The value of my car, which has been gathering dust in our garage for most of the pandemic, increased lately after 12 years of declining.
Nothing is “classic” about the car, but the estimated value on CarGurus is up and it must be for nearly any other car that still runs. After months of price increases, the automobile-auction company Manheim reported, used-car wholesale prices jumped an additional 7% just in the first couple of weeks of April.
Consumers won’t find great bargains shopping for new cars, either. Ford Motor Company’s F-series pickups have been America’s bestselling vehicle for decades, and Ford thinks it might be able to build only half as many vehicles as planned in the second quarter, idling even its Ford F-150 lines.
The tight market for cars is due to an even worse supply situation for integrated circuits, the little electronic components known as chips that are embedded all over cars. Yet it is hard to find anything that hasn’t increased in price.
Corn prices have more than doubled in the last year. Rubber, copper and steel prices have shot up, too. Meanwhile, what has happened with lumber prices is nothing short of amazing.
“We’re at some sort of ‘peak everything’ moment,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist Conor Sen wrote last week.
This can’t be dismissed as just more giddy speculation. It might be fun to dabble in digital nothing-burgers called nonfungible tokens, or NFT’s, but if any NFT serves some real-world purpose it’s unclear what it could be.
Cars, vacation houses and a truckload of Douglas fir 2-by-4s, on the other hand, actually are pretty useful.
A “knife fight” has broken out among global automakers to secure the semiconductors they need to keep their production lines moving, as one analyst put it. Among their tactics is ordering twice as many as they thought they would need, a practice that won’t do much to alleviate the shortage.
A new car might use hundreds of these integrated circuits, some that look like chubby wood ticks and may cost less than a cup of Dunn Brothers coffee. Yet an automaker can’t drive a new car out of the assembly plant without them.
It was a “self-inflicted” wound, said the partners from consulting firm Bain & Co. in a February virtual seminar, as old-fashioned big car company practices — like always pushing risk down to suppliers — sure didn’t work this time.
Early last year, as the spread of the new coronavirus gathered momentum, car producers cut back, cutting forecasts of what they would need from suppliers. Then when the car market looked pretty resilient and car manufacturers wanted to ramp up, they found that some of the chip capacity they needed now wasn’t immediately available.
All of this had led to what are called bullwhip effects, meaning how even small changes in end-user buying leads to bigger swings in the operations of suppliers down the value chain.
Semiconductors are tiny marvels of complexity, and it might take two or three months to get one through the manufacturing process. Even in normal periods, the lead times for chips used in cars might be 10 to 20 weeks.
That has lately been stretched to maybe a year.
The Bain partners pointed out that these electronic components are built in $10 billion factories that have been running 24/7 since they first opened. There’s no such thing as adding a second shift to squeeze out more production.
Building a new “front end” chip plant, commonly called a fab, might be possible but it sure isn’t practical. It would be a multiyear, multibillion dollar project that would open with tough competition from older and far lower-cost plants.
The chip-building industry is pretty complex, but the story here illustrates a lot of what’s happening in many industries this spring. It’s just not possible to quickly ramp up production.
It will take at least a full growing season to get additional corn production as farmers switch acres over to growing corn. Depending on when you start counting, it takes more than two years to produce a dairy cow.
We could sure use more housing in the Twin Cities, but good luck getting a new apartment building built by Thanksgiving. We’ve seen in Twin Cities how two years wasn’t enough time in the project plan to even get a building permit.
This is one way cyclical businesses stay cyclical. By the time business owners, responding to higher prices in the market, get their new plant built and running, customer demand might have fallen short of expectations. Now a new plant just contributes to the glut.
That’s about what happened to the lumber industry following the 2008 recession, although not many other industries went through a downturn as brutal. Fixed investment in private housing, as a slice of the overall economy, had sunk to a level that had not been seen since records have been kept. A lot of lumber production shut down for good.
By last year the industry could supply builders for about 1.35 million housing units a year, said Kris Scherer, who manages commodity price risk as chief financial officer of Brooklyn Park-based Scherer Bros. Lumber Co.
Housing starts picked up to reach an annual rate of more than 1.5 million last year, and by March that number had grown to nearly 1.75 million. Prices for some lumber products have more than quadrupled.
“Yet people still want to build, and they still are buying,” Scherer said. “Nobody is happy about the price increases, but they keep on paying them, too.
“For the last couple of months,” he continued, “we weren’t seeing 10% [increases] a month; we were seeing 10% a week on some items.”
This conversation about the ups and downs of the lumber market reminded me of an old pearl of folk wisdom, about how the right time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.
It won’t take 20 years for the price of lumber to return to earth or for the chip shortage to ease. For those who really need these things, it will just seem like it.