What Happened to the Container Ship Crisis Along Our Pacific Coast?

Despite efforts to clear out the landside of the U.S.’s busiest import gateway, the ports face a major challenge on the waterside with unloading, trucking, and railing out cargo from over 100 container ships that were scheduled to arrive through mid-December but are queueing in some cases more than 150 miles off the coast, JOC reports.

According to logistics experts, the current backlog of containers stemming from an historic import surge in the United States will take until mid-2022 to clear out.

Chris Chase, business development director for the Port of Los Angeles, told the audience at the Northeast Trade and Transportation Conference last week that the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are expected to handle 3 million more containers in 2021 than they did in 2020.

That total would be much higher, he said, if all the containers on ships that are currently at anchor or slow steaming further off the California coast were to be counted.

“This is different, this is an unrelenting flow of cargo,” Chase told the audience at the event, sponsored by the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade. “This unrelenting flow has changed how we do things and has implications up and down the supply chain.

“Every single piece of the supply chain has a responsibility to do something different, to try something different and new,” he added. “The status quo is not working.”

Chase said that a busy month for Los Angeles used to be when it handled about 800,000 containers. During 2021, the port has been handling over 900,000 on average per month, he said. The effect has been that its terminals are jammed, and container delivery has slowed.

“We were thrown a curveball that, even in any of our wildest dreams, we never predicted that these kinds of things would be happening with this kind of volume,” said Chase.

Port Congestion to be a tough challenge in 2022 container shipping

According to the latest express from Zheng Zhenmao, the chairman of Yang Ming Marine Transport Corporation, he is optimistic about the performance of the container shipping market in 2022. The company will invest in shipbuilding and container building. He made an assumption for the “port congestion” may become the biggest variable affecting the shipping industry this year.

Three major port congestion challenge this year

Zheng Zhenmao, chairman of Yang Ming, said recently that he is optimistic about the shipping market performance in 2022, but still, prepares the best plans for challenges.

The situation will be as good as in 2021 but there are three major challenges,

  • The epidemic impact,
  • Port congestion, and
  • Climate change.

Among them, “port congestion” will be the industry’s tough challenge in 2022. The supply chain bottleneck continues rising. In December last year, the global transportation capacity has been greatly reduced by about 30-40%. The shortage of ships and containers is difficult to solve in the short term.

The chairman emphasized that the shipping industry is a high-risk industry with a long business cycle. From the standpoint of shipping companies, the way to enhance competitiveness is to invest in keypoint sectors.

The capital of Yang Ming in 2021 will be nearly NT$10 billion, mainly investing in containership newbuilding. In 2022, the capital will be at least NT$20 billion (approximately RMB 4.613 billion), including not only newbuilds and containers but also planning to invest in logistics, the company, port, etc.

There has been a demand for shipping containers since the advent of the covid epidemic. Due to the market’s low supply, the market has grown as customers fight for the few still available. The situation will remain the same in 2022, as the global commodity appetite continues to outpace available supply. Here are some of the causes why shipping container needs will continue to rise in 2022:

COVID REBOUNDS IN CHINA

To stop the virus from spreading, China took quick and adequate precautions. They could take possession of it much faster than any other country, allowing them to mount a strong recovery. China restarted much of its manufacturing and exports as many other countries increased restrictions and preventive measures.

Large volumes of commodities are sent from Asia to Europe and North America, as China is the world’s largest exporter. Despite the re-engaged tradelines, there were still limitations and disturbances in these locations. Slower handling and stricter customs rules caused a lot of congestion in the ports.

Furthermore, land freight was disrupted, resulting in even more stagnation. This resulted in a significant backlog of unreturned storage containers. The effect remains in 2022, and with container shortages, the demand rises.

LOW PRODUCTION OF SHIPPING CONTAINERS

China produces the bulk of shipping container units. To make production more financially viable, they are subsequently packed with items and exported to other areas of the world. They are, after that, sold as a one-way container for warehousing or transformation. The problem is that there is a growing need for shipping containers, but producers cannot meet it. However, you can still buy shipping container of any type and size from reputable vendors who will handle everything for you. They are all available at a pocket-friendly price that suits your budget.

