Suez Canal blockage exposes vulnerabilities of global trade flows

The Ever Given container ship is pictured in Suez Canal in this Maxar Technologies satellite image taken on March 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
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The Ever Given container ship is pictured in Suez Canal in this Maxar Technologies satellite image taken on March 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Tugboats and dredgers are working to free the Ever Given container ship blocking Egypt's Suez Canal. (AFP)
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Tugboats and dredgers are working to free the Ever Given container ship blocking Egypt's Suez Canal. (AFP)
Two tugboats are seen near the Ever Given, which has become wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway from another vessel. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
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Two tugboats are seen near the Ever Given, which has become wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway from another vessel. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
A backhoe digs out the keel of the Ever Given argo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
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A backhoe digs out the keel of the Ever Given argo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
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Updated 29 March 2021

Suez Canal blockage exposes vulnerabilities of global trade flows

Suez Canal blockage exposes vulnerabilities of global trade flows
  • Delays in dislodging the giant Ever Given cargo ship have compounded pandemic-driven problems for international supply chains
  • The Suez Canal blockage raises questions about cargo vessel size, waterway capacity and the benefits of localized production 

BERNE, Switzerland: International waterways matter, few more than the Suez Canal. More than 1 billion tons of cargo passed through the Egyptian waterway in 2019, according to the canal authority, which equates to roughly four times the tonnage passing through the Panama Canal.

Europe, in particular, depends on the canal for its supply of energy, commodities, consumer goods and components from Asia and the Middle East. So, when the giant cargo ship Ever Given ran aground on Tuesday, clogging this vital artery of world trade, anxiety quickly set in. 

When it became evident that the vessel could be wedged in place until Wednesday of next week, the ripple effect was felt far and wide — well beyond the offices of the ship’s owners and operators and their insurance companies.

The Ever Given is owned by Japan’s Shoei Kisen Kaisha and operated by Taiwanese firm Evergreen. Goods valuing around $10 billion pass through the canal every day, but the Ever Given alone is estimated to carry a load worth $1 billion, according to IHS Markit. 

The canal has been in continuous operation since it was first inaugurated in 1869, with only the briefest interruptions between 1957 and 1958 when Egypt’s then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway and later between 1967 and 1973 due to the two Arab-Israeli wars. 

For the most part, the canal has operated without a hitch for the past 50 years or more. And if anything, its importance has grown in tandem with globalization, cementing the links between the Orient and the Occident. 

Therefore it comes as no surprise that this impasse poses far greater issues than simply dislodging a stricken ship. The temporary closure of the Suez Canal highlights several problems pertaining to ship size, as well as the vulnerability of international waterways, global supply chains and imports. 

Between 1980 and 2019, global trade volume grew 10-fold to $19.5 trillion. This growth came hand-in-hand with the ever-growing size of maritime vessels to meet mounting demand. Indeed, the dimensions of the Ever Given are truly enormous, at 1,444 feet in length (roughly the height of the Empire State Building), 194 feet in width and weighing in at more than 400 million pounds.

While waterways like Suez and Panama have undergone several major expansions and are dredged on a regular basis — the last Suez expansion was completed in 2015 — accommodating these giant vessels bears inherent dangers. Tuesday’s incident is a case in point. 

The question “How big is too big?” has vexed authorities, shipyards, vessel owners and operators alike. The question is also relevant for the insurance industry, which will have to pick up the bill for the Ever Given and any incidents in the future.

Another issue is how reliable “just-in-time” supply chains actually are. This question goes well beyond marine security. In just the past four years, trade wars between the US and China have left severe cracks in global supply chains. 

Reshoring, when companies return goods to their country of origin, has become increasingly common, as manufacturers look to protect their investments in the face of geopolitical tensions and unreliable supply chains.

If anything, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has exacerbated that trend. Last year, countries were scrambling over a limited supply of personal protection equipment (PPE). Now they are locked in a battle over access to vaccines.

These heightened political tensions demonstrate a need for more critical goods to be produced domestically, or at least on the same continent. By way of example, Pat Gelsinger, the CEO of Intel, recently announced the tech giant will soon establish more factories in the US and Europe to reduce its reliance on external microchip supply chains from Asia.

INNUMBERS

12% Proportion of global trade which passes through Suez.

$9.6bn Value of goods that pass through canal every day.

19,000 Ships that passed through the canal in 2020.

Just-in-time supply chains are like high-precision acrobatics, where the entire performance fails if even one component arrives with the slightest delay. As such, they are incredibly vulnerable, like the Ever Given incident shows. Delayed components can put a company’s entire manufacturing process in danger.

