After ceding its status as the world's third-busiest container port to Shenzhen and falling to fourth place this year, Hong Kong is likely to see its business volume drop further next year.
Hong Kong has suffered two consecutive years of decline in container throughput, said Sunny Ho Lap-kee, executive director of the Hong Kong Shippers' Council.
"[Next year] may see still more negative growth," Ho added.
In the first 11 months of this year, throughput at the city fell 4.2 per cent to 20.36 million 20-foot equivalent units (teu) after dropping 5.2 per cent last year, the Hong Kong Port Development Council said.
In contrast, Shenzhen's throughput rose 1.2 per cent to 21.3 million teu in the first 11 months, while that of Shanghai, the world's busiest port, grew 4 per cent to 30.95 million teu, official data showed.
Hong Kong's port throughput was feeling the aftershocks of the strike at the Kwai Tsing container terminals from March 28 to May 9, said Ho.
"We have difficulties handling more transshipment, which is a constraint to further growth," he said, pointing out the shortage of land and labour in the city.
Next year, Hong Kong's decline as a port would be exacerbated as more factories left the Pearl River Delta to low-cost countries like Vietnam, Ho said. Exports from factories in the delta account for a large share of the city's container trade.
In contrast, US investment bank Jefferies expected the mainland's throughput growth to accelerate to 7.6 per cent next year from 6.7 per cent this year as the economic environment continued to improve there.
European inventory was at its lowest level since the global financial crisis in 2008, which should boost Chinese exports next year, said a Jefferies report.
Ho predicted a moderate recovery in container shipping in the Greater China region next year.
Transpacific trade would improve because the US economy appeared to be picking up, he said. But he added the shift of manufacturing from the Pearl delta to Southeast Asia would boost shipping between the mainland, Hong Kong and the rest of Asia.
Geoffrey Cheng, an analyst at Bocom International, said: "Next year, the market should be slightly better. Demand is recovering. But we're not talking about double-digit growth. It'll probably be high single digits."
Jefferies remains cautious on container shipping because the sector may struggle to stay profitable next year as surplus capacity will depress freight rates.
Globally, capacity growth would increase to 7 per cent next year from 6 per cent this year as container shipping lines had pushed to next year some of the new capacity originally scheduled for delivery this year, Jefferies said in a separate report.
Tapering of the bond-buying programme in the United States could depress currencies in emerging markets, which might slow those markets' purchasing power of Chinese exports, Jefferies warned.
"There may be a lot of volatility in freight rates as the container liners may show pockets of collective strength, but generally, surplus capacity will dictate the direction of freight rates. We could continue to see both lower freight rates and lower unit costs among container liners," it said.
On a bright note, the mainland's policies such as free-trade zones and subsidies for companies scrapping old vessels would benefit both its shipping and shipbuilding sectors, said a report by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
The market expected the subsidy to benefit Hong Kong-listed shipping firms like China Cosco and China Shipping Development, said ICBC. Mainland shipyards would also gain from new vessel orders as a result of the subsidy, it added.
More free-trade zones besides Shanghai were expected to emerge in the mainland after the reforms initiated at the third plenum in November, ICBC said.
It said cities that would possibly have such zones included Guangzhou, Tianjin and Xiamen, which are also home to several shipyards.
"The land value of shipyard properties is expected to surge if more free-trade zones are allowed," it added.