A Strange Shortage Illustrates The Global Economy

Cargo containers. i i

North Dakota farmer Bob Sinner's problem was shipping containers — he couldn't find enough. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, AP hide caption

itoggle caption Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, AP
Cargo containers.

North Dakota farmer Bob Sinner's problem was shipping containers — he couldn't find enough.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, AP

If anyone needs more proof that we're all part of a global economy, picture this: A young woman in Philadelphia is trying to decide on a rug for her new home, a mother in Japan is buying groceries for her kids, and a grain farmer in North Dakota is facing a strange and serious shortage. They might be scattered around the globe, but they are all connected.

The North Dakota farmer, Bob Sinner, says he is suddenly getting more business than ever from overseas. But just as he was gearing up to sell more wheat and soybeans abroad, he discovered he couldn't find enough shipping containers — the big, colorful steel boxes seen on ships and trains.

The mystery of those missing containers reveals the interdependence of producers, consumers and economies around the world.

"I think my grandfather would turn over in the grave if he thought we were working internationally with customers," Sinner says. "And I don't think in their wildest dreams even my parents ever thought we would ever be able to do this."

Sinner took the family business, SB&B in Casselton, N.D., and turned it into a global enterprise. He says he has worked hard the past two decades calling and visiting people all over the world, gaining their trust and then selling them his wheat and soybeans. So he was surprised when, about a year and a half ago, people started calling him out of the blue — customers he had never pursued in countries he had never worked in.

"Inquiries certainly weekly from companies we don't know," Sinner says. "In different countries, South Asia, Middle East, Europe."

It's All Interconnected

To understand the sudden interest, consider a shopper's trip to a supermarket in Hashimoto, Japan.

Kato Akemi is picking a package of natto — a fermented soy product — off the shelf. She didn't check where it was from, but a quick glance shows it's from the U.S.

Akemi doesn't care that it's not Japanese. She bought it because her kids like it and it was the cheapest brand of natto. Soy products from the United States are cheap because the dollar has been on the decline for the past several years. That's why Sinner kept getting those calls from Asia, Europe and the Middle East for his soybeans — they were a good deal.

Despite the explosion of interest in Sinner's crops from all over the world, he couldn't ship because there weren't enough containers.

"In fact, we've had to turn some business down because we simply cannot get enough equipment," Sinner says. "I've never seen it this bad. This is as worse as it's ever been."

His 45,000-square-foot processing facility near Fargo became a storage area. Rows and rows of packaged grain stood piled high and wide, waiting for containers to come and take it all away.

Sinner started hiring extra truckers to be on the prowl for boxes. When there was a rumor that containers would be coming into the nearest rail terminal, he would send his truckers out the night before to wait and, he hoped, be first.

"What you don't know is how many other people are trying to get those same containers," Sinner says. "So we're sending trucks down there and it's 250 miles to Minneapolis. Well, they get down there and guess what? There's no containers available."

The Import-Export Dilemma

So how did Sinner end up with a bulging storage facility and playing guessing games with trucks and boxes?

The problem is connected to lamps and rugs.

Beth Hagovsky's new house in Philadelphia is beautiful. It's also mostly empty, with bare walls and just a few pieces of furniture. She says she goes to Crate and Barrel and Target nearly every week to buy things for her home — but then she hesitates to buy them.

"When you think, 'Oh my god, my retirement plan is just shot right now,' " Hagovsky says, "should I buy this lamp? Should I buy this rug? Because are we really gonna be in some sort of decent financial position a year from now or are times gonna get even tougher for us? And as you're looking at some stupid rug, you're thinking, 'Is it really worth it?' "

She answers that question the same way many people have been answering that question lately: No. She walks away and her floors remain naked; her living room corner stays dark.

Americans aren't buying as much, which means they aren't importing as much. This is how Hagovsky — and probably most of us — are linked to Sinner. We usually buy rugs, couches, teddy bears and shoes, and all those goods ride over from Asia or Europe in containers. And that's how Sinner gets his containers: They have to come from overseas so that he can fill them up with soybeans and wheat and then send them back.

So Akemi in Japan might want to buy Sinner's cheap soy products. But if Hagovsky doesn't take out that credit card and furnish her house, Sinner can't get his stuff to Japan or anywhere else.

"Well, we're all consumers, we all have our personal lives that we have to take care of," Sinner says. "I don't fault those consumers for those decisions — that's just a function of our economy."

It's an economy that is not looking rosy for exporters or anyone else.

The dollar has gotten stronger, but this isn't good news for Sinner. Japanese moms might still see his tofu on their shelves, but it probably won't be the cheapest on the shelves. That, in turn, is likely to mean all the new business interest in Sinner's products will evaporate.

On the import side, it's been almost five months since Hagovsky moved into her new home — and she still hasn't bought a rug.

Chana Joffe-Walt is a reporter for member station KPLU.

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