continue to spend at robust levels, she said, and the odds look good for a robust holiday shopping season. More

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    Inflation Sped up in October, Economists Expect

    White House officials have embraced a key talking point as a bout of high inflation hits consumers and hands Republicans ammunition to argue against President Biden’s policies: Price gains may be faster than usual, but at least they are slowing down from rapid summertime readings.Data to be released on Wednesday is likely to eliminate that shred of comfort.Consumer price inflation probably picked up to 0.6 percent last month from September, a Labor Department report is expected to show, faster than the prior month’s increase of 0.4 percent and the fastest pace since June. Even so-called core price gains, which strip out products like food and fuel, are expected to accelerate.Those big October gains will mean that prices overall have climbed by 5.9 percent over the past 12 months, with the core index up 4.3 percent, based on the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists.Those inflation rates would be far faster than the 2 percent annual gains the Federal Reserve, which has primary responsibility for maintaining price stability, aims for on average over time. While the Fed sets its goal using a separate measure of inflation — the Personal Consumption Expenditures index — that too has picked up sharply this year. The C.P.I. reports come out faster, and help to feed into the Fed’s favored gauge, so they are closely watched by economists and Wall Street investors.Administration officials and Fed policymakers alike have spent months emphasizing that inflation, while high, is likely to fade. But they have had to revise how quickly that might happen: Supply chains remain badly snarled, and demand for goods is holding up and helping to fuel higher prices. As wages begin to rise in many sectors amid labor shortages, there are reasons to expect that some employers might charge their customers more to cover climbing worker costs.“It is now clear that this process will take longer than initially expected, and the inflation overshoot will likely get worse before it gets better,” Goldman Sachs economists wrote in a research analysis this week.Inflation Is High. Will It Go Higher? Price gains have rocketed up in 2021, and though gains had begun to moderate somewhat, October data could mark a turnaround in the trend.

    Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesThe factors that probably pushed up inflation in October were varied: Used and new car shortages have sent prices skyrocketing, supply chain issues have made furniture costlier, labor shortages are raising service-industry price tags, and rents are rising after a weak 2020. In the headline data, food and fuel prices have picked up sharply.It is difficult to predict when those trends might moderate. Many of them are intertwined with the reopening of businesses from state and local lockdowns meant to contain the coronavirus, and the economy has never gone through such a widespread shutdown and restart before.But policymakers have become increasingly wary that price gains that are too quick for comfort might linger. While they were willing to overlook a burst of temporary inflation, long-lasting gains would be more of a problem, potentially spurring the Fed to raise interest rates to cool off demand and contain price pressures.There are some worrying signs. Consumers have been increasing their expectations for future price gains. Households expecting to face climbing grocery, department store and gas bills might demand pay raises — setting off an upward cycle in which wages and prices push one another ever higher.Understand the Supply Chain CrisisCard 1 of 5Covid’s impact on the supply chain continues. More

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    The Biggest Kink in America’s Supply Chain: Not Enough Truckers

