Free at last, but hardly good to go.
The Ever Given — the giant container ship that spent almost a week clogging the Suez Canal, its bow wedged in Asia and its stern stuck in Africa — was pulled out of its awkward predicament earlier this week and is now being inspected for structural damage. It bears some 18,200 containers, and what happens with the ship and cargo if the 13,000-foot vessel is deemed unseaworthy is a mystery.
Also a mystery is how it ran aground to begin with. Determining that, and establishing legal responsibility, promises to be a high-stakes international morass, with a shipload of money at stake. The Ever Given is owned by a Japanese firm, operated by a Taiwanese shipper, flagged in Panama and got stuck in Egypt, with billions of dollars in global trade stalled as a result. Everybody wanted the profit but nobody will want the liability.
Canal traffic has resumed, but it will take weeks to work through the backlog of stalled ships and cargo. The Suez stall doesn’t figure to have a direct effect on U.S. trade — there are shorter routes connecting this nation to trading partners in Asia and Europe; the canal chiefly serves trade between Europe and Asia — but there will likely be a spillover effect as components for finished products don’t arrive on time.
And that is part of the fragility of the global shipping system. Manufacturers in the 21st century have largely gone to a “just-in-time” system in which components spend little time in storage and container ships essentially serve not only as transportation but as warehouses. In one door and out the other is the ideal.
It works great — until it doesn’t. The chaos at the start of the pandemic revealed the weaknesses in this system. Just-in-time meant there was little supply to fall back on and resulted in shortages of everything from medical-grade face masks to toilet paper.
Supply chains, like any other chain, are only as strong as their weakest link. The lesson of the Ever Given is that even a ship a quarter-mile long can be a weak link.