Container shipping companies shelled out more than US$22 billion for new vessels in the first 11 months, five times aggregate spending last year, as bullish liner executives cash in on a surge in global trade driven by China. Vessel orders, which most analysts expected to fade as Asian yards ran out of building capacity, eclipsed the 200,000-teu (20-foot equivalent unit) mark last month for the fourth time this year, according to Clarkson's Container Intelligence Monthly. With that company forecasting growth in global demand to maintain an 8 per cent clip next year, the market is expected to be able to absorb the projected 7.4 per cent expansion of the global box fleet. But with the fleet expected to grow at least 800,000 to 900,000 teu in 2005 and 2006, downward pressure on freight rates - and falling profits - are becoming a stronger possibility beyond next year. 'This increase ... will lead to more rapid percentage growth in the fleet. In turn, this will require greater expansion on the demand side to absorb the extra capacity. From today's viewpoint, it looks like the demand growth required will be higher than historical average levels,' Clarkson, a leading shipbroker, said in its monthly report released yesterday. The US$22.4 billion in box-ship sales is on the way to doubling the record of $12.5 billion set three years ago. Clarkson said this year's 9.1 per cent comparative volume growth was being driven by the Far East-to-Europe trade, which expanded about 18 per cent in the first 10 months. Signs are that Asian exporters expect the same performance again, with shippers and forwarders on the Asia-Europe routes already seeking space guarantees next year rather than be exposed to the vagaries of the market. Member lines of the Far Eastern Freight Conference predict capacity utilisation levels of 103 per cent in the third quarter next year.