Even with experts on hand, dislodging the Ever Given and clearing the waterway could take up to a week. This is bad news for companies waiting for their cargo. At roughly $10 billion a day in foregone or delayed business, time is money. 

Some ships have been rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope, adding another 6,000 miles around Africa to their journey and up to $400,000 in fuel costs depending on the size of the ship. No wonder shipowners and operators have been biding their time at either end of the Suez to see how things pan out.

And the problems do not stop there. The pandemic has already upended the logistics of shipping containers, leading to a scarcity of metal boxes. The cost of a 40-foot container has quadrupled within the past 12 months.

Inflationary pressures do not just pertain to the cost of shipping. The closure of the Suez Canal, if it persists too long, may have ramifications for oil markets as well. 

Fortunately, the Suez Canal has lost its importance as a shipping lane for oil from the Gulf. For one, Asia has become the most important customer for Gulf oil producers. While some 3.8 million barrels per day (bpd) passed through Suez in the early 2000s, that volume has since fallen to 2.1 million bpd. 

Oil markets nevertheless rose on Tuesday and have oscillated since, ending at $64.66/barrel by early evening CET Friday. Although an extended blockage will likely affect crude supplies to Europe, demand is currently depressed owing to COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns on the continent. 

There is also the fallback option of the Sumed pipeline from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which has a capacity of 2.5 million bpd and is largely unused at present due to OPEC+ production cuts.

All in all, the blockage of the Suez Canal has laid bare the vulnerabilities of international shipping lanes and the fragility of supply chains. While the blockage will likely be resolved soon, it raises pertinent questions about the size of vessels and how these giant ships can be accommodated by what are essentially 19th and 20th century, man-made waterways. 

The incident will have a short-term inflationary impact, particularly for Europe and the already overheated sea container market. The longer it takes to hoist the Ever Given from the sandbanks in the Suez, the bigger the impact it will have on supply chains and sea container markets. 

And as freight has become a truly global business, the inflationary impact of container delays will be felt worldwide. 

Although this is a major incident for maritime shipping, matters could have been far worse. As the Ever Given is Japanese-owned and Taiwanese-operated, events are unfolding in the Suez without the region’s usual geopolitical undercurrents that linger under the surface.

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Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

 


Saudi Arabia tops emerging markets league table

Saudi Arabia tops emerging markets league table
Updated 27 July 2021

Saudi Arabia tops emerging markets league table

Saudi Arabia tops emerging markets league table
  • Analysis in MSCI put Kingdom at the top of the list with a near 27% rise in market value

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has been the best performing of all the emerging markets since the onset of the pandemic, according to new data from global information provider Refinitiv.

An analysis of 25 countries in the MSCI Emerging Market Index put Saudi Arabia, home to the Tadawul stock exchange in Riyadh, at the top of the list with a near 27 percent rise in market value since the start of 2020, when COVID-19 began to impact the global economy.

That compares with an average increase of just 1.6 percent in the overall index, and easily outstrips the 14.2 percent jump in the MSCI World Index of all countries.

Turkey was the worst performing of the emerging markets, with a 22.8 percent fall since the pandemic began, followed by Peru and Colombia, with drops of more than 20 percent. Of the other Middle East countries, Egypt witnessed a 6.5 percent decline, while Qatar barely grew, with just a 1.2 percent increase. 

The UAE placed second in the post-pandemic emerging market ranking, with a 21.3 percent rise.

Market experts said one of the reasons for the Kingdom’s outperformance was the authorities’ effective response to the economic recession brought on by the pandemic.

“The Saudi authorities were relatively quick to react with a series of measures, especially relating to smaller businesses, to help ease the burden of the pandemic economic effects, and the market has reacted to that,” Tarek Fadlallah, chief executive of Nomura Asset Management in the Middle East, told Arab News. 

The International Monetary Fund recently applauded the Kingdom’s pandemic response, as well as reforms to its capital markets that have enhanced its position as the biggest equities trading hub in the Gulf.

Tadawul has introduced derivatives trading which has broadened its appeal, especially to foreign investors accustomed to more sophisticated trading techniques.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Market experts said one of the reasons for the Kingdom’s outperformance was the authorities’ effective response to the economic recession brought on by the pandemic.

• The International Monetary Fund recently applauded the Kingdom’s pandemic response, as well as reforms to its capital markets that have enhanced its position as the biggest equities.

• Saudi Arabia’s market outperformance reflects its sustained course of economic transformation, along with liquidity boosting by the central bank, says expert.

“Saudi Arabia’s market outperformance and strong corporate valuations reflect its sustained course of economic transformation, along with liquidity boosting by the central bank,” financial expert Nasser Saidi told Arab News. 

