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China Throws Shade On Biden’s Bid To Shift U.S. Supply Chains

China dismissed efforts to shift U.S. supply chains toward alternative sources as unrealistic, hitting back hours after President Joe Biden signed an order to review how America buys strategic goods. China Throws Shade On Biden’s Bid To Shift U.S. Supply Chains

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made the remarks Thursday in response to a question about the order, which will cover chips along with large-capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals and critical minerals and strategic materials like rare earths. Zhao said such measures “will not help solve domestic problems” and only harm global trade.

“China believes that artificial efforts to shift these chains and to decouple is not realistic,” Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing. “We hope the U.S. will earnestly respect market laws and free trade rules and uphold the safety and reliability and stability of global supply chains.”

Biden acknowledged Wednesday that the problem wouldn’t be solved immediately. The issue has taken on urgency with a global chip shortage that’s threatening to harm U.S. growth just as Biden seeks to rebuild an economy battered by the coronavirus. Some automakers are cutting workers’ hours due to the shortfall and unions are raising alarm about the prospect of layoffs.

While the U.S. gets much of its semiconductor supplies from allies like Taiwan and South Korea, Biden’s executive order seeks to end the country’s reliance on China and other adversaries. The order doesn’t directly call out China or any one country. Still, White House officials said an over-reliance on Beijing and other adversaries was a key risk that must be addressed.

Biden’s review could lead to financial incentives, tariffs or changes in procurement policies, among other options, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The administration plans to consider ways to encourage production of key items in the U.S. or work with allies to manufacture the items, the official added.

Biden’s order directs industry-specific reviews focused on defense, public health and biological preparedness, information-communications technology, transportation, energy and food production. Those assessments, to be completed within one year, will be modeled after reviews the Defense Department uses to regularly evaluate the U.S. defense industrial base.

The Biden team will draw on lessons from the current crisis on chips and the shortage of personal protective equipment that plagued the U.S. last year, one of the officials said. Wednesday’s order is designed to help the U.S. address future crises before they occur, the official said.

The order calls for reviewing supply chains every four years and directs the administration to consult with outside groups, including businesses, academia, unions and state and local governments, according to the White House.

Updated: 3-23-2021

How Corporate America’s Poorly-Designed Supply Chain Was Made Worse By The Pandemic

Corporate America has a way of costing itself big by not adequately preparing for trouble. That lesson has been learned the hard way—again—over the past year.

This time a year ago, Navin Katyal’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

The head of Pfizer’s PFE -1.78% North American hospital unit, which sells 165 different medications like antibiotics, analgesics and sedatives for patients on ventilators, was receiving the same message from his thousands of customers as Covid-19 spread: We need more medicine, and we need it now. “Unprecedented demand all at once,” he said to me this week.

To respond properly to the crisis, Pfizer had to crank up production but also determine whose requirements were most urgent. “Just as with products like toilet paper, we had to sort out who was using the drugs and who was stocking up,” he said.

Pfizer is hardly the only company to be forced to figure it out on the fly: The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that supply chain woes have mounted world-wide for all sorts of businesses, thanks to the pandemic and other disruptions. The world is learning that a just-in-time inventory system and a short-term focus on maximizing return on investment is no match for a restive Mother Nature.

Mr. Katyal’s unit sells items that carry low profit margins, but no one doubts their importance after the pandemic. The emergency ramp-up of those products was a success: It was able to quadruple normal production rates of nine drugs that were in especially high demand.

But for its customers, it was too late to avoid the damage. No stockpiles of essential medicines or personal protective equipment for medical staff made the early stages of the pandemic deadlier and more disruptive than it otherwise might have been.

If the extra deaths weren’t bad enough, the situation also wreaked financial havoc for hospitals, which further impacted patient care. Suddenly, elective surgeries like hip replacements were too risky to perform for many hospitals, and a key profit center was lost. Medical equipment with seven-figure price tags was mothballed for want of small-ticket items like masks, gloves and gowns.

If only public health disruptions were the only sort that businesses have to worry about. Severe winter weather in Texas last month froze generators’ water intake facilities and knocked out power for days, snarling local economic activity in the process.

