A growing economy with a contracted pipeline: that’s how Scott Colbert, executive vice president, director of fixed income and chief economist at The Commerce Trust Co., described the current economic environment during Sosland Publishing Co.’s Purchasing Seminar late last month.
Despite the crunch many bakers and suppliers feel today, Mr. Colbert’s outlook for the economy was optimistic. So far, all signs point to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic receding. Fiscal stimulus from the government is still fueling growth. And we’re seeing incredible pent-up demand for just about everything.
The supply chain contraction, however, is something no one can ignore and continues to challenge business and contribute to inflation, Mr. Colbert explained.
Unemployment, a typical marker for a growing economy, is declining, but businesses across industries are struggling to find workers, especially for blue collar positions. That’s because there are 5 million fewer people in the workforce compared to pre-pandemic levels, and the economy is larger. Where did they all go? Mr. Colbert pointed to early retirements and, yes, unemployment benefits causing some of that employment contraction. But he was quick to note that the unemployment benefits are no longer on the table.
One group he cited that I rarely hear discussed in the baking industry was women. The pandemic overwhelmingly impacted women’s ability to work outside of the home as the bulk of child care often falls on their shoulders. Even though many schools have returned to in-person learning, the child care infrastructure has been decimated by the pandemic, according to news reports. As a result, many women have been pushed out of the workforce or left unavailable for shift work not conducive to a typical 9-to-5 job. Without a robust child care infrastructure, I’m concerned this demographic will struggle to go back to work in a significant way, further delaying a return to normal.
Labor is also one of the major hindrances to the transportation issues we’re experiencing. While transportation rates will eventually come down from their current highs, they will not be returning to pre-pandemic lows, warned Jim Ritchie, president and chief executive officer, Redstone Logistics, in his seminar presentation. The transportation industry is currently experiencing a reset, he said, with truck drivers finally getting wage increases they’ve long deserved. In addition, Mr. Ritchie pointed to driver hour limitations, backlogs and congestion throughout the transportation pipeline as causing the current shipping delays.
Both Mr. Colbert and Mr. Ritchie anticipated that, yes, there will be an end to these challenges. Eventually, the supply chain pipeline will expand to accommodate the new economic growth, and demand will ease. And Mr. Ritchie said that while manufacturing and transportation are still recovering from the supply-and-demand challenges of the pandemic, one day there will be a surplus of goods, and transportation will tip back in favor of the shipper. The question is, “When?”
Mr. Ritchie anticipated transportation would not fully recover until 2023 with some interruptions during the holidays. Mr. Colbert insisted that the challenges of inflation, supply chain and labor are transitory, but that it will take years to shake out.
“The world has been working too hard with too little,” Mr. Colbert said. “It’s time to restock and rebuild. This will take some time.”
It’s rough out there. I hear it every day from bakers and suppliers, and you’ll read about some challenges that probably mirror your own in this publication. But even though the struggle right now is very real, consumer demand and economic stimulus endures, and Mr. Colbert anticipates these forces will extend the economic expansion for quite a while.
“We still have such a tailwind. We’re going to make amazing forward progress for quite some time,” he said. “We have a long runway of economic expansion to go if history is any measure. … It’s a shorter runway if COVID hangs around longer. It’s a longer runway if interest rates stay lower. … From an economic perspective, a global perspective, your company’s perspective, there’s a lot of growth available.”