Container lines in the doldrums

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am


September and October are traditionally the busiest times for container lines as they transport toys, electronics, clothes and other Christmas essentials from factories in China to store shelves in Europe and North America.

But with just 13 weeks to go before Christmas, shipping lines and freight forwarders are seeing little of the surge in shipped goods that characterised last year, as Western economies rein in spending amid uncertain economic conditions.

Eivind Kolding, chief executive of Maersk Line, the world's largest container shipping company with about 500 ships, said this year's pre-holiday shipping rush 'seems to be more like a hill than a peak'.

His views were echoed by Jacques Chan, general manager for Hong Kong and South China for global freight forwarding firm BDP International. He said market conditions in Europe were weak, while the overall economic outlook was gloomy.

Speaking in Hong Kong, Kolding said Maersk's fleet operating on Asia-Europe and transpacific routes was sailing about 90 per cent full. 'But in the peak season we would like to see closer to 100 per cent,' he said. Kolding added the peak season 'was definitely not to the extent we hoped for'.

Other carriers have forecast a premature end to the peak with the possibility the rush could be over by the end of this month, four weeks earlier than usual.

This would be a prelude to shipping lines idling container ships in November and December to cut costs and capacity, while trying to maintain freight rates ahead of the slack winter season.

Container lines are already facing problems as a rising number of new box ships enter service.

'Quite a number of ships are being deployed. This will put a lot of pressure on freight rates,' Kolding said. The latest figures from Clarkson, the British shipbroking house, show 668 container ships totalling 53 million deadweight tonnes, equivalent to 27.4 per cent of the existing fleet in tonnage terms, are scheduled for delivery between now and 2014.

Earlier this year Maersk placed orders for 20 18,000 20-foot equivalent unit (teu) box ships, which will be the biggest container ships afloat when they start to be delivered from South Korea's Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering from 2013. The deal includes an option for 10 similar-sized ships.

Kolding indicated that while Maersk 'will be profitable for the full year', he doubted if many container shipping lines were trading in the black as rising fuel and other costs and volatile freight rates took a toll on profitability.

He said container volumes on services to Europe were 'OK', but were 'flat and declining to the US'. By comparison, growth on other container trades, including to emerging market economies in Latin America, were very strong.

Overall, Kolding said Maersk's forecast 'was a bit mixed', although he was confident global growth in container volumes would be 6-8 per cent this year 'with a similar view for next year'. 'We don't expect a major slowdown, but risk and uncertainty have increased recently,' he said.