The company manufacturing the containers is trying to increase their working time enough to meet the increased demand following the outbreak. Due to the ruling governments’ lockdown to curb the situation, many factories were also forced to close.

At first, it was not a concern because container orders were down. The orders skyrocketed, coinciding with the lockdown lifting and the resulting workforce reduction. Due to the pandemic, companies have been operating at one-third of their original capacity, making them unable to meet the market demands.

GLOBAL SHIPPING PROBLEMS

In the past year, there have been many problems in global shipping. The leading cause of shipping delays is that several containers have been held up in ports where they were not meant to be. When several companies in China went on a lockdown, empty containers were left in Europe and the United States, unable to return because borders had been closed.

Regrettably, when the lockdown restrictions were eased in China, many countries in the world responded with their lockdown, preventing normal import and export. The exchange of shipping containers is very critical to the survival of the industry. Therefore, there are delays and shortages in stock because the containers have not been returned for re-exporting.

TRAFFIC ON MAJOR PORTS GLOBALLY 

Thousands of container ships are waiting to offload at international ports in some of the world’s largest ports, mainly on the West Coast of the United States and in China. This backlog is expected to continue in 2022 due to the ports’ inability to process all inbound ships.

Congestion is a major element of the problem, as seen by the correlation between canceled freights and delays. Regarding vessel on-time efficiency, 2022 has continued where 2021 left off, with decreased rates of vessels staying on track and increased average delays for late vessels.

Massive traffic means that it will take a lot of time to get the shipping containers to the market. With the delays that continue to be experienced in the market, the demand rises because the available containers cannot meet customers’ needs.

THE SUEZ CANAL ACCIDENT BACKLOG EFFECTS 

Container ships have recently blocked the Suez Canal. Despite the lifting of the embargo, there will still be a delay of ships that must get through. Due to the time the passage was closed, the situation will take some time to resolve. Several operators avoid calls to European ports altogether to minimize waiting lists and disruptions in the area. Delaying the delivery of units to their final market only contributes to the container shortage.

Additionally, Leasing businesses are unwilling to sell their stock since container distribution is not as fast as before. The situation has had a knock-on effect on the used container market.

LIMITED ALTERNATIVES 

The container shortage is exacerbated by a decrease in air and land transport. This problem may have been solved in normal conditions by using air and land freight. However, global airline volumes have plunged during the pandemic, resulting in even more things being delivered through maritime freight. Trucking and other forms of land freight have the same problem.

Shipping Containers in 2022

Never has container shipping begun a year on such a high.

The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index hit a new record in the last week of December, up 76% year on year and topping 5,000 points for the first time. There were 101 container ships waiting for berths in Los Angeles/Long Beach on Sunday, very close to the peak. Trans-Pacific spot rates quoted for this month are higher than in December, which were higher than in November.

Annual contract rates are up sharply in 2022. According to the latest data from Xeneta, Asia-U.S. contract rates are up 122% from 2020, pre-COVID, with bids in early negotiations of 2022 contracts averaging $5,700 per forty-foot equivalent unit.

The overwhelming consensus is this year will remain extremely strong for ocean carriers and extremely expensive for cargo shippers. But there are at least six big “known unknowns”:

  • How will omicron and future variants impact U.S. consumer demand as well as effective shipping capacity and factory output?
  • How long will U.S. import demand remain this strong after stimulus is withdrawn?
  • How much of rate strength is driven by higher import demand and how much is driven by lower effective shipping capacity (given vessels tied up in congestion)?
  • Can a new West Coast labor contract be signed without disruptions to terminal throughput?
  • If a labor impasse is averted, import demand falls and congestion eases, will liners have the discipline to remove vessel capacity and keep rates strong, as they did during lockdowns in Q2 2020?
  • Could China-Taiwan geopolitical tensions devolve into military action?

