A few months ago, a friend in the entertainment industry told me of a new business model in Hollywood: hoarding videotapes. Apparently, the earthquake in Japan knocked offline a Sony factory that makes certain types of tape. That factory was also in the tsunami zone, so now there’s a serious tape shortage threatening the television industry. The NBA scrambled to get enough tape to broadcast the NBA finals; one executive told the Hollywood Reporter, “It’s like a bank run.”
In the last few years, economists have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about bank runs. A bank run happens when depositors think a bank is weak and scramble to get their money out before it collapses. “Tight coupling” of financial institutions, like when banks are overly dependent on each other, can create a cascading series of problems for the system itself. We saw this with Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt. Its AAA-rated debt instruments lost value unexpectedly; that caused money market funds that held those presumably safe bonds to suddenly lose value. A shadow bank run was the result, as investors rushed to withdraw from the money market funds.
Worryingly, there’s been very little consideration of how systemic collapses can happen in another, perhaps more dangerous realm—the industrial supply system that keeps us in everything from medicine to food to cars to, yes, videotape. In 2004, for instance, England closed one single factory, which caused the United States to lose half of its flu vaccine supply.
Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation has been studying industrial supply shocks since 1999, when he noticed that global computer chip production was concentrated in Taiwan. After a severe earthquake in that country, the global computer industry nearly shut down, crashing the stocks of large computer makers. This level of concentration of the production of key components in a globalized economy is a new phenomenon. Lynn’s work points to the highly dangerous side of globalization, the flip side of a hyper-efficient global supply chain. When one link in that chain is broken, there is no fallback.
Lynn has continued to study industrial supply shocks and says, “What I have found most interesting recently is the apparent role supply chain shocks played in triggering a synchronized slowdown of industrial economies in April—production down (in USA, China, Europe, Southeast Asia), jobs down, demand down, GDP numbers down—due almost entirely to the loss of a single factory that makes microcontroller chips for cars.”
Today, the problem manifests as shortages of videotape or auto parts, but the global supply chain is so tangled and fragile that next time it could be electronics, weaponry, or even food or medicine. As Lynn noted in an interview with Dylan Ratigan, China controls 100 percent of the national supply of ascorbic acid, which is a basic food preservative. Leading oncologists are already warning that we are experiencing severe shortages of generic yet pivotal cancer drugs, because there’s no incentive for corporations to make them.
According to Lynn’s groundbreaking book End of the Line, the essential problem is a basic shift in the way that American multinationals operate. In the 1980s, the competitive manufacturing threat from Japan led most large companies to eliminate waste in their production facilities. As a result, they stopped keeping spare parts on hand. Eventually, companies began outsourcing production itself, as profits came increasingly from extractive monopolistic power over an economic system. Walmart is an important example; its profits come from the power it can exert on its suppliers, telling them what to make and how to make it, while the company itself functions as a giant autocratic marketplace and trading operation. Increasingly, this is the model of success in our global economy. Boeing, Cisco, Apple—all of them rely on their power over an ecosystem of production facilities halfway around the world. They have become rent extractive profit-machines, which is a relatively new phenomenon.