This gauge can alert us to changes in the supply chain more quickly than traditional data. The indicator spiked during the pandemic but appears to be stabilizing, albeit at extended levels. The most significant contribution to the spike was global shipping container prices, which are moving lower but are still highly elevated.
We also evaluate supply-chain pressures using natural language processing (NLP) analysis, a big-data solution that allows computers to understand written documents. We tracked mentions of the supply chain, logistics, freight and shipping in 4,000 quarterly US earnings transcripts since 2010. We tallied how often each was mentioned and assessed surrounding words to determine if the context was positive, neutral or negative. We found that management discussed supply issues more in 2020 and 2021 than at any other time in the last 10 years—and the negativity increased significantly. Year to date, the sectors most affected were autos, retail, technology, transportation services and materials. However, the drivers of supply-chain constraints differ.
Supply-chain constraints include logistics, supplier shortfalls and higher labor costs. The most significant constraints came from supplier shortfalls, specifically a shortage of components, making it difficult for companies to meet recovering demand with supply. An inability to restaff combined with an increase in the price of labor has been a significant challenge for transportation-related sectors and hotels, restaurants and leisure. Finally, logistics—the inability to get goods from point A to point B or a substantial increase in freight costs—have affected the retail and food retail sectors.
Tracking the Effects of Supply-Chain Disruption
Supply constraints remain a cloud over expected corporate margins, with estimates becoming considerably less optimistic as the year has progressed. However, the outlook for post-COVID-19 margins is still positive for most sectors, and expectations for 2022 are still above those for 2019 and 2020.
What do we make of the supply chain? The bad news is that the challenges associated with reopening from COVID-19 have had a clear effect on corporate margins and inflation. The good news is that households have enough cash on hand to continue to consume even as prices rise—at least for now. That means that supply-chain disruptions have not seriously impacted our overall growth outlook.
But we remain on the lookout for signs that the consumer has had enough. If these signs appear before supply chains get straightened out, the growth outlook could deteriorate. That’s why we believe it’s critically important to monitor the supply chain: the sooner it unsnarls, the smaller the risk to the economy.