Utilities were caught off guard by the weather, even though such extremes aren’t entirely new. In a business world where maximizing return on investment has long been the highest priority, corporate America has a way of costing itself big by not adequately preparing for trouble.

So why do similar mistakes keep playing out? In the case of Texas, strategist Michele Wucker points out that the massive financial losses are distributed among homeowners, renters and businesses that need a reliable grid to function. Those entities didn’t have a say in whether equipment should be winterized.

“Businesses are basically being subsidized for taking unwise risk when the consequences of bad decisions fall mainly on customers and taxpayers,” said Ms. Wucker, author of the new book You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World.

The end result, she told me this week, is that the benefits of risk taking are privatized, while the consequences of bad decisions can be socialized. The short-termism that Wall Street often demands of CEOs certainly doesn’t help.

While that explanation is clear, its implications are worrying: after all, bad incentives are much more difficult to fix than they are to identify.

As for hospital shortages, things aren’t as simple as executives failing to prepare for trouble, explains Mr. Katyal. After all, they have significant cost pressures of their own.

Bulk contracting can help hospitals use collective buying power to bring down expenses, but that has a downside: A 2019 report from the Food and Drug Administration highlighted a lack of financial incentives to maximize production of certain drugs, coupled with contracts that could reset prices for manufacturers without warning.

“Contracts should ensure that manufacturers earn sustainable…returns on their investment in launching or continuing to market prescription drugs, especially older generic drugs that remain important elements of the medical armamentarium.”

Clearly, there is value in fixing the next societal pressure point before it bursts, not after. At least some management teams are wide awake. For instance, scientists at Genentech and parent company Roche are working to develop new classes of antibiotics to keep up with the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

“So much of our practice of modern medicine requires good infection control,” explained Genentech vice president and staff scientist Man-Wah Tan; basic dental procedures and routine surgeries could eventually become too dangerous to perform were the problem left unchecked.

Discovering new antibiotics isn’t the only hurdle: Figuring out how to incentivize more development is also a challenge. After all, a new antibiotic that can tackle drug-resistant infection should be used sparingly in order to preserve its useful life, according to John Young, head of global infectious disease research at Roche, making it a challenge to sell.

Away from healthcare, companies like 3M are focused on rebuilding confidence in the return to work and play. After quadrupling production of its N95 respirators last year, 3M now expects increased demand for hygiene monitoring systems for food service areas and a protective film it makes for handrails, among other products, said Chief Technology Officer John Banovetz.

Anticipating what’s coming next has always been a good way for companies to turn a profit. But in less turbulent times, executives have often been rewarded for pinching pennies instead.

Over the past year it’s become clear that pinching too hard can cost them, and their customers, dollars.

Updated: 3-25-2021

Japan Remade Its Supply Chains After Catastrophe. Here’s What It Learned

The 2011 triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown produced resilience and a frugal but effective effort at investing for the future.

As global supply chains buckle under Covid-19 stress, those in Japan remain sturdy, free of inflationary pressures and fitful economic activity. Container shipping costs aren’t spiking and delivery times aren’t delayed. Industrial activity is humming along while manufacturers’ sentiment is at its highest in almost two years.

Overseas orders are recovering. It’s all the product of hard lessons learned — and could teach a thing or two to U.S. President Joe Biden as his administration looks to rebuild American manufacturing capacity.

Japan’s industrial network became more resilient after the tsunami and meltdown catastrophes of 2011, which inflicted more than $200 billion in damage to businesses. Supply chains are now carefully crafted and closely monitored. Capital expenditures are strategically timed. The production processes of most industries have been kept within the country, with only a few offshored.

In the wake of the cataclysms of 2011, firms faced severe shortfalls and struggled to restore operations. Across the board, production fell over 15%; in the transportation equipment sector it fell more than 46%. Government surveys from the time show most companies in the basic materials and processing industries didn’t expect to get close to just-enough-supplies till at least seven to nine months out.

Companies reacted to immediate needs but, instead of throwing cash at the problems, they waited for the dust to settle to assess the imbalances in their supply-demand equations. There weren’t sudden spikes of spending or investments or big promises.

Since then, industrial firms have consistently invested in their future. Capital expenditure as a portion of sales has averaged over 5% in the last decade, touching 5.9% in the last fiscal year. In other so-called industrial headquarter economies, like the U.S. and Germany, the average is more like 3%.

This month, Fanuc Corp., known for its conservative spending, made its largest investment in China to date, putting up 26 billion yen ($240 million) to upgrade a manufacturing plant in the country. Fanuc is one of the world’s largest makers of industrial robot and its machines populate factory floors across world.

The automatons’ bodies are still made in Japan but robotics investment is rising in China where Fanuc makes some parts. The new spending underwrites its future competitiveness.

The tight relationships that Japanese companies have with their suppliers help the corporations make frugal but precise investments. That’s allowed the likes of Toyota Motor Corp. to have a lens into layers of their production and procurements processes — and to spot deficiencies quicker. When gaps emerge, Japan Inc. manages to fill them.

Manufacturers are well-stocked with the material and equipment needed to produce goods. The ratio of that inventory to final products shipped out has averaged about 15% higher in the years following the 2011 disaster than the decade before, according to Capital Economics.

Meanwhile, inventories are higher for key equipment that require longer lead times — these are the machines and products without which companies would be hamstrung. In 2019, inventory-to-sales ratios for general and electrical machinery in the U.S. was 1.8 months to 1.4 months. In Japan, they were at a higher level of 2.2 months and 1.7.

Building production at home doesn’t mean Japan’s companies are shutting out the world. Firms have expanded their supplier networks, including — as Fanuc has done — offshoring to China. Managers with technical know-how that they’ve sent overseas have maintained strong ties with their parent companies. Over a third of the goods needed by Japanese affiliates in China are still procured from corporations in the home country.

As a result, Japan’s participation rate in the global value chain is high and it has moved more towards importing foreign parts to make products with high technological capabilities that are then exported. Relative to other large economies, Japan is less reliant on imported components in crucial sectors like electronics and machinery.

The companies still face the risk of disruption. Renesas Electronics Corp, a major supplier of semiconductor chips, a sector already plagued by global shortages, was hit by a fire at its main manufacturing plant on Mar. 19. The facility is expected to be offline for a month, which will mean a loss of around 17 billion yen. For some machines, Renesas has already determined it doesn’t have alternatives and won’t be able to make certain semiconductors.

But those account for less than 15% of volume. Renesas’ quick and exacting assessment will mean that it will be able to put a good estimate on when it will get production back in train. In addition, the Japanese government along with other companies, is mobilizing to get the company’s plant up and running.

All this is not Beijing-style industrial policy, which is laid out on paper with bold statements. But Japan’s goals are clear: protect the supply chains, at all costs. It’s learned the hard way.

Updated: 3-28-2021

Suez Ship Grounding Makes Case For Big Rail Mergers To Address Future Supply Chain Disruptions

A blockbuster tie-up between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern is a bet that supply-chain breakdowns like the Suez Canal blockage will keep happening.

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It’s no coincidence that the two biggest industrial news events of the week involved a blockbuster North American railroad merger and a 200,000-ton container ship that got wedged into the Suez Canal, halting an estimated $9.6 billion worth of global trade on every day that it’s stuck.

The former is a bet that events like the latter will keep snarling globalized supply chains and boost the appeal of more localized freight routes.

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. agreed on Sunday to buy Kansas City Southern for $29 billion including debt to create the first major rail network that runs the gamut of North America. The combined tracks form a “T” that stretches from Kansas City Southern’s legacy routes deep into Mexico across the U.S. Midwest and up along the Canadian border, creating the opportunity to ferry grain, chemicals, energy products, cars and consumer goods seamlessly between the three countries.

If the deal is approved by regulators, the more efficient railroad would be in a stronger position to take market share from the trucking industry. It could also change the freight calculus for companies contemplating moving parts of their supply chains into North America.