“Economic and structural reforms, along with social liberalization policies, including opening up foreign markets to foreign investors, allowing for 100 percent foreign ownership in certain sectors, resulted in massive investment inflows.”

He highlighted the effect of the “policy-shattering” initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, and the steady stream of market flotations continuing this year, as a key feature of the Kingdom’s progress since the pandemic began.

The Saudi performance rates highly even in the context of rising global markets, buoyed by low interest rates and big government stimulus. New York’s S&P index has gained 33 percent since the onset of the pandemic.


Startup of the Week: Tuma Taiba feeding vegan needs

Startup of the Week: Tuma Taiba feeding vegan needs
Updated 26 July 2021

Startup of the Week: Tuma Taiba feeding vegan needs

Startup of the Week: Tuma Taiba feeding vegan needs

JEDDAH: Veganism has become a growing trend in Saudi Arabia with ever more people opting for a plant-based diet.

For some it is for health reasons, while for others it is a moral decision. As a result, supermarket shelves in the Kingdom have over the past four years seen an increase in stocks of vegan products.

In 2019, Amani Nouri, who gained a diploma in nutrition, founded Tuma Taiba — Arabic for good bite — in Jeddah, to cater for the burgeoning vegan market in the country.

“I chose to name it Tuma Taiba because good food is the foundation for a good body,” she told Arab News.

Her company offers vegan cheese spreads made from different nuts, and they come in flavors such as olives, pomegranate, and bell pepper. It also produces vegan and gluten-free pastries made with dates, sourdough bread, and kombucha tea in flavors including a mix of berries or apple, pineapple, and cinnamon.

The startup sold more than 500 products last year and aims to triple that amount this year.

Nouri said 85 percent of her diet was now plant-based after she made the decision to change her eating regime due to suffering from a number of health conditions that cleared up when she switched to a healthier diet.

“I suffered migraines once or twice a week to the point I needed strong painkillers, and this of course could hurt my kidneys and body in general.

“After I turned to the plant-based diet, I lost weight, I even look more youthful, all the pains and conditions I suffered from are cured, the cysts went away without any medication, and the hormonal imbalances too,” she added.

Family and friends encouraged Nouri to pursue the vegan business after trying her recipes. “On the insistence of family and friends, I started sharing my dishes with people because of the community’s need for different vegan-friendly food.”

She noted that the number of people in the Kingdom opting for vegan food was steadily increasing.

And some of her customers were non-vegans. “They find a delicious plant-based alternative that satisfies their tastes, and benefits their bodies, and notice the difference after eating more plant-based foods,” she said.

Tuma Taiba is planning to expand its product range and open a restaurant in the next couple of years.

• Details are available on Instagram @tumataiba.


Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May
Updated 26 July 2021

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May
  • Residential real estate financing contracts offered to individuals by local banks reached 133,006 through May, with a value of SR69.5 billion

RIYADH: Mortgage lending in Saudi Arabia increased 27 percent this year through May, as interest rates decreased to between 1 percent and 4.9 percent, compared to about 6 percent early last year.

Residential real estate financing contracts offered to individuals by local banks reached 133,006 through May, with a value of SR69.5 billion, according to data from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA).

Real estate financing grew by 50 percent compared with the same period in 2020 when SR46.6 billion was lent via 104,000 contracts.

“There is great competition between banks and real estate finance companies to obtain a greater share of the housing demand, after government support and joint financing programs with the Real Estate Development Fund (REDF), which led to an increase in the volume of lending for home purchases,” Riyadh-based Menassat Reality Co. CEO Khaled Almobid told Arab news.

“I expect more lending during the last quarter of this year despite the difficulties it is facing due to the rise in some housing prices in major cities and the lack of supply,” he said.

Saudi banks are offering mortgages with interest rates as low as 1 percent at Al Rajhi Bank, 2.5 percent at the Saudi National Bank (AlAhli Bank) and up to 4.5 percent at some banks.

Residential villas made up about 80 percent of the total financing, apartments 17 percent, while the purchase of residential lands’ financing made up the remaining 3 percent.

Saudi real estate financing achieved a record growth during the past three years, amounting to about 295,590 contracts, worth SR140.7 billion in 2020, compared to 22,259 financing contracts, worth SR17 billion in 2016, local media reproted citing SAMA data.


Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses
Updated 26 July 2021

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses
  • Lebanese pound is 70 percent undervalued according to the Big Mac Index
  • A split is emerging between those paid in Lebanese pounds and those in dollars

RIYADH: Lebanon is home to the world’s cheapest Big Mac after the pound slumped in value, leaving it more than 70 percent undervalued against the US dollar, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

At 29,904 Lebanese pounds, a Big Mac is not cheap for those being paid in local currency, but with an exchange rate of 17,800 to the dollar, it costs just $1.68 for tourists and those lucky enough to get paid in dollars.

