As economic concerns erode President Joe Biden’s political standing, his aides are trying to assure Americans they’re doing everything possible to address fears about inflation and hard-to-find goods heading into the holiday season.
The White House website is rolling out a new Supply Chain Dashboard, to be updated every two weeks, that will track progress in easing the backlog of imported goods that has accompanied the economy’s recovery from coronavirus shutdowns. The dashboard comes as tangled supply chains have boosted the cost and limited the availability of everything from automobiles to clothing to toys.
In the opening edition, obtained before its launch Tuesday by CNN, White House aides attempted to explain and quantify the problem now hitting consumers in the wallet. Emphasizing the good news, they note that strong demand means overall consumer spending has nearly reached its pre-pandemic levels.
But as the pandemic persists, the reshaping of consumer demand from services to physical goods has created choke points at busy ports like those in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. In normal times, only a few container ships would wait offshore at those ports to unload their goods; as of last Friday, the White House said, there were 75.
A shortage of truck drivers has stalled the distribution of offloaded goods to retailers and other businesses. To address both problems, the White House Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force has worked to relax trucking regulations and persuade ports and railroads to operate around the clock.
For the first two weeks of October, the two major California ports off-loaded 379,000 containers. That makes a total of 8.1 million for the year – ahead of the pace of the previous record year of 2018.
As of the beginning of October, that robust volume of containers had fueled a national inventory of retail goods with a dollar value of $455 billion. That total, which excludes automobiles, is 4% above the same point last year, the administration says.
As Americans prepare to buy holiday gifts, the White House is also tracking a data series compiled by the private firm IRI. That data shows how easily consumers can find goods that retailers offer.
As of Sunday, IRI’s “On-The-Shelf Availability” data showed retailers had in stock 89% of the goods they sell. That was just slightly below the 91% level measured in February 2020, before coronavirus shutdowns.
More important than administration efforts to directly ease the supply chain crunch is the course of the pandemic itself. In the US, economists expect that the return to normal life will shift more consumer spending away from goods and back to services.
Taming the pandemic in Asia and elsewhere would reduce disruptions in manufacturing for semiconductors. Those chips are in particularly short supply, hindering production of cars and other technology-dependent goods.
But the pandemic has defied predictions so far, leaving forecasts for inflation and other economic indicators in doubt.
“The significant reason why prices are up is because of Covid affecting the supply chain,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday at a news conference closing out his overseas trip in Glasgow, Scotland.
The President declined an invitation to specify when supply chains might be repaired. He expressed confidence only that Americans will prefer conditions this Thanksgiving to last year’s holiday.