“The pandemic has taught us that global extended supply chains involve greater risk than perhaps a lot of industrial companies are willing to tolerate and I do believe that there is a trend in supply-chain strategy to shrink and de-risk those supply chains,” Kansas City Southern Chief Executive Officer Patrick Ottensmeyer said on a call to discuss the deal. “This network is not only going to be in a position to benefit from those trends, but actually help drive those trends.”

He made that comment on Sunday, several days before strong winds battered the Ever Given container ship and caused the vessel to run aground in the Suez Canal. Caterpillar Inc. is among the companies facing shipping delays because of the blockage.

The heavy-machinery maker is anticipating a lag of a week or more in shipments from Asia to its facilities in Europe and may even airlift products if the logjam gets bad enough, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News.

But even before the Suez Canal situation, freight costs were soaring as a stronger-than-expected recovery for everything from home goods to automobiles and now industrial parts disrupted the normal flow of ships between the U.S. and China and created a shortage in available container space in the places where it’s needed.

This time last year, the problem wasn’t a lack of ships to carry goods; it was the pandemic’s regional rolling lockdowns, which resulted in shuttered factories and made the practice of zig-zagging components across borders untenable. Before that, the underlying infrastructure of the globalized supply chain was working just fine but the Trump administration had made the strategy more expensive through tariffs.

This pileup of supply-chain pileups has sparked plenty of panicked alarm — some of it justified, some of it not. Many of these disruptions are short-term in nature. The canal will get unblocked, eventually. The wild, unpredictable swings in demand wrought by the pandemic will settle as the crisis subsides, with freight and factory capacity catching up to orders and balancing out over time, likely by the second half of this year.

“It’s very possible, let’s put it that way, that you will see bottlenecks emerge and then clear over time,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said at a press conference earlier this month. “These are not permanent. It’s not like the supply side will be unable to adapt to these things.” But it’s hard to think of a moment in modern memory when the process of getting parts and goods across oceans and borders has been so fraught with pitfalls. That has consequences.

“Part of the problem is the same strategies that allow companies to cut costs will increase their risk,” David Simchi-Levi, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on supply-chain management, said in an interview last month.

“It’s not about switching from what they did to something different. It’s about finding the right balance between efficiency and resilience.” Mexico is in that sweet spot.

The country isn’t without political and regulatory risks: during the early months of the pandemic, many American manufacturers complained of a harsher approach to factory lockdowns across the border than in the U.S.

But labor costs are competitive with, if not lower than, those in China and the recently renegotiated North American free trade agreement cleared up the tariff issue. Kansas City Southern gets almost half of its revenue from Mexico.

I’ve been skeptical that reshoring manufacturing work back to North America will be some kind of megatrend, but that’s partly because there’s a misconception around what a reshoring trend really looks like. For select products such as medical gear and semiconductors, domestic factory lines have become a national priority and we can expect high-profile announcements in the vein of Intel Corp.’s pledge this week to spend $20 billion on two new chip factories in Arizona.

But most large industrial manufacturers have for years championed localizing production near the point of consumption. Their focus is likely to be more about making sure their smaller suppliers adopt a similar mindset and have multiple ways of delivering an order. Supply chains also don’t have to be an either China or North America situation.

“I see more companies focusing on a combination of global and local,” Simchi-Levi said. “For certain products, they have a localized strategy and are manufacturing in a specific region, but there are products where it’s important to benefit from economies of scale and you want a globalized manufacturing supply chain with low-cost strategies.”

These potential shifts would be a boon to a railroad that could single-handedly shuffle goods up and down North America. Perhaps that’s why Canadian Pacific was willing to pay so dearly for Kansas City Southern.

The $275-a-share stock-and-cash bid values the railroad at a 23% premium to where the shares settled before the deal announcement — itself a fresh record amid a stock market rally for industrial companies that’s defied both the pandemic and more recent inflation concerns.

Canadian Pacific will first have to persuade regulators to approve the Kansas City Southern deal before it can realize this dream of a U.S.-Canada-Mexico railroad. That’s no small feat. There hasn’t been a successful major North American railroad takeover since Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired Burlington Northern Santa Fe for more than $35 billion in 2010. You have to go all the way back to the late 1990s to find a combination of two Class I railroads.

That’s because the Surface Transportation Board — the primary regulatory body for railroads — enacted tougher antitrust rules in 2001 that required companies to prove mergers would bolster competition, improve service for customers and serve a public interest.

Kansas City Southern was exempted from those rules because it’s the smallest of the major railroads. But it’s not clear if that exemption will stick in today’s environment, with the Biden administration signaling a skeptical stance toward the impact of consolidation on the broader economy. Another railroad can also ask for a Kansas City Southern merger to be subject to the higher standards.

Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern seem to be preparing for this possibility. They have couched the deal in environmentally friendly terms: railroads throw off significantly less carbon emissions than trucks, so any deal that helps persuade shippers to move freight off of highways and onto tracks is also good for the climate.

The companies are also using a unique voting trust deal structure that allows for the transaction to close on a financial basis for shareholders in the second half of this year — well ahead of the mid-2022 timeline currently expected for antitrust signoff.

The benefit of this arrangement is that it removes the threat of a long antitrust review as a barrier to shareholder approval. It also keeps a more level playing field between Canadian Pacific and other would-be acquirers of Kansas City Southern. Recall that private equity firms Blackstone Group Inc. and Global Infrastructure Partners tried to buy the railroad last year. The regulatory hurdles for such a takeover are much lower.

Ametek Inc. agreed to acquire Abaco Systems Inc., a maker of computers and avionics systems for the aerospace and defense industry, for $1.35 billion. Abaco is the former GE Intelligent Platforms, which was acquired by Veritas Capital in 2015 for an undisclosed sum. It’s the largest deal for the acquisitive Ametek.

The company is one of a handful of M&A compounders in the industrial sector: it boosts its value through high-returning takeovers and then uses those returns to invest in more takeovers. The Abaco deal fits with Ametek’s plan to replicate this model with a larger target and to increase its exposure to growth themes and higher-technology products, Melius Research analyst Rob Wertheimer wrote in a note.

Leonardo SpA canceled the planned initial public offering of its U.S.-based DRS defense electronics unit after failing to get the price it wanted. Leonardo said it would revisit the offering when market conditions were more favorable, but shares of the company sank on the news. Low-cost airline Frontier Group Holdings Inc. looks set to have more luck. The company plans to price its initial public offering at $19 to $21 a share, raising as much as $315 million.

Updated: 4-12-2021

Supply-Chain Software Provider Blue Yonder Weighs IPO

Filing comes as global disruptions bring greater attention, investment to suppliers of logistics-technology tools.

Software company Blue Yonder Holding Inc. is planning to go public, the latest technology provider to look at a public stock offering as pandemic-driven upheaval in supply chains draws more interest to tools that help companies manage the flow of goods.

Blue Yonder said Friday it has confidentially filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a proposed initial public offering. The Scottsdale, Ariz., supply-chain software provider said the number of shares and the price range for the potential offering haven’t been determined.

Blue Yonder is the sponsor of The Logistics Report.

Japanese electronics maker Panasonic Corp. last year took a 20% stake in Blue Yonder, deepening the companies’ relationship as they jointly develop digital technology for managing logistics, retail and manufacturing operations.

Data-research group Gartner Inc. ranked Blue Yonder last year as the world’s third-largest provider in the supply-chain-management software market, based on 2019 revenue, behind SAP SE and Oracle Corp.

The company’s potential IPO comes as investors are pushing millions of dollars into logistics-technology companies that help manage operations including sourcing, shipping and tracking amid a series of supply-chain disruptions around the world.

The attention to such tools grew as companies retooled production at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and has continued as port congestion, commodities shortages, transport capacity squeezes and other shocks have hit business.

Blue Yonder customers with shipments snared when the Ever Given container ship blocked the Suez Canal last month, for example, used the company’s software to assess inventory levels and help with contingency plans such as air transport to get goods around the bottleneck.

Chicago-based project44, which helps track the flow of goods in transit, is weighing a potential public stock offering in the next 18 to 24 months. Supply-chain software provider E2open went public earlier this year through a deal with a special-purpose acquisition company. The transaction closed in February and the merged company, E2open Parent Holdings Inc., is now trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

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