Bull case

The bullish view on rates is that volumes will continue to be very high this month, prior to the Lunar New Year holiday. Volumes will pick up once again after China resumes work, with U.S. importers seeking to restock depleted inventories during the spring, after which the 2022 peak season will keep rates elevated into Q4 2022. 

Proprietary index of ocean bookings bound for U.S. 100 = January 2019. Chart: FreightWaves SONAR (To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

According to Judah Levine, head of research at Freightos, “There is no strong expectation of significant improvements [for cargo shippers] until underlying demand wanes. That doesn’t look like it will be happening anytime soon.”

At the very far end of the bullishness spectrum is the Deutsche Bank team led by U.K.-based analyst Andy Chu. The team’s 2022 estimates of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd are more than twice the consensus average. According to Chu, 2021 was the best year for container shipping on record “but we think that 2022 will be materially better.”

Deutsche Bank predicts the two carriers’ average freight rates will be up 30% this year versus 2021. It forecasts that Maersk’s 2022 EBITDA will be $34.6 billion, up 43% from 2021, and that Hapag-Lloyd’s 2022 EBITDA will be $20.4 billion, up 56% from last year.

Bear case

The bearish view is that freight rates have been propped up by U.S. stimulus — which is now over. Consumer demand will fall, inventories will not be restocked to the extent predicted, and port congestion will clear.

Jason Miller, associate professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, pointed out that retail sales were “abnormally strong” in 2021. He expects “we still start to see a strong regression towards the long-term trend line [for retail sales] in 2022 with no additional stimulus, student loan deferrals ending … and the likely shift of COVID-19 to an endemic disease.”

Retail inventory-to-sales ratios are historically low, but Miller noted that this ratio was declining pre-COVID and inventories are now far above their historical trend line. Given the uncertain nature of COVID-era demand, he questioned how much retailers would add to inventories this year. “To the extent the answer is ‘we will wait and see,’ this calls into question arguments that retail inventory restocking will be a major source of freight in 2022.”

Ben Nolan, shipping analyst at Stifel, outlined a particularly bearish scenario in which global spot rates fall from $9,300 per FEU (as measured by the Drewry World Container Index) at the end of 2021 all the way to $2,000 per FEU by the end of this year.

Nolan said this scenario is “much more likely in 2023,” but nonetheless possible this year. “We estimate that much of the extreme tightness on container shipping rates can be attributed to supply chain inefficiencies as true underlying demand was just 3% greater than incremental supply,” he said.

“As is the nature with traffic jams, when the accident is removed, normal velocity patterns materialize relatively quickly. It does not currently look like that accident is likely to be moved soon, but when it finally does, we do not expect ‘this time to be different.’”

The “this time it’s different” view is that ocean carriers will counterbalance headwinds — a drop in demand and/or capacity unlocked by clearing congestion — by “blanking” (canceling) sailings to artificially bring capacity in line with demand to prop up rates, a strategy carriers successfully employed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Daniel Richards, associate director at Maritime Strategies International (MSI), wrote in an annual outlook published by TradeWinds: “If, ultimately, markets do not fall meaningfully once it becomes implausible to blame congestion and Covid-19 … we will readily attribute greater weight to a changed industry structure, as likely will regulators [but] … it is still too soon to tell if the industry is permanently transformed.”

Wild cards

The big wild cards for 2022: COVID, port labour negotiations and the Taiwan “gray swan.”

COVID — As this year began, essential services in places like New York City — as well as air service nationwide — were being curtailed by a large number of workers out sick or testing positive, as the omicron variant rapidly spread.

If the same pattern emerges for longshoremen and other workers essential to supply chains, congestion could worsen. 

Meanwhile, China continues to pursue a “zero-COVID” policy in which large population centers are locked down for a small number of cases. The city of Xi’an, with a population of 13 million, has been in a strict lockdown since Dec. 22 due to cases of the delta variant. Delta cases have also just been reported in the city of Ningbo, the site of a major port. Yet another outbreak is affecting Yangtze River pilot operations.

