Ever Given ship stuck in Suez Canal 2021.

2021 in Review Shipping Chaos Teaches the World It Can’t Always Get What It Wants

We look back at our defining events of the year and the photos that captured them.

Something odd appeared in the waters off Southern California just over a year ago, and it would be a harbinger for events that would rock the global economy.

An armada of giant container ships waited to enter the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. To Weston LaBar, then the head of the Harbor Trucking Association, the dozen cargo vessels from Asia had the eerie feel of an impending naval invasion. “Swap out troops in Normandy and add knickknacks and widgets, and that’s what it looks like,” he said at the time.

A battle was indeed about to begin, only not the military kind. It was the beginning of the Big Crunch, a supply shock that would spare few warehouses or factories and culminate with warnings about a holiday season marred by inflation and disappointed children.

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As it turns out, symbols of supply strains like the Ever Given’s blockage of the Suez Canal were about the only things in surplus in 2021.

The ships off the California coast have become an enduring image of the pandemic-battered world economy because of the striking imbalance it highlights—one where American consumers propped up with fiscal stimulus, plentiful vaccines and a fast-healing labor market kept consuming while the arteries of trade seized up all around them.

Above: Ismailia, Egypt, March 28. The 400-meter Ever Given container ship ran aground in the southern part of the Suez Canal, leaving dozens of vessels gridlocked and sending a shockwave through the global supply chain. Islam Safwat/Bloomberg
Technicians perform production control tasks at the implant zone in the cleanroom at Fab7 in the Globalfoundries Inc. semiconductor fabrication (fab) facility in Singapore, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. At a White House meeting in April, President Joe Biden told company executives that he had bipartisan backing for his proposal to spend $50 billion to support semiconductor manufacturing and research.
Singapore, May 18. The explosion in demand for semiconductors during the pandemic caused a near-term supply shock. Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg

Few places on the planet have been spared the bottlenecks because it’s still ships, trains, trucks and planes that rely on healthy humans keeping tight schedules to operate smoothly.

In Britain, fuel ran low because there weren’t enough delivery drivers after Brexit. It's since been beer and potato chips, thanks to the additional headaches created by leaving the European Union. For electronics makers and auto companies, memory-chip shortages have reminded the world how many of life’s gadgets run on little silicon wafers made mostly in Taiwan and South Korea.

Companies from the U.K. and Germany to Egypt and Peru are struggling to secure raw materials and warning of an extended period of higher prices. Saddled with soaring energy bills, consumers almost everywhere are feeling the sting as the cost of living rises.

It took several quarters for supply chains to get this knotted, and they won’t mend themselves quickly either. From Los Angeles to Rotterdam, logistics experts have warned recently that the congestion may not abate until 2023. As Lars Jensen, chief executive of the Vespucci Maritime consultancy in Copenhagen, put it: “There’s no easy quick fix for this situation.”

For companies, it means a serious re-examination of far-flung supply chains and, in the shorter term, building room for redundancy such as extra storage space—steps that add costs and risk on top of the pandemic.

One example is Colgate Mattress in Atlanta. The family business has struggled for months to get hold of enough polyurethane foam for its baby beds. And most suppliers come from within 250 miles. Industries that need chemicals and plastics were also pummeled by yet another act of God early in 2021: winter storms in Texas.

Colgate’s chief operating officer, Dennis Wolkin, said he’s facing “hyperinflation of foam and some other raw materials like we’ve never seen before.” His records go back to the 1970s.

Container ships moored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in Long Beach, California, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. An unremitting shipping logjam in the waters outside of Los Angeles has already contributed to higher costs, delays and intermittent goods shortages across the U.S. Now, it could be to blame for California's biggest oil spill in 27 years.
California, Oct. 9. The backlog of ships outside the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach became the most visible symbol of overwhelmed supply chains. Tim Rue/Bloomberg
A worker walks under pipework in the yard at the Comprehensive Gas Treatment Unit No.3 of the Gazprom PJSC Chayandinskoye oil, gas and condensate field, a resource base for the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, in the Lensk district of the Sakha Republic, Russia, on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Amid record daily swings of as much as 40% in European gas prices, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a calculated intervention to cool the market last week by saying Gazprom can boost supplies to help ease shortages.
Sakha Republic, Russia, Oct. 11. Amid record daily swings in European gas prices, Russia made a calculated intervention to cool the market by saying Gazprom can boost supplies to help ease shortages. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
A worker checks a spool of recycled paper on the toilet paper production line at a Corelex Shinei Co. factory in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Japan's gross domestic product expanded at an annualized pace of 1.9% in the three months to June, faster than an earlier estimate of 1.3%, according to a revised report by the Cabinet Office on Wednesday. The figures showed extra government spending, business investment and private consumption buoyed growth.
Fuji, Japan, Sept. 7. A spool of recycled paper on the toilet paper production line. Transportation bottlenecks are snarling global supply chains and exacerbating shortages of key products. Toru Hanai/Bloomberg
A resident works inside his toy and gift shop with the help of a portable lamp during a power cut in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Egypt agreed to supply natural-gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria as the Arab states seek to help end power shortages in their crisis-ridden neighbor. Photographer: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg
Beirut, Sept. 7. Lebanon has experienced power outages amid dire economic and political crises. Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg
A freight train carrying shipping containers travels through Cajon Pass in Phelan, California, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. The most recent government report on producer prices showed freight transportation by rail is costing shippers more, with a 7.3% increase in October from the same month last year.
Phelan, California, Nov. 19. Freight costs continue to mount as bottlenecks including a record number of container ship logjams show few signs of letting up. Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg
Trucks at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. The historic traffic jam at the Port of Los Angeles has eased slightly as ocean carriers face fines for letting cargo linger and sweeper ships arrive to haul off empty containers.
Los Angeles, Nov. 16. The trailers that containers are moved around on are called chassis, and they have been in short supply over the past year because the flood of imports overwhelmed capacity. Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg
An employee walks past the cardboard pressing machine at a Visy Industries Australia Pty factory in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. As Covid-19 forced people to stay home, more online shopping led to increased demand for packaging. Sales jumped 30% to more than $4 billion, according to the Visy. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg
Melbourne, Australia, April 27. A cardboard pressing machine at a Visy Industries factory. As Covid-19 forced people to stay home, more online shopping led to increased demand for packaging. Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg
Nearly empty shelves in the produce section at a grocery store in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2021. The sprawling blackouts that plunged Texas into chaos in the midst of an historic cold blast are easing and energy prices are stabilizing but the impact it’s had on vital infrastructure is just being realized.
Houston, Feb. 19. An Arctic cold blast brought ice and sub-zero temperatures across Texas, disrupting the state’s electrical grid, emptying store shelves and plunging millions into darkness. Zach Chambers/Bloomberg
A boat moors alongside a large timber log raft on the Yenisei River by the Lesosibirsk Woodworking Plant, operated by Segezha Group, in Lesosibirsk, Russia, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Lumber futures have been plunging lately, having completely erased the meteoric gains seen in 2021.
Lesosibirsk, Russia, July 13. Lumber, which was among the world’s best-performing commodities at one point in the pandemic, wiped out all of its gains for the year. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Subaru Corp. vehicles bound for shipment at a port in Yokohama, Japan, on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. Speculation that Apple Inc. is seeking a partner to develop its own electric vehicle swept through South Korea and Japan, where shares of major car companies climbed this week on reports of discussions with the maker of the iPhone.
Yokohama, Japan, Feb. 7. Cars, like these from Subaru Corp., became more precious as a semiconductor shortage made new vehicles harder to come by. Toru Hanai/Bloomberg

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