    WASHINGTON — Facing more than $50,000 in student debt, Michael Gary dropped out of college and took a truck driving job in 2012. It paid the bills, he said, and he could reduce his expenses if he lived mostly out of a truck.But over the years, the job strained his relationships. He was away from home for weeks at a time and could not prioritize his health: It took more than three years to schedule an optometry appointment, which he kept canceling because of his irregular work hours. He quit on Oct. 6.“I had no personal life outside of driving a truck,” said Mr. Gary, 58, a resident of Vancouver, Wash. “I finally had enough.”Truck drivers have been in short supply for years, but a wave of retirements combined with those simply quitting for less stressful jobs is exacerbating the supply chain crisis in the United States, leading to empty store shelves, panicked holiday shoppers and congestion at ports. Warehouses around the country are overflowing with products, and delivery times have stretched to months from days or weeks for many goods.A report released last month by the American Trucking Associations estimated that the industry is short 80,000 drivers, a record number, and one the association said could double by 2030 as more retire.Supply-chain problems stem from a number of factors, including an extraordinary surge in demand for goods and factory shutdowns abroad. But the situation has been compounded by a shortage of truckers and deteriorating conditions across the transportation sector, which have made it even harder for consumers to get the things they want when they want them.The phenomenon is rippling across the economy, weighing on growth, pushing up prices for consumers and depressing President Biden’s approval rating. But the White House has struggled with how to respond.On Tuesday, it announced a series of steps aimed at alleviating supply-chain problems, such as allowing ports to redirect other federal funds to efforts to ease backlogs. As part of the plan, the Port of Savannah could reallocate more than $8 million to convert existing inland facilities into five pop-up container yards in Georgia and North Carolina to help ships offload cargo more quickly.That followed an announcement by Mr. Biden last month that major ports and private companies would begin moving toward 24-hour operation in an effort to ease the gridlock. But early results suggest that trucking remains a major bottleneck in that effort, compounding congestion at the ports.The directors of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said that, at least initially, few additional truckers were showing up to take advantage of the extended hours.Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said his port had told the White House in July that about 30 percent of the port’s appointments for truckers went unused every day, largely because of shortages of drivers, the chassis they use to pull the loads and warehouse workers to unload items from trucks.“Here in the port complex, with all this cargo, we need more drivers,” Mr. Seroka said.The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the House passed last week could help mitigate the shortage. The legislation includes a three-year pilot apprenticeship program that would allow commercial truck drivers as young as 18 to drive across state lines. In most states, people under 21 can receive a commercial driver’s license, but federal regulations restrict them from driving interstate routes.But industry experts said the program was unlikely to fix the immediate problem, given that it could take months to get underway and the fact that many people simply do not want to drive trucks.Mr. Biden said last month that he would consider deploying the National Guard to alleviate the trucker shortage, although a White House official said the administration was not actively pursuing the move.Meera Joshi, the deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the agency had focused on easing the process of obtaining a commercial driver’s license after states cut back licensing operations during the coronavirus pandemic. The agency has also extended the hours that certain drivers can work. “They are the absolute backbone of a big part of our supply chain,” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said about truckers at a White House briefing on Monday. “We need to respect and, in my view, compensate them better than we have.”The shortage has alarmed trucking companies, which say there are not enough young people to replace those aging out of the work force. The stereotypes attached with the job, the isolating lifestyle and younger generations’ focus on pursuing four-year college degrees have made it difficult to entice drivers. Trucking companies have also struggled to retain workers: Turnover rates have reached as high as 90 percent for large carriers.In response, the companies have raised their wages. The average weekly earnings for long-distance drivers have increased about 21 percent since the start of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, commercial truck drivers had a median wage of $47,130.On any given day this summer, dozens of container ships waited outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to unload their cargo.Stella Kalinina for The New York TimesThe Port of Los Angeles. Trucking remains a major bottleneck in the effort to reduce congestion at U.S. ports.Stella Kalinina for The New York TimesTo pay for those increases, trucking companies are raising their rates. Jon Gold, the vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, said the driver shortage has contributed to steeper costs for retailers, which are trickling down to consumers and pushing up some of the prices at stores.“We are seeing cost increases at every step of the way in the transportation supply chain,” Mr. Gold said. “From ocean to truck to rail, costs are increasing.”Derek J. Leathers, the president and chief executive of Werner Enterprises in Omaha, which employs about 9,500 drivers, said its services cost about 15 percent more than prepandemic levels as driver salaries and equipment costs have climbed.The company is trying to hire about 700 truck drivers — up from about 300 before the pandemic — after demand swelled and retirements left the company short on workers. It has increased driver compensation by about 20 percent since the start of 2020 and expanded the number of driving academies it operates.“I’ve been in the business for over 30 years,” Mr. Leathers said. “I definitely think this is the tightest driver market I’ve seen in my career.”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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    U.S. Economy Added 531,000 Jobs in October

