The New Normal for Maritime Transportation

The New Normal for Maritime Transportation

Since the lifting of extreme COVID-19 restrictions in Europe, the cost of maritime transport has increased three-fold. Unlike economic cycles of the past, such as the 2008 recession, the consensus in the market is that the price will not return to pre-COVID levels in the foreseeable future. This consensus is in part due to the excess stock leaving China and the lack of containers in the market to meet demand. During the pandemic, shipping companies greatly reduced the capacity of container ships. By the end of 2020, full capacity was put back on the market, however, the demand still exceeds the availability of containers.

According to the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI), the cost of freight reached $2,900 for twenty-foot containers in January 2021, which is almost three times the cost at the same time last year. The SCFI reflects the fluctuation of spot freight rates on export container traffic based on the most used trade routes from Shanghai. Furthermore, the cost of the forty-foot container stands at $5,200 as compared to $1,800. An increase in the cost of shipping containers reflects the sharp rise in demand for solid bulks from China (such as cereal and grains).

Unlike European markets now, China can offer stable prices for the next 3 to 5 years, which has allowed it to secure long-term contracts to supply countries around the world. Bulk carriers have also experienced a dramatic increase in prices between May 2020 and January 2021, from $477 to $1,339. The Baltic Dry Index currently stands at $1,339, which reflects a new normal in the price of bulk containers. Since then, the price has fluctuated between $1,150 and $2,000 in a typical cycle.

As a result of the current shortage of capacity of maritime transport, it is recommended that companies book 5 or 6 weeks in advance to reserve space on vessels headed to Asia. Moreover, companies should book even further in advance – 6 to 8 weeks – for routes from Asia to Europe. In the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, it is particularly difficult to reserve space to transport goods, and some transports are not accepting reservations. Routes between Europe and North America/Latin America have slightly more availability, but companies should still reserve space a month in advance.

As mentioned above, routes from east to west (ex. Shanghai to Genova) are much more expensive than routes from west to east due to Asia’s need to hoard capacity. The index of the main maritime transport routes (pictured below) increased from $1,500 to $5,000 between January 2020 and January 2021.

Furthermore, the shortage of shipping containers, and subsequently the dramatic increase in costs, have greatly affected industries in Latin America such as coffee exporters in Colombia. In the past 6 months, the SCFI (Shanghai containerized freight index) on the route between Shanghai and South America has grown from $2,000 to $7,000, an increase that exceeds the index of the routes from Shanghai to Europe and North America. Countries in South America are particularly affected by the shortage due to the fact that transport companies prioritize routes with the highest round-trip cargo. For example, a shipping company would choose to assign a ship to Rotterdam rather than Santos because it will return faster and with more cargo.

Companies are navigating the higher costs by taking structural measures to shorten their supply chain, such as by limiting exports to certain locations. Still, the increase in shipping costs have forced them to reduce their profit margins in the short term. However, economic recovery could cause more firms to increase their prices to reflect the increase in maritime transport costs.

The reality of the “new normal” of maritime transport has greatly accelerated the transition to the use of planes and trains for container transport, especially between China and Spain. The graph below reflects the reduction in the number of shipping containers in transit between 2019 and 2020 (in millions of containers) for Spain. Overall, imports by sea to Spain from China and Hong Kong have fallen by -11.47% million euros between 2019 and 2020, while air and rail imports have increased by 52.49% and 1,088% million euros, respectively.

Based on these numbers, it is clear that many companies have begun to shift away from maritime transport to alternative forms, such as rail transport, in order to optimize their costs. Compared to maritime transport, rail transport boasts quite a few benefits including a reduction in lead times, increased efficiency and, most importantly, cost efficiency. Moreover, rail freight also is the most eco-friendly shipping option in terms of its exhaust emissions.

Since the introduction of express rail services between the EU and China in 2011, rail trade share has increased from less than 1% to 4%. While a vast range of commodities opt for rail transport over maritime transport including mechanical, electronic, vehicle, apparel, households and food, the most common commodities to be shipped by train tend to be higher value goods, time-sensitive goods and fast to market consumer products. Rail imports from China to Europe in 2020 included commodities such as electric equipment, nuclear reactors and boilers, machinery, vehicles, and textile and apparel.

What is the current outlook for the future of maritime transport?

While there are currently sufficient numbers of shipping containers to meet the demand for a normal year, this has not been the case for 2021. The surplus of containers in Chinese ports in March of 2020 and the expectation that trade would fall with the spread of COVID-19 resulted in a reduction of orders for Chinese shipping containers. However, the dramatic increase in demand for Chinese consumer goods in mid-2020 caused the price of shipping containers to increase dramatically. Despite the increase in production of the containers, there continues to be a lack of used containers being returned to China. According to Bloomberg News, the lag in the shipping industry, as well as low inventories, port congestion in the U.S., and increasing consumer demand will likely extend the shortages far beyond the mid to late 2021, despite having moved out of the COVID-19 economy.