The slump in the Lebanese pound is exacerbating and accelerating inflation on a basic basket of goods, such as rice, sugar and flour, on a daily basis, said Lebanese economic analyst Bassel Al-Khatib.

Most people are paid in the local currency in Lebanon, where the national minimum wage stands at 675,000 Lebanese pounds per month, which was once worth almost $450 at the official exchange rate, but today barely fetches $30 on the black market, according to the Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The Observatory said the cost of food has soared by 700 percent over the past two years, and this increase had picked up pace to 50 percent in the past few weeks alone.

Most Lebanese people are getting poorer on a daily basis, pushing some of them to sell their gold, cars and even furniture to survive, while others wait for US dollar transfers from their relatives abroad, or wait for civil society aid, Al-Khatib told Arab News.

This is all reflected in Lebanese social media, which is flooded with donation requests for new-born baby milk and medications that are not available anymore in the markets or are sold for extremely high prices. There are also numerous donation requests for people in need of food.

At the same time, others are sharing their expensive restaurant bills, such as Babel Baher who spent 5 million Lebanese pounds on a meal and posted the cheque on Facebook.

“$250 is almost nothing for someone coming from abroad,” a Facebook user called Rania wrote under the post. “This is a very cheap bill for someone who has US dollars and this dinner is not expensive at all compared to abroad.”

Al Khatib said that those paid in US dollars are living an affordable life with only $300 out of their salaries while before they needed $3,000 to have the same quality of life.

“The patchwork policies to support some commodities is not helping as all commodities that are subsidized are smuggled, ” said Al Khatib.

The country’s mismanagement with no plan or economic vision to save Lebanon from its worsening crisis, led us here, and there are no positive prospects as long as there are no radical solutions in the country, he said.


PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq
Updated 26 July 2021

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq
  • will make itsLucid to make trading debut on New York’s Nasdaq Global Select Market on Monday
  • Lucid merged with special purpose acquisition vehicle Churchill Capital Corp. IV

RIYADH: Lucid Motors, the Californian electric vehicle (EV) carmaker majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), will make its trading debut on New York’s Nasdaq Global Select Market on Monday.

Listed under the new ticker symbol “LCID”, the listing came about following the merger of Lucid and Churchill Capital Corp. IV — a special purpose acquisition company — on July 23. The EV firm will begin trading by ringing the Nasdaq opening bell on July 26.


The deal will help Lucid raise $4.4 billion, which will be used to fast track its production growth plans. The firm has over 11,000 paid reservations for its Lucid Air vehicle, which is on scheduled to start deliveries in the second half of this year.

“We are on track to meet our projected deliveries for the next two years, and we look forward to delighting our customers around the world with the best electric vehicles ever created,” Peter Rawlinson, CEO and CTO of Lucid Group, said in a press statement.

Michael S. Klein, chairman and CEO of Churchill Capital Corp. IV, said ahead of the merger: “Lucid has industry-leading technology, clear demand for its products, and is on track to deliver revenue-generating cars to customers in the second half of this year. We are excited to support Lucid’s transition into a public company and confident in its ability to address unmet needs in the automotive industry, which is moving toward electrification at a rapid pace and on a global scale.”

PIF announced its investment in Lucid Motors in Sept. 2018. The Lucid Motors CEO told Arab News in January that his team were scrutinizing possible locations in Saudi Arabia to open retail outlets — what Lucid calls “studios” — for their luxury EVs.

“We are already looking,” he said. “My retail team just returned from a scouting trip in the Kingdom, and that is very much on the road there. Hopefully, we can get a retail outlet there right at the tail end of 2021, probably early 2022.”

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia stands to record a profit of nearly $20 billion on the back of its investment in Lucid.

PIF will own over 60 percent of the company, which is expected to have a market capitalization of about $36 billion.

Lucid’s expected market capitalization is nearly twice the valuation of Nissan Motor Co. and about two-thirds that of Ford Motor Co., which delivered more than 4 million cars last year. Lucid has yet to sell any cars.

Looking at the market for EVs, a report by the Pew Research Center found that 7 percent of respondents said they currently owned an electric or hybrid vehicle, and 39 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to buy an EV when they next came to purchase.

Interest has grown, with 1.8 million EVs registered in the US in 2020, more than three times as many as four years ago, according to the International Energy Agency.

While the US accounts for 17 percent of the world’s 10.2 million EVs, China is the biggest market, with 44 percent of all cars and Europe following with 31 percent.