    The American economy added 531,000 jobs in October, the Labor Department said Friday, a sharp rebound from the prior month and a sign that employers are feeling more optimistic as the latest coronavirus surge eases.Economists polled by Bloomberg had been looking for a gain of 450,000 jobs. The unemployment rate declined to 4.6 percent, from 4.8 percent.The October gain was an improvement from the 312,000 positions added in September — a number that was revised upward on Friday.Hiring has seesawed this year along with the pandemic, especially in vulnerable sectors like hospitality and retail, where workers must deal face to face with customers. White-collar employees have fared better, since many can work remotely.Some employers are complaining of a shortage of workers, as many people remain on the sidelines of the job market. The labor force participation rate — the share of the working-age population employed or looking for a job — was flat in October.In theory, the demand for workers should be drawing more people into the labor force, but the participation rate is nearly two percentage points below where it was before the pandemic. Early retirements have been a factor.A federal supplement to unemployment benefits expired in early September, and experts are watching whether the end of that assistance — and a depletion of savings accumulated from other emergency programs — increases the availability of workers.So far, those effects have been muted, as health concerns and child care challenges have continued to affect many families. At the same time, the labor shortage has given workers a measure of leverage they’ve not experienced in recent years.“For the last 25, maybe 30 years, labor has been on its back heels and losing its share of the economic pie,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “But that dynamic is now shifting.”Supply chain problems are another headache for employers. Automobile manufacturers have been particularly hurt by a shortage of semiconductors, while many companies are dealing with rising prices for raw materials and transportation.The Commerce Department reported last week that the economy grew by 0.5 percent in the third quarter, compared with 1.6 percent in the second quarter. Economists attributed the slowdown to the resurgent pandemic and the supply chain holdups.Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it would begin winding down the large-scale bond purchases that have been underway since the pandemic struck, signaling that it considers the economy healthy enough to be weaned from the extra stimulus.“The labor market is tight,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco. “Consumers are in good shape, and the willingness to spend is certainly there.” 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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    The Fed’s favorite inflation index remains high in September.

    Annual inflation is climbing at the fastest pace in three decades in the United States, according to data released Friday, keeping pressure on the Federal Reserve and White House as they try to calibrate policy during a tumultuous period marked by strong consumer demand and quickly rising prices for couches, cars and housing.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, has increasingly acknowledged that inflation is lasting longer than central bankers had expected. While Fed officials believe inflation will fade as supply chain snarls unravel and consumer demand for goods cools, it remains unclear when that will happen. Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, has predicted that rapid price jumps will cool by later next year.Still, the current pace of inflation has become an uncomfortable political problem for President Biden and has created a delicate balancing act for the Fed, which is still trying to get the labor market back to full strength. Prices climbed by 4.4 percent in the year through September, according to the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, which is the central bank’s preferred inflation gauge. That beats out recent months to become the fastest pace of increase since 1991.Between August and September, prices climbed by 0.3 percent. That is in line with what economists expected and slower than rapid numbers posted earlier in the summer. Policymakers may take that as a sign that inflation was moderating, if still rapid on an annual basis, coming into the fall.Friday’s data reconfirms what more timely inflation measures like the Consumer Price Index had already shown: Inflation continues to run at a rapid pace in the United States. That is happening in large part because supply chains are struggling to keep up with strong demand, thanks to virus-tied factory shutdowns, clogged ports and a shortage of transit workers, among other factors. The combination has made it hard to buy a kitchen table or a used car, and has caused the prices of many goods to jump sharply.As prices climb, the Fed is preparing to slow down the large-scale bond purchases it had been using to lower long-term borrowing costs and support the economy. The central bank has been buying $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, but it is poised to announce its plan to slow that program as soon as next week. Mr. Powell has said buying could stop altogether by mid-2022.That would leave the Fed in a position to raise its policy interest rate, its more traditional and arguably more powerful tool, should it need to do so to tamp down price increases. That rate has been set near zero since March 2020.When the Fed raises interest rates, it makes it more expensive to borrow to buy houses, cars and washing machines. As demand cools, supply catches up and price gains moderate or even reverse, reducing inflation.But the downside is that slower consumption and economic growth also lead to less business expansion and hiring. Slowing the job market is an unattractive prospect at a moment when millions of people remain out of work following lockdowns early in the pandemic and with concerns lingering about health and child care.The Fed is closely watching measures of inflation expectations, which have risen in recent weeks, as it tries to assess whether price gains might jump out of control.Understand the Supply Chain CrisisCard 1 of 5Covid’s impact on the supply chain continues. More