The Pandemic’s Nerd Celebrities – The New York Times

“Ship Happens: The Miniseries” is a podcast that wouldn’t exist were it not for the pandemic, which led consumers to start ordering sofas and computer screens so voraciously that the world’s factories and ports couldn’t keep up. .

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

“You never pay attention to something until it breaks,” said Buchman, the company’s director of marketing. “Part of that was the vertigo that, hey him, people care.”

Freightos, which began its supply chain podcast in November, is among a flood of data providers whose once-esoteric skills and offerings have been catapulted into the spotlight by a pandemic that has rewritten the rules of global trade and economics. .

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

What could have been a brief moment of prominence dragged on well into 2022. Nothing — not shipping routes, not consumer spending, not the job market, and definitely not inflation — seems to be behaving like it did before. The coronavirus will arrive in early 2020.

Inflation is running at its fastest pace in 40 years, and next week’s data is likely to show prices rose more than 8 percent in the year to March. Supply chains remain in turmoil, employers are desperate to fill open positions and Americans have surprised economists by spending during rapid price increases and rampant uncertainty.

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

“Before, a very select circle of enlightened people found supply chains interesting, but it wasn’t a widely shared passion,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, a customs brokerage and freight forwarding company, showing the kind of deadpan supply chain that the larger public, relatively speaking, is now enjoying.

According to a profile maintained by Bloomberg, Levy has racked up 26 unique media mentions so far this year, up from 26 in all of 2021 and 15 in 2020. Suddenly every economist and economics writer seems to be a business analyst, trying Find out what could happen to supplies and prices.

“Normally when you make forecasts you look at past experiences,” Levy said. “That changed with the pandemic.”

The revolution started in the toilet paper aisle. At the start of the pandemic, consumers suddenly started shopping differently. No one needed coffee to go or manicures; everyone wanted new furniture for the home office.

As the government sent out repeated stimulus checks and offered more generous unemployment insurance and families spent more time at home, Americans spent the money on goods rather than services that ate up a large part of their pre-pandemic budgets. . Even though aid has faded and business has returned to something close to normal, demand for things has remained unusually strong.

The world’s ships, ports and factories fell behind early in the pandemic and have not been able to fully catch up. The situation has only been intensified by unforeseen disruptions, such as a giant cargo ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal. The Ever Given spent six days motionless, drawing global attention to the precariousness of supply chains and maritime trade, and increasing the demand for experts who could explain it.

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

For Mr. Levy and his colleagues, the situation wasn’t funny in itself (the lockdown was about to get customers in trouble), but it did spark a flurry of memes on Flexport’s internal Slack messaging channels. (One that stuck in his memory was a photo of the stranded ship overlaid with the words “I told you not to listen to Waze’s instructions.”)

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

And the turmoil extends beyond the world of shipping.

Companies can’t find enough workers, in part because the pandemic appears to have accelerated a demographic shift. Baby boomers, who were entering retirement age, have left the labor market in large numbers and it is unclear whether they will return. Parents dealing with unpredictable child care also dropped out of the workforce. Employers are grappling with the possibility that workers are in the midst of a “Big Quit,” possibly buoyed by savings accumulated during the pandemic. The shortage of the labor market has given them the opportunity to ask for higher wages and better working conditions.

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

Fiona Greig doesn’t know all the answers. But she has data that could allow her, and others, to get closer than they otherwise would.

“Now I get incoming requests from asset managers in Germany, from all walks of life: our own Federal Reserve Bank, the White House, and so on,” said Ms. Greig, director of consumer research and co-chair of the JPMorgan Chase Institute. .

Early in the pandemic, the institute focused on a metric that was of great interest to many people: what people could spend. The now widely cited chart uses data from Chase to show how much cash households in different income bands have in their checking accounts in near real time, and has been used by Wall Street policymakers and econometricians to gauge the purchasing power of different consumer groups.

“Now we have a ‘request data’ button, and people are requesting it from everywhere,” said Ms. Greig.

She and her team have also written about the minor influence the expansion of unemployment benefits had on keeping job seekers at home, work that made it to the mainstream media. Ms. Greig can feel the effect of her increased pandemic fame: “Friends I haven’t been in contact with in a long time have said, ‘Hi, nice to see you at my morning feed.'”

The famous surprise facts are reacting to the attention in different ways. Ms. Greig, who has been at the institute since 2014, believes that greater public familiarity with her data will drive new academic research even as the pandemic subsides.

Freightos’ Mr. Buchman believes that widespread interest in shipping will fade, but thinks economists and businesses will remain more aware of supply chain issues than before.

“We’re in a part of the economy that we consider to be the staples of society,” he said, noting that this has been a time to “spread the freight gospel.”

And for Mr. Levy at Flexport, whose team was just coming together at the start of the pandemic, a return to some kind of normalcy, whatever that means, and whenever that happens, would be welcome.

“We’re eager to get to the point where we’re the ones thinking about supply chains,” he said, instead of regularly requesting evaluation of their supply chains by hedge funds, central banks, major international organizations and governments. team on when the port backups will be performed. disappear, when container delays normalize or for updates to Flexport’s ocean delivery timeliness indicator.

But it’s unclear when any version of normal will return. Supply chains are still a mess. Labor shortages have shown no clear signs of abating, and policymakers are eagerly awaiting signs that inflation is cooling, but so far it has only accelerated.

Stoppages and port delays have shown signs of easing, but the war in Ukraine is driving up oil and other commodity prices. It is also disrupting air travel, as planes fly through Russian airspace carrying lighter loads to make longer travel more affordable, and threatens to disrupt the world’s food supply, especially grains.

Mr. Buchman said it could take six months to a year for supply chains to return to normal: “Ship Happens” isn’t over yet.

In fact, it is likely that even once capacity begins to recover, shipping will continue to function.

Companies may be investing so much in new ships and planes that the world ends up in a new era of oversupply, Buchman said, what people like to call a “bullwhip effect.” If so, listeners may just need a podcast for that.

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