In 2021, average transport rates increased drastically by nearly 300% due to high ocean freight rates on all major shipping routes. Transporting a 40-foot container from Shanghai to Rotterdam costed roughly USD10,500, which is 550% higher than the average of the last five years. Similarly, between Asia and North America, shipping contracts of USD2,500–3,000 for a 40-foot container were reported, 30–50% higher than the 2020 figures.
The main reasons for high ocean freight rates on all major trade routes throughout 2021 include after-pandemic increase in the demand for goods, non-availability of containers, series of force majeure events in 2021 such as the mid-February winter storm in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the US, six-day congestion in Suez Canal by Ever Given ship, and bottleneck in all major ports due to increase in marine traffic from Asian countries.
Although global ocean freight rates were eased by around 15% in Q4 2021, majorly due to reduced output of goods from China and Europe amid electricity shortage, the rates are not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon.
Some of the major factors projected to aid high maritime transport rates throughout 2022–23 are as follows:
Schedule reliability or timely docking and unloading of vessels would be one of the biggest challenges the shipping industry will face during 2022–23. In H2 2021, schedule reliability across 60 carriers and 34 trade lanes was just 25–35%, resulting in a decline in the global container capacity by 25%, as vessels were compelled to anchor at outside ports for long durations amid heavy congestion at all major ports for North America and Europe. Port congestion improved during January–March 2022 in major ports such as in Los Angeles/Long Beach, where the waiting period declined from 109 units to 76 units. However, lack of port infrastructure such as shortage of warehouses and space for ship to dock would be the major factors compelling rectification of port congestion until 2023.
Availability of Vessel Fleet/Port Infrastructure
New ship orders increased in 2021, with a record high 276 new vessels booked in the first seven months of the year. However, this is not expected to increase the availability of vessel fleet until 2023, as new vessels take more than three years to commission.
Initiatives are also being undertaken, especially by the US, to upgrade their aging coastal ports. As on November 2021, the US administration revealed its USD17 billion Port Action Plan to upgrade coastal ports, inland ports, waterways, and freight networks across the US. However, this initiative may not bring immediate relief to the existing constraints in the shipping industry.
Growing Geopolitical Tension in Europe
The Russia-Ukraine conflict added new challenges to the perpetual shipping industry constraints. With the onset of war, many ocean carriers such as Maersk, CMA and CGM suspended bookings to and from Russia, resulting in increase in volume/pile-up at other regional ports and causing further congestion and increase in rates on those routes. In addition, cutting off shipping routes such as Sea of Azo by Russian forces and the UK and European countries restricting Russian ships from docking at their ports would add to more port congestion and subsequently increase ocean freight rates until Q4 2022. Moreover, as the ships are stranded at sea waiting to be docked, the container availability will also decline.
Rising Crude Oil Prices
Increase in oil sanctions by the West on Russia raised oil prices to nearly USD139/bbl in March 2022, thus cushioning an upward movement of shipping rates. Some improvement in oil supply is expected from Iran, as the US initiated bilateral talks with Iran in Vienna to resolve their conflict. This could lead to removal of sanctions on Iranian oil sales.
The global availability of maritime transport is not expected to improve any time before 2023 due to several factors such as increase in the demand for goods across major economies, port congestions, and Russia-Europe conflict. However, manufacturers and exporters can better utilize container space, extend delivery lead times with customers, allocate containers in advance, and change the sourcing strategy from global to regional to safeguard themselves from the maritime transport crisis.
Saurabh Asthana is a Senior Consultant on the Procurement Research team for Aranca.