If the much more transmissible omicron variant takes hold in China and the country sticks to its zero-COVID policy, it would lead to widespread factory closures, as seen after the initial Wuhan outbreak, and port closures, as seen in Yantian and Ningbo last year.

Port labor contract — The International Longshore and Warehouse Union contract with West Coast terminals expires on July 1. The previous round of negotiations, in 2014-15, did not go smoothly. Disruptions to terminal operations led to backlogs in Q1 2015 similar to levels in the early part of this year

Taiwan — The other big wild card for container shipping, given America’s exceptionally high dependence on Chinese exports, is the geopolitical tensions over Taiwan. On Thursday, Wang Ming, China’s foreign minister, warned that America’s encouragement of “Taiwan’s independence forces … not only puts Taiwan into an extremely dangerous situation but also exposes the United States to an unbearable price.”

According to Nolan of Stifel, “I hate to even open the door to this Pandora’s box, but clearly the Chinese have coveted the island of Taiwan for years and tension has been rising. Any overt military action on the part of the Chinese would be very bad for all things shipping, as it would likely lead to sanctions and a reduction of the flow of goods. We certainly hope things do not escalate in the Formosa Strait, but it would not be a complete black swan event at this point.”

Ship Backup at Southern California Ports Is Receding

The number of ships waiting to unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach fell this week to the lowest level since November but remains extensive

The lengthy backup of container ships waiting to unload in Southern California is shrinking, the first sign in three months of an easing of U.S. supply-chain congestion at the nation’s busiest container port complex.

The number of container ships queuing to enter the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach declined to 78 vessels on Tuesday, down from the peak of 109 ships reached a month earlier, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

Port officials say it is unclear whether the decline, which has accelerated over the past week following a surge shortly before and after the December holidays, is the beginning of a trend or a temporary respite because of factory slowdowns in Asia for the Lunar New Year holiday that began Feb. 1.

“No one is taking a victory lap,” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

Although the ship backup is the smallest it has been since Nov. 11, congestion remains severe by historical standards. Container ships are waiting an average of 18 days to unload at the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest of the neighboring gateways. Before the pandemic, it was unusual for ships to have to wait for a berth.

Soren Skou, chief executive of Danish containership company A.P. Moller-Maersk AS, this week said he expects supply-chain bottlenecks to continue at least until June.

The delays at the ports as well as at congested inland rail terminals, warehouses and distribution centers have contributed to inflation reaching a four-decade high and to shortages of everything from garage doors to paper cups.

Shipping-industry officials point to positive signs that constraints on moving goods are easing. More workers are returning to their jobs after the Omicron variant caused a New Year surge in absences. The Pacific Maritime Association, which orders labor for port-terminal operators on the West Coast, says it is seeing 25 to 35 Covid-19 cases a day, down from 150 cases a day in January.

Containers are also moving more quickly out of terminals by road and rails.

Weekly throughput at the Yusen Terminals LLC facility at the Port of Los Angeles has increased 55% over the past two weeks, said Alan McCorkle, the terminal’s chief executive.

The Lunar New Year generally provides a lull in inbound volumes at U.S. ports as factories in Asia slash production while migrant workers return to their families for the holiday. Analysts at Citi Research noted in a Feb. 9 report that ocean carriers canceled 14% of sailings for February, up from 8% for the same month last year.

Leaders of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said the reduction in volume along with an increase in worker availability should put them in a good position for the peak holiday shipping season, which they expect will begin earlier than usual this year.

Specialists at Denmark-based marine consulting firm Sea-Intelligence ApS say that based on previous ship backups, it could take eight or nine months to clear the ship backlog once operations run more efficiently. They are yet to see clear signs of progress.

“For now, we believe it to be too early to say for sure” that the critical bottleneck in U.S. supply chains is breaking, said Niels Madsen, vice president of operations at Sea-Intelligence.

Shipping & Freight Cost Increases, Freight Capacity, and Shipping Container Shortage [2022]

Freight & shipping costs & delays

Seasonality, a drop in available exports, and inