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Business media is now sensing product demand trends that many supply chain demand planning teams have already sensed- that demand across various tiers of global supply chains is slumping further.  An ongoing lack of confidence and uncertainty that has been resonating across consumer-facing businesses is cascading into various tiers of industry value-chains.  Many large global manufacturers have invested on a large scale in the growth of emerging markets, in many cases having well over half of total revenues emulating from these regions. The open question is the now whether demand from the emerging market economies is now shifting more toward the negative magnitude and whether the manufacturing economies of the U.S. and Europe have already slid into recession.

Last week, the Financial Times noted that two of the largest manufacturers, Cummins and 3M have cut their full-year outlooks, warning of declining demand in both the developed world and emerging markets.  Cummins cited a sharp drop in product demand from emerging markets, and speculated that the U.S. and much of Europe may already be at recessionary levels.

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal featured a headline article noting that global appliance sales have tumbled, with both U.S. based Whirlpool and European based Electrolux feeling the effects of continued eroding of consumer confidence with reluctance to spend on big ticket items. Buying activity has been limited to pure replacement of broken, non-repairable appliances.  Whirlpool is moving ahead with a major restructuring plan that involves consolidation of existing U.S. and North American production facilities and reductions in staffing.

In the chemicals and basic materials sector, BASF recently reported continued revenue and earnings growth, but also indicated that its customers are planning more cautiously, are reducing inventories, and have partially delayed orders in expectation of falling prices.  Dow Chemical reported robust revenues and earnings driven by a record 20 percent sales growth from emerging economies but once again pointed to soft demand in the U.S. and Europe. Dow chairmen/CEO Andrew Liveris noted: “The new reality is that the world is operating as a two-speed global economy…with the developing world strong, and the developed regions showing slow-to-no growth.”

The largest global semiconductor foundry provider TSMC reported a 4.5 percent decline in Q3 revenues over the previous quarter, and noted that the outlook for global economic conditions continues to weaken and is reflected in the lack of strength in Q4 wafer demand. The only exception was continued robust growth in communication related chips destined for smartphone markets.

Another, perhaps more troubling aspect of weakening demand stems from two ongoing events.  The first is the continued financial sovereign debt crisis, which despite last week’s more optimistic announcements, could permeate the economic climate for many more months to come.  The U>S. politic climate has also turned more pessimistic with no defined policy to address widespread unemployment and lack of substantial growth.

The other is the continued shocks and supply chain disruptions to important growth-oriented value-chains such as automotive, high tech, alternative energy and consumer electronics.  The latest and ongoing shocks are the consequences of the devastating floods impacting Thailand, which will cascade across other supply chain segments, and the likely continuance of severe weather and natural disaster events over the coming winter months.

For supply chain management professionals, the orientation must continue to be focused on agility and responsiveness to whatever changes may occur in the coming months, while insuring the strategic agility is maintained in upside/downside capacity, and critical inventory investments are maintained for components of high business disruption risk. Demand planning cannot stem just from past history or casual forecasting, but rather a sensing of current and planned product across all tiers of the industry value-chain. Scenario based planning is again the best prescription for assessing impacts to resources and capacity.

Finally, the incidents of Japan and Thailand have once again brought home the reality that surgical, risk-focused inventory planning and management trump across the board inventory cuts.

How is your supply chain organization navigating in the current environment?

Bob Ferrari

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