Choke Points and Points of Failure…

At Awbury, we are always interested in understanding more about factors that can cause disruption and failure, or cause forecasts to require material revision, as well as how they may interact across economic, financial and governance systems.

The pandemic has certainly highlighted interdependencies and the impact they can have on policy effectiveness. For example, the ordering, production, distribution of vaccines has proven the reality that even members of a supposedly aligned entity (the EU) can make decisions with the best of intentions that prove counter-productive and divisive, a situation then exacerbated by the fact that the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines is India’s Serum Institute, whose own operations are subject to the dictates of the local government’s “vaccine nationalism”. Thus, a new choke point appears in terms of pandemic suppression.

Or consider the Suez Canal, which, like the Panama Canal, is an obvious chokepoint when it comes to global trading in goods, accounting for an estimated 12% of the total by volume. Clearly, if it becomes blocked, that is a problem. In recent years, ships have run aground for various reasons, but been re-floated relatively quickly. Now, however, not only has another ship run aground, but it just happens to be one of the world’s largest container ships, and fully laden; while no-one yet fully understands why the grounding occurred. Naturally, queues are building both within the canal, as well as at its entrances, and there are wildly varying estimates as to how the ship will be re-floated, and when. What was a “manageable” chokepoint, just became potentially unmanageable for ships the size of the Ever Given.

Of course, once one starts looking for potential chokepoints, one sees them everywhere! While the immediately obvious consequence of the recent Texas winter storm was in terms of disruption to power generation and supplies of natural gas, because facilities were not “winterized”, the unexpected lingering effect was on the petro-chemicals industry, many of whose hugely-complex plants experienced a so-called “hard shut-down”, meaning that their operations were stopped abruptly, rather than in a controlled manner. As a result, the return to full operation may take months, resulting in disruption of supplies to global supply chains of key products such as polypropylene, polyethylene and PVC, with significant increases in prices another consequence.

And (as we have alluded to before), in a world which depends on ever more complex computer “chips” to build and advance its technologies, the security of supply from Taiwan-based “fab”, TSMC, is of critical importance because it is not only dominant in terms of scale but also in the capabilities of its products. The destruction of its plants or diversion of supplies would vividly demonstrate what a point of failure looks like- particularly when supply disruptions are occurring already.

One paradox that all the above examples reveal is that, no matter how much we may think that the world is now digital and de-materialized, we cannot avoid the physical, because that still underpins everything else, and is sometimes surprisingly vulnerable, and we need to be ever-vigilant in identifying and assessing how, where and why a choke-point or point of failure may be created.

The Awbury Team

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