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“We’re definitely counting on a comeback”

Kai Ryssdal and Alli Fam Dec 16, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
Mario Tama/Getty Images

“We’re definitely counting on a comeback”

Kai Ryssdal and Alli Fam Dec 16, 2020
Mario Tama/Getty Images

U.S. oil demand is down around 13% year-to-date as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As the country continues to battle a surge of COVID-19 cases, demand is likely to stay at reduced levels into 2021. For Golding Barge Line, a company that transports petroleum and petrochemicals, among other chemical products, that low demand has a direct impact on their business.

Golding Barge Line is based in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and pushes products along the Gulf Coast and U.S inland waterways. Austin Golding, the company’s president, spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal, about how his business is weathering the continued slowdown. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: First question, same as always. How’s business on the barge lines?

Austin Golding: Well, business is a really slow, people not moving nearly as much around the country. You know, it’s really had an impact on refinery capacity. And we’ve seen a big slowdown and gasoline demand. So our petrochemical business is really, really slow. We’ve seen a pickup in some other sectors and some steadiness. But the petrochemical business is very, very slow.

Ryssdal: Well, that’s funny ’cause, I mean, you know, so I have to come down to the studio every day to do the show for a whole lot of reasons. But there’s traffic out there, man. There’s people driving around. It’s not like nothing’s happening.

Golding: Oh, yeah, I get that a lot. You know, the example I’ve used recently is if you watch football, and you see these empty stadiums, every seat that you see empty is a gas tank that didn’t get filled up. And I think the other part that people really don’t understand about our country is we’re really a commuter-based society. And, you know, we’re seeing that top 20% is still not back.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that football stadium analogy is a good one. So I’m guessing you are banking on this vaccine in a big, big way.

Golding: We are. I mean, I think the vaccine and having everybody participate in that and work towards less of a threat, where we can get back to normal life, is really essential to our business. So this is our path forward.

Ryssdal: You carry mostly petrochemical stuff, is that your whole deal? I mean, could you diversify away if you had to, if this thing goes on because, look, it’s gonna go till next fall, right? Not everybody’s gonna be vaccinated. It’s gonna be a while. All of that stuff, you’re looking at like nine more months? Ten more months?

Golding: Yeah. Look, we’re, I think, prepared to ride that out. Now, could this volume, as we operate today, sustain our business and the amount of businesses that do what we do? Absolutely not. And yes, we could diversify. We can push other products. But when you have the capital invested that we do, and the types of barges that we do, yeah, we’re definitely counting on a comeback. And I think it’ll happen. I mean, it’s nine months of a barge’s lifespan — that being 30, 40 years — we should be able to sustain that, I would hope.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Are you — have you had lay anybody off? I mean, how’s the whole labor force side of the barge business?

Golding: Well, we haven’t had to lay anybody off here at Golding Barge Line. We have had some attrition that we haven’t replaced. We also, I think as an industry, have seen a withdrawal of some of the older folks. Career mariners make really good money. And, you know, if they’re in their 60s or even in their 70s, a lot of them still work. They may take a year off. And I think we’re seeing some of that right now. It’s not as loose as you would think, being as slow as we are.

Ryssdal: Last question. The incoming Biden administration, they’re gonna be some new policies, new regulations. What are you looking at? What do you think is gonna happen to you?

Golding: Well, you know, on the positive side, we’re certainly hopeful that the stability with America’s place in the world internationally helps our business. Most of what we move is a piece of an international supply chain. But make no mistake, Joe Biden and his administration is a self-proclaimed enemy of my cargo. They are no fans of what we push. I think that the slow withdrawal from, you know, the carbon footprint of what we have is something that will lead to long-term evolution even within our industry. But any short-term quick movements [are] gonna to be met with with very strict opposition from our side. It’s just that plain and simple. And I know not everybody agrees with that and has a lot of supporters that support that path. But for us, if you’re an enemy of our cargo, I’m gonna have to have a lot of other positives to get me back on your side.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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