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Q&A: Supply chain challenges creating a ‘complicated mess’

Jake Medwell of Austin, Texas-based 8VC and Loren Smith discuss geopolitics, infrastructure and regulation

(Photo courtesy of Port of Los Angeles)

The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. Jake Medwell, founding partner at 8VC, and Loren A. Smith Jr., president of Skyline Policy Risk Group, discuss key industry topics for this regular quarterly Q&A exclusively on FreightWaves.

By Jake Medwell and Loren Smith

JAKE MEDWELL: The chip shortage, the tire shortage, ships queuing up off the coast of California – every few days there seems to be a new angle on the pressures in the supply chain. How concerned should we be about the state of global, and particularly U.S., commerce and what, if anything, should we be expecting from policymakers in Washington and elsewhere?

LOREN SMITH: It’s a major challenge, but there’s reason for hope that some of the biggest problems get handled over the next few months. But some of the bigger pieces will take years to resolve.

There are three main moving pieces here: 1) geopolitics; 2) infrastructure needs; and 3) regulation.

JAKE: Let’s start with geopolitics. China? Populism? COVID aftershocks?

LOREN: We’re in what we may eventually think of as the post-globalization era. To be clear, global trade is here to stay, even with an elevated level of nationalism. However, trade networks are being rethought due to a few factors: nationalism/populism; tensions around China and great power competition generally; and the way COVID accelerated certain trends in the economy. 

Basically, these things are leading companies and industries to make changes to their individual supply chains. In some cases, U.S. companies are going to be getting goods from countries other than China where possible, and in other areas we may see a trend of “industrial insourcing” as much as we may see more domestic U.S. production.

All of this means global supply chains are being altered in ways we really haven’t seen for a few decades, and we have to hope market players can solve for their individual pieces sooner rather than later.

JAKE: That sounds like a mess.

LOREN: A complicated mess. But I think the good news is that the solutions may come sooner than we think, as individual people and companies that are in competition use ingenuity and entrepreneurship to figure out workarounds.

JAKE: Good leadership teams do have a way of pulling off magic tricks. I’ve seen it happen!

LOREN: Creativity is the most valuable natural resource.

JAKE: That’s right! And as for infrastructure, your second point – what’s happening there?

LOREN: Well, looking at the U.S. specifically, it would be handy to have more resources directed to infrastructure. Roads and bridges are very important, especially to support trucking, but a major need that we’re seeing the spotlight on is the connecting points, the multimodal nodes between different types of transportation. The problems at the West Coast ports are fundamentally about how to get stuff off the ships and onto the trucks and trains. Moving to 24-7 operations is a good start. Airports are also important, as air freight is growing.

And as pretty much everyone knows, Congress is working on new infrastructure funding through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and to a certain extent in the partisan reconciliation bill. Whatever happens in Congress, it is really important for federal grantmakers to put money into the freight network, and especially those multimodal connecting nodes. That’s the key – make sure funding is put towards building a stronger network. And use those emergency grantmaking powers, where appropriate.

JAKE: More infrastructure would be nice. OK, and what about regulation, your third point?

LOREN: Federal and state regulators have to keep prioritizing the smooth movement of goods: movement by rail, by truck, by ship, by air. The Biden administration has a number of policy priorities they’re pursuing, and without delving too deep into each of those issues – including climate policy; equity; workforce protections – they need to balance the needs of freight networks to operate in a way that protects the recovery of jobs and the economy.

JAKE: You mention jobs. How can the various players address labor issues?

LOREN: Well, recruitment and retention of truck drivers and workers is something that companies, the unions, and government are all involved in. Sensible regulation and sensible regulatory reform or possibly deregulation are all part of the mix here. Put whatever filter you want on it – companies need to be able to operate and people need jobs. Cheap, abundant energy also needs to be a priority. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.

JAKE: Are we going to get out of this by Christmas?

LOREN: Christmas is going to be tight. There’s reason for hope that some of the worst-case scenarios will be off the table by then, but I think the big solutions are more of a 2022 story, with effects likely continuing for a few more years.

JAKE: So possibly some good news there. We’ll be keeping our eye on the regulatory situation, and how the infrastructure plays out. And hopefully some of the global issues will get worked out relatively quickly and cleanly. Geopolitics, infrastructure, regulation.

LOREN: To be sure. And there are certainly a lot more factors than what we’ve touched on here – the economy is complicated.

JAKE: Absolutely. Keep watching this space!

About the authors

Jake Medwell, founding partner of 8VC, focuses on both consumer and enterprise investments. A serial entrepreneur who has spent his life building and scaling companies, he also leads 8VC’s logistics and transportation focus. Prior to launching 8VC, Medwell co-founded Humin, a consumer mobile software company where he built the engineering team and led growth. He also co-founded The Kairos Society, where he sits on the board of directors. While in college at the University of Southern California, he founded Sole Bicycle Co. and grew it into an industry leader. Most recently, he co-founded Operation Masks with partner Drew Oetting to help bring personal protective equipment to medical workers on the front line of the fight against COVID-19.

Loren A. Smith Jr. is the president of Skyline Policy Risk Group. From 2017 to 2021, he worked at the Department of Transportation as deputy assistant secretary for policy. There, his leadership included serving as DOT’s chief environmental review permitting officer; chair of the management team for the ROUTES Initiative on rural transportation; and as a member of the task force on regulatory reform, including leading efforts on supersonic aviation. From 2009 to 2016, he was an analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington-based research firm that studies public policy for investors. He specialized in transportation policy, particularly relating to autos and infrastructure, and published more than 500 research notes.

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Note: FreightWaves occasionally publishes commentary from industry sources with expertise, information and opinion on current transportation topics. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of FreightWaves. Submissions to FreightWaves are subject to editing.