If it’s not been caused by blanked sailing and it’s not a sign if changing trading pattern what has caused the unprecedented Eastbound and Westbound vessel congestion and more importantly when will it end??
Despite Maersk suggesting that the eastbound capacity crunch hitting shippers to Asia is the beginning of a more permanent shift in trading patterns, analysts are coming to believe that the current space issues are more likely to have been a consequence of carriers positioning vessels in preparation for the new alliance launches in April.
A secondary issue is that on this repositioning is that these vessels will not call at their usual ports, leading to an inevitable disruption of the availability of equipment at these points as the lines will want to avoid running out of empty equipment in Asia to the detriment of headhaul shippers.
In short the lines are likely to prioritise short-term equipment flow above the acceptance of low-paying export cargo, which gave the impression that vessels were full, when in reality the situation is rooted in something completely different.
Japanese carrier NYK Line in a recent customer advisory conceded that the alliance repositioning was having an impact on the space available for shipments from North Europe to Asia. “Due to vessels sliding out of service or changing into new service, we are confronted with blank sailings on some loops.”
According to statistics reported by JOC.com, Eastbound volumes traditionally amounted to 46% of the Westbound volume, which would have left plenty of capacity on the vessels.
But this number is an annual average and it changed significantly around the Chinese New Year when volumes from China diminished while export volumes from Europe remained strong and the carriers began their programme of blank sailings in an attempt to match supply to demand.
These actions inevitably impacted Europe-Asia capacity negatively 4 to 6 weeks later as the cancelled headhaul sailings materialised as missing backhaul sailings.
Despite carriers announcing a record number of canceled sailings over this period, analysts insist that the capacity reduction was well in line with historical averages which, according to their view, means that the crunch is over and we will return to normal once the new networks, and equipment flows, are in place ahead of April 1st.
At the last count there were 21 million TEUs (20-foot-equivalent units) in the existing global fleet and an orderbook of 3 million TEUs.
With world trade demand forecast to rise to a total of 22 million TEUs by 2022, the existing fleet has enough capacity to meet world trade demand for the next four or five years.
The “known unknown” is how much the lines will continue to manipulate balance supply and demand, impacting performance and prices.