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[quote=“NYT”]Cheap oil, the lubricant of quick, inexpensive transportation links across the world, may not return anytime soon, upsetting the logic of diffuse global supply chains that treat geography as a footnote in the pursuit of lower wages. Rising concern about global warming, the reaction against lost jobs in rich countries, worries about food safety and security, and the collapse of world trade talks in Geneva last week also signal that political and environmental concerns may make the calculus of globalization far more complex.
The cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Shanghai to the United States has risen to $8,000, compared with $3,000 early in the decade, according to a recent study of transportation costs. Big container ships, the pack mules of the 21st-century economy, have shaved their top speed by nearly 20 percent to save on fuel costs, substantially slowing shipping times.
The study, published in May by the Canadian investment bank CIBC World Markets, calculates that the recent surge in shipping costs is on average the equivalent of a 9 percent tariff on trade. “The cost of moving goods, not the cost of tariffs, is the largest barrier to global trade today,” the report concluded, and as a result “has effectively offset all the trade liberalization efforts of the last three decades.”
Many leading economists say such predictions are probably overblown. “It would be a mistake, a misinterpretation, to think that a huge rollback or reversal of fundamental trends is under way,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Distance and trade costs do matter, but we are still in a globalized era.”
As economists and business executives well know, shipping costs are only one factor in determining the flow of international trade. When companies decide where to invest in a new factory or from whom to buy a product, they also take into account exchange rates, consumer confidence, labor costs, government regulations and the availability of skilled managers.
One likely outcome if transportation rates stay high, economists said, would be a strengthening of the neighborhood effect. Instead of seeking supplies wherever they can be bought most cheaply, regardless of location, and outsourcing the assembly of products all over the world, manufacturers would instead concentrate on performing those activities as close to home as possible.
In a more regionalized trading world, economists say, China would probably end up buying more of the iron ore it needs from Australia and less from Brazil, and farming out an even greater proportion of its manufacturing work to places like Vietnam and Thailand. Similarly, Mexico’s maquiladora sector, the assembly plants concentrated near its border with the United States, would become more attractive to manufacturers with an eye on the American market.