How stock-market investors can make sense of supply-chain chaos

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A stunning backlog of ships and stacks of shipping containers at major ports aren’t something investors can ignore, but they should think twice before assuming widespread bottlenecks represent a classic supply shock.

“The supply shortages are happening in the context of the highest level of global manufacturing output ever seen,” said Brian Nick, chief investment strategist at Nuveen. The problem is more of a “positive demand shock.”

Demand has run extremely hot thanks to cash saved during the pandemic when opportunities to spend it were limited, along with government financial aid. That money is now being used to buy of cars, TVs, appliances and furniture as the economy recovers. All that consumer demand is now clogging up global shipping lines, Nick said, in a phone interview. While shortages of items like computer chips have exacerbated the supply of some items like cars, the situation, at its core, is one in which “demand is too high” rather than woefully inadequate supply.

That’s an important distinction. A negative supply shock — an unexpected fall in the availability of a product or commodity — can be unnerving for investors who are more used to dealing with the occasional threat of negative demand shocks — an unexpected hit to demand for goods and services.

Moreover, supply shocks are more difficult for policy makers to counteract as their tools are more aimed at stimulating or braking demand. Fears of a supply-induced shock were partly responsible for the rapid tumble into a bear market for stocks in the early days of the pandemic.

But the pandemic resulted in hits to both the supply side and demand side of the economy. Aggressive fiscal and monetary stimulus by governments and central banks stoked demand, particularly for goods. That’s helped lead back to the supply-chain situation the economy faces now.

Problems aren’t confined to the ship backlog at ports. A shortage of truck drivers and available chassis means that containers are stacking up, making it difficult to get goods to their destination once they’re finally on dry land.

Those supply-chain issues have investors’ attention. FedEx Corp. FDX, +0.22% last month stunned investors with weaker-than-expected earnings and a weaker outlook, citing rising labor costs and supply-chain snafus.

Companies like FedEx and United Parcel Service Inc. UPS, +1.04% are struggling with a shift that has seen five to seven years of expected e-commerce growth “packed into a year-and-a-half since the pandemic,” Patrick Donnelly, an analyst at Third Bridge, told MarketWatch.

It should be no surprise that supply bottlenecks are already emerging as a theme on corporate earnings calls as third-quarter results begin to trickle in. “I think that’s going to have a read-through to earnings across the board, but really just pick your sector,” Donnelly said.

Of the 21 S&P 500 index companies that had reported third-quarter results through Friday, 71% cited the negative impact of supply-chain problems on earnings, said John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet, in a note.

Investors, meanwhile, have access to more real-time tools to track what’s happening in the supply chain. One effort, by RBC Capital Markets, uses geospatial intelligence to track activity at the world’s 22 largest ports.

The firm’s “time of turnaround” bespoke metric quantifies whether the time it takes to discharge a container is increasing or decreasing, said analyst Michael Tran, in a phone interview. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest in the Western Hemisphere, the time of turnaround is now 6.4 days, nearly double the pre-pandemic average of 3.6 days.

Related: California port crisis, tangled supply chains are fueling a shipping container boom. Will it bust?

How will the shipping and transportation woes resolve themselves? It will likely take a fall in demand for consumer goods. That could come about in one of two ways, Tran said: Demand for consumer goods could fall due to rising prices; or, as consumers put the pandemic behind them, there’s a more durable shift in spending away from goods toward services, including travel, sporting events, concerts and the like.

A slowdown in demand is almost assured, said Nuveen’s Nick. The U.S. economy has already started to lose momentum after hitting peak growth as a result of stimulus efforts and pent-up demand earlier this year.

September retail sales data due Friday will offer a look at consumer willingness to spend. Inflation data will also be in the spotlight in the week ahead, with the September consumer-price index due on Wednesday and the producer-price index slated for Thursday.

Nick expects market concerns to begin to shift from inflation toward economic growth.

That would make for an environment that will make it difficult for cyclical stocks, whose fortunes are tied more closely to the economic cycle, to lead, he said. An exception may be the financial sector which should benefit from a continued grind higher in Treasury debt yields.

Major U.S. stock indexes logged gains in the past week, continuing an October bounce after a losing September. The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.03% rose 1.2%, while the S&P 500 SPX, -0.19% advanced 0.8% and the Nasdaq Composite COMP, -0.51% eked out a 0.1% rise.

As the economy normalizes back to a pre-COVID environment of annual growth in the 2% area, higher growth stocks should tend to do better he said. Meanwhile, cyclicals can “continue to have their day…but the end of this year and into next year we’ll be settling down into something that feels more like the pre-pandemic normal,” he said.