In its latest Container Forecaster report, Drewry consultancy notes that while the over-heated global container shipping market has recently taken a turn, the lingering congestion will likely prevent a rapid return to normal.
Falling demand has driven container spot freight rates lower on a weekly basis over the last four months while high inflation is eroding confidence that volumes will stage much of a comeback. “It certainly feels like we are at the beginning of the end of the container market bull run,” says Drewry.
But according to Drewry, the winding down of high rates and carrier profits will likely take some time—with no significant loosening likely until the second half of 2023.
Timing the market’s return to normal has remained challenging amid ongoing issues in the supply chain.
Drewry’s World Container Index shows rates declined 3% last week to $7,066 per 40-foot container—16% lower than a year ago and down markedly from the September 2021’s $10,377 peak. This is still about double the five-year average. Despite such a dip, Drewry considers ocean carriers are still holding the ace card.
Port congestion has been a main driver of sky-rocketing rates and remains an issue and Drewry says there are no signs yet that the bottlenecks are going away. Take away port congestion, and the market would likely see a “very swift normalisation.”
AIS ship tracking data actually reveals that the number of containerships waiting outside of major ports is growing, and there is little expectation of a fix any time soon. “With no changes to our expected supply chain recovery timeline the market will continue to be denied capacity that it otherwise would have had access to,” reported Drewry.
China’s zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy, current tense U.S. West Coast port labor negotiations, and high risk of inflation-induced labor shortages remain wildcards which add uncertainty to the market outlook.
Drewry still expects the container shipping market to grow 2.3% in 2022, although it admits that the projection is “certainly not a given, especially with the speed at which economists are downgrading GDP projections. Looking further ahead, we do foresee a significant loosening of the container market from 2023, when the supply chain congestion is expected to have cleared. It will also coincide with a significant influx of newbuild containerships.”
In conclusion, Drewry suggests the end of the container boom cycle will require a paradigm shift from all stakeholders. “Ocean carriers need to address the looming environmental and over-capacity risks by scrapping older, less green ships, while shippers might be wise to wait for the market to come back to them before committing to lengthy contracts.”
(Dreamstime photo of container activity at Port of Los Angeles)