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The Nerd Celebrities of the Pandemic – The New York Times

“Ship Happens: The Miniseries” is a podcast that wouldn’t exist if not for the pandemic, which has prompted consumers to start ordering sofas and computer monitors with such voracity that factories and ports around the world couldn’t. not follow.

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

“You never really pay attention to anything until it’s broken,” said Mr. Buchman, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Part of it was vertigo that, hey, people care about.”

Freightos, which launched its supply chains podcast in November, is among a series of data providers whose once-esoteric deals and offers have been catapulted into the spotlight by a pandemic that has rewritten the rules of trade and the global economy.

Not that Mr. Buchman is happy that everything feels broken. But he saw that Freightos could help. He and his colleagues had a wealth of shipping data and expertise, and they began to think of ways to share it with the world, producing an index of ocean container travel times, publishing the audio program and by multiplying the appearances in the media.

What might have been a brief moment of prominence lasted until 2022. Nothing – not shipping routes, not consumer spending, not the labor market and certainly not inflation – seems to be behaving like before the coronavirus does not hit in early 2020.

Inflation is at its fastest pace in 40 years, and next week’s data is expected to show prices up more than 8% in the year to March. Supply chains remain disrupted, employers are desperate to fill vacancies and Americans have surprised economists by spending amid rapid price increases and widespread uncertainty.

Researchers and policymakers are flying in the dark, and they and ordinary people are turning to experts like Mr. Buchman as they try to sketch a new map of a changed economic landscape.

“A very small circle of enlightened individuals found supply chains interesting before, but it wasn’t a widely shared passion,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, a freight forwarding and customs brokerage firm. – displaying the kind of supply chain impasse that is bigger. the public, relatively speaking, now appreciates it.

According to a profile kept by Bloomberg, Mr. Levy has racked up 26 unique media mentions so far this year, up from 26 in 2021 and 15 in 2020. Suddenly every economist and economics writer seems to be a trade analyst, trying to figure out what might happen to supplies and prices.

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

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

As the government sent out repeated stimulus checks and offered more generous unemployment insurance and families spent more time at home, Americans were spending money on goods rather than services that consumed much of their budget before the pandemic. Even though aid has faded and business has returned to something close to normal, demand has remained exceptionally strong.

The world’s ships, ports and factories fell behind at the start of the pandemic and they have not been able to fully catch up. The situation was only intensified by unforeseen disruptions, such as the blockage of a giant freighter in the Suez Canal. The Ever Given spent six days standing still, bringing the world’s attention to the precariousness of supply chains and maritime trade – and increasing demand for experts who can explain it.

“It was a turning point in freight fame,” Mr. Buchman fondly recalls.

For Mr. Levy and his colleagues, the situation was not funny in itself – the blockage was about to cause problems for customers – but it sparked a wave of memes in Flexport’s internal Slack messaging channels. (The one that sticks in her mind was a photo of the stranded ship superimposed on the words “I told you not to listen to Waze’s instructions.”)

Ever Given is symbolic of a larger phenomenon in the pandemic economy: disruptions continue to surface, throwing an already struggling system even further out of whack. The mismatch between supply and demand fueled inflation, which surprised policymakers both because it was so rapid and because it proved to be long-lasting.

And the disruption extends beyond the world of shipping.

Companies are not finding enough workers, in part because the pandemic appears to have accelerated a demographic shift. Baby boomers, who were entering retirement age, have left the workforce in large numbers – and it is unclear whether they will return. Parents struggling with unpredictable childcare have also left the workforce. Employers are grappling with the possibility that workers are in the midst of a “big quit,” perhaps encouraged by the savings amassed during the pandemic. Shortages in the labor market gave them the opportunity to demand higher pay and better working conditions.

As the coronavirus era enters its third year, the economic mysteries abound: Will these workers return? Will America’s appetite for new canapes ever be sated? 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.

“I am now getting incoming inquiries from asset managers in Germany from all walks of life – our own Federal Reserve Bank, the White House, etc.,” said Ms. Greig, director of consumer research and co-chairman of JPMorgan Chase. Institute. .

At the start of the pandemic, the institute focused on a metric that many people were interested in: what people could spend. The now widely quoted chart uses Chase data to show how much money households in different income brackets have in their checking accounts in near real time, and Wall Street policymakers and econometricians have used it to gauge the purchasing power of different consumer groups.

“We now have a ‘request data’ button, and people are asking for it all over the place,” Ms Greig said.

She and her team have also written about the minor influence the unemployment benefit hike has had on keeping job seekers at home – work that has made its way into mainstream media. Ms Greig may be feeling the effect of her increased pandemic fame: “Friends I haven’t been in touch with in a long time said, ‘Hey, great to see you in my morning feed. “”

Data-surprised celebrities react to the attention in different ways. Ms Greig, who has worked at the institute since 2014, believes greater public familiarity with its data will spur new academic research even when the pandemic abates.

Freightos’ Buchman thinks general interest in shipping will fade, but he thinks economists and businesses will remain more aware of supply chain issues than they were before.

“We’re in a part of the economy that we see as the workings of society,” he said, noting that it’s been a time to “spread the gospel of freight.”

And for Flexport’s Mr. Levy, whose team was just getting together at the start of the pandemic, a return to some kind of normalcy — whatever that means, and when — would be welcome.

“We can’t wait to get to the point where we are the ones thinking about supply chains,” he said, instead of which hedge funds, central banks, major international organizations and governments routinely ask his team’s assessment of when port safeguards will fade, when container backlogs will normalize or for updates to Flexport’s maritime speed of delivery indicator.

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

Stoppages and delays at ports have shown signs of easing, but the war in Ukraine is driving up the prices of oil and other commodities. It’s also disrupting air travel, as planes fly over Russian airspace and carry lighter cargo to make the longer trip more affordable, and it threatens to upset 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” is not over yet.

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

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


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