A Strange Shortage Illustrates The Global Economy A dearth of shipping containers connects a homeowner in Philadelphia, a grocery shopper in Japan and a farmer in North Dakota, and underscores the interdependence of producers, consumers and economies around the world.
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A Strange Shortage Illustrates The Global Economy

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A Strange Shortage Illustrates The Global Economy

A Strange Shortage Illustrates The Global Economy

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From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Need any more proof that we're all part of a global economy? Well, listen to this next story from Chana Joffe-Walt of member station KPLU. It's about a woman in Philadelphia trying to decide on a rug for her new home, a mother in Hashimoto, Japan buying groceries for her kids, and a green farmer in North Dakota who's facing a strange and serious problem.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Let's start with Bob Sinner, the farmer. I could make you feel all warm and gushy about him and tell you he's a family farmer. He is. But so much has changed since Bob took over, it almost seems like a whole different business.

Mr. BOB SINNER (Farmer, North Dakota): I think my grandfather would turn over in the grave if he thought that we were going working internationally with customers. And I don't think in their wildest dreams, even my parents ever thought that we would ever be able to do this.

JOFFE-WALT: Bob took SB&B Farming from Casselton, North Dakota to the world. He took the company global. Bob is a deliberate, steady guy, someone you would want around if you, say, tripped on a bail of barbed wire.

And Bob has spent the last two decades calling people all over the world, visiting them, gaining their trust, and then selling them his wheat and soy beans. It's been hard, hard work, which is why Bob was very surprised when, about a year and a half ago, people started calling him - right out of the blue - customers he'd never pursued in countries he'd never worked in.

Mr. SINNER: Inquiries certainly weekly from companies that we don't know in different countries, South Asia, Middle East, Europe.

JOFFE-WALT: So that's great, right?

Mr. SINNER: Yes. Yes, it is.

JOFFE-WALT: But it was also confusing. Why, after years of red-eye flights and long meetings to woo potential customers, were people abroad suddenly calling him? Well, to get at this, I'd like to just briefly leave Bob in North Dakota here a sec and take you to a grocery store in Hashimoto, Japan. I think it will help us get at that question.

(Soundbite of conversation in Japanese)

JOFFE-WALT: Kato Akemi is picking a package of natto off the shelf - a fermented soy product, because, she says, her kids like it. Did she check where it was from? No. We do, and it's from the U.S. Does she care that it's not Japanese?

(Soundbite of conversation in Japanese)

JOFFE-WALT: No. She bought it because it was the cheapest natto on the shelf, she says. Soy products from the U.S. are cheap because, for the past several years, the dollar has been on the decline. That's why Bob kept getting those calls. In Asia, Europe, the Middle East, his soy beans, they were a good deal, among the cheapest on the shelf.

Bob, of course, took the new customers gladly. Growing season was crazy in an exciting way. They got all the stuff harvested, and then there was a problem, kind of a big one, and it was weird. It wasn't an insect thing or a drought or a typhoon off the coast of Asia, making it impossible to ship, no. Bob's problem was containers, those huge colorful steel things you see on ships and trains. He couldn't get a hold of any.

So, you have this explosion of interest in your crops from all over the world, but you can't get your crops all over the world because there aren't enough boxes?

Mr. SINNER: Yes, that's correct. In fact, we've had to turn business down because we simply cannot get enough equipment.

JOFFE-WALT: And you've never seen it be this bad?

Mr. SINNER: I've never seen it this bad.

JOFFE-WALT: Bob's 45,000-square-foot processing facility near Fargo became a storage area. Rows and rows of packaged grain piled high and wide, just waiting for containers to come and take it all away. Bob started hiring extra truckers to be on the prowl for boxes. When there was a rumor that containers would be coming in to the nearest rail terminal, he'd send his truckers out the night before to wait and hopefully, to be the first.

Mr. SINNER: What you don't know is how many other people are trying to get those same containers. 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.

JOFFE-WALT: So, how did this happen? How did Bob end up with a bulging storage facility playing a guessing game with trucks and boxes? Well, it has to do with lamps and rugs. Let me explain. I'd like to take you to Beth Hagovsky's new house in Philadelphia. It'll help.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Ms. BETH HAGOVSKY: Hi, there. I'm Beth.

JOFFE-WALT: Hi. Beautiful place.

Ms. HAGOVSKY: Well, thanks.

JOFFE-WALT: Beth's place is beautiful. It's also empty. There are walls, a couple pieces of furniture, and that's it. Beth wants to furnish her place. She goes to Crate and Barrel and Target pretty much every week, and she always finds stuff she loves. But then, she starts thinking.

Ms. HAGOVSKY: When you think, oh my God, my retirement plan is just shot right now, and you know, should I buy this lamp? Should I buy this rug? Because are we really going to be in some sort of decent financial position a year from now, or are times going to get even tougher for us? And as you're looking at some stupid rug, you're thinking, is it really worth it?

JOFFE-WALT: Beth answers that question the way many of us have been answering that question lately - no. She walks away. Her floors remain naked, her living room corner, dark. American's aren't buying as much, which means we aren't importing as much.

This is how Beth and probably most of us are connected to Bob. We usually buy rugs, couches, teddy bears, shoes, and all that stuff rides over from Asia or Europe in containers. That's how Bob gets his containers. They have to come over here, so he can fill them up with his soy beans and wheat and then send them back.

So, Kato Akemi in Japan, she may want to buy Bob's cheap soy products, but if Beth doesn't take out that credit card and furnish her house, Bob can't get his stuff to Japan or anywhere else. I told Beth there has been a container shortage because people aren't buying as much, not to make her feel bad, just because she asked. But it did make her feel bad, and she said to tell Bob Sinner she was sorry.

Mr. SINNER: Well, but you know what? We're all consumers. We all have our personal lives that we have to take care of. You know, I don't fault consumers for those decisions. That's just a function of our economy.

JOFFE-WALT: An economy that is not looking rosy for exporters or anyone. The dollar is now getting stronger, which is a really bad thing for Bob. His soy beans and wheat may still be on the shelves in grocery stores in Asia and Europe, but probably won't be the cheapest in stock anymore. So, all those inquiries and new interest Bob was getting will go away. And, on the import side, well, it's been almost five months since Beth moved in to her new home, and she still hasn't bought a rug. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

SEABROOK: There's more on how we're all tied together in one global economy on our Planet Money blog and podcast at npr.org/money.

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