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Making supply chains more resilient

Jul 28,2021 - Last updated at Jul 28,2021

MUNICH — Automobile and electronics manufacturers worldwide have recently had to reduce output because a severe drought in Taiwan has hit the island’s production of semiconductors. This and other global supply-chain disruptions — many of them caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — have prompted advanced economies to take steps to mitigate the potential impact. But what types of government action make economic sense?

Supply-chain bottlenecks can have a significant economic effect. Germany, for example, imports 8 per cent of its intermediate products from low-wage countries (the United States relies on these economies for just 4.6 per cent of its inputs). Problems with input deliveries recently led Germany’s Ifo Institute to lower its forecast for German GDP growth this year by almost half-a-percentage point, to 3.3 per cent.

This vulnerability helps to explain why the European Union has earmarked part of its 750 billion euros ($884 billion) Next Generation EU recovery fund to bolster Europe’s semiconductor design and manufacturing capabilities. The US chipmaker Intel plans to invest in several European countries and to open a semiconductor factory in the region with EU help.

Meanwhile, Bosch, Europe’s largest automotive supplier, recently opened a chip-manufacturing plant in Dresden with the help of European subsidies. Bosch’s investment in eastern Germany is the latest in a series of battery cell projects in “Silicon Saxony”, which policymakers hope will reduce Europe’s dependence on Asian suppliers and make it more resilient to future global health and climate crises.

US policymakers have similar concerns. In June, a task force appointed by President Joe Biden’s administration presented its assessment of America’s supply-chain vulnerabilities across four key products: Semiconductors and advanced packaging, large-capacity batteries of the sort used in electric vehicles, critical minerals and materials, and pharmaceuticals and advanced pharmaceutical ingredients.

Some might argue that rich-country governments’ efforts to strengthen domestic and regional production networks reflect a new form of economic nationalism driven by fear of China. But the crucial question is whether companies really need state help to protect themselves against supply-chain turbulence.

There are three ways advanced-economy firms can make their input supplies more resilient and only one of them requires government involvement. One option is to reshore production from developing countries. Recent research that I co-authored shows that the COVID-19 crisis, by increasing the relative costs of supply chains, accelerated the reshoring trend that began with the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

The production disruptions and higher transport costs resulting from the pandemic made supply chains more expensive; the price of containers used to ship goods from Asia to Europe and the US increased about eightfold. At the same time, lending rates fell sharply relative to hourly wages after the financial crisis, making robot-based production much cheaper than employing workers.

A second way for firms to insure against supply-chain shocks is to build up inventories. Rich-country firms long ago adopted lean Toyota-style manufacturing operations that enabled them to reduce costs substantially. But many may now switch from “just in time” production to a “just in case” model that, while more expensive, offers greater safety and predictability.

Third, companies can dual-source or even triple-source inputs, relying on suppliers from different continents in order to hedge the risk of natural disasters or other regional disruptions. But this diversification strategy has its limits. For example, a highly specialised supplier that invests in research and development in order to provide a specific input is not easily replaceable and sourcing others can be costly.

Heavy regional concentrations of suppliers also make diversification difficult. Most producers of chips, battery cells, rare earth materials such as cobalt and lithium and pharmaceutical ingredients are based in Asia. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and South Korea’s Samsung dominate the global semiconductor market, while China produces about 70 per cent of the world’s battery cells for electric vehicles.

The current global semiconductor shortage illustrates how geographic clustering of input suppliers can generate upheavals in the rest of the world. In a 2012 paper, MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and his co-authors showed that disruptions to an asymmetric supply-chain network — in which one or few suppliers deliver inputs to many producers — can spread throughout the world economy and potentially lead to a global recession.

 

Dalia Marin, professor of International Economics at the Technical University of Munich’s School of Management, is a research fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. 

www.project-syndicate.org

 

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