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Have a seat: Patio furniture shortage tells U.S. economic tale

John Hessler, the patio section manager at Valley

John Hessler, the patio section manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, Md., oversees a sparsely filled showroom.  Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

COCKEYSVILLE, Maryland — People used to go to Valley View Farms to buy five tomato plants and end up with $5,000 in patio furniture.

This year is different. After a record burst of sales in March, the showroom floor is almost empty of outdoor chairs, tables and chaises for people to buy.

The garden supply store in suburban Baltimore has been waiting six months for a shipping container from Vietnam full of $100,000 worth of wicker and aluminum furniture. Half of the container has already been sold by showing customers photographs. The container should have arrived in February, but it reached U.S. waters on June 3 and has just docked in Long Beach, California.

"Everyone is just so far behind," said John Hessler, 62, the patio section manager. "I’ve never seen anything like it."

The Biden economy faces the unusual challenge of possibly being too strong for its own good.

There is the paradox of the fastest growth in generations at more than 6% yet also persistent delays for anyone trying to buy furniture, autos and a wide mix of other goods. It’s almost the mirror opposite of the recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009, which was marred by slow growth but also the near-instant delivery of almost every imaginable product.

What ultimately matters is that demand stay strong enough for companies to catch up and shorten the long waits.

"This is a very good problem for the economy to have," said Gus Faucher, chief economist for PNC Financial Services. "You’re much better off having too much demand than too little, because too little demand is the recipe for an extended recession."

Republicans have held out the shortages and price increases as a sign of economic weakness, while Biden can counter that wages are climbing at a speed that helps the middle and working classes. But the real challenge goes far beyond the blunt talking points of politicians to an economy being steered by a mix of market forces, tensions with China, setbacks from natural disasters and the unique nature of restarting an economy after a pandemic.

The outdoor furniture industry provides a snapshot of the dilemmas confronting the economy. A series of shortages has left warehouses depleted and prices rising.

Patio furniture makers interviewed by The Associated Press say they expect the supply squeeze to end in 2022 or 2023 — meaning it could remain a political flashpoint even if the broader risk of inflation fades as expected by many Federal Reserve officials and Wall Street analysts. The shortages reflect both the stranded shipping containers in crowded ports, a dearth of truckers and the compounded effect of a fatal explosion in April at the Yenkin-Majestic Paints and OPC polymer plant in Columbus, Ohio, that depleted the domestic supply of furniture pieces.

The Biden administration, well aware of the challenge, has made fixing supply chains a priority. It's also trying to direct more money to making the U.S. power grid and other infrastructure more resilient against extreme weather.

Administration officials expect the supply chain issues to self-correct, though they’re cautious about predicting when because of the unprecedented nature of the recovery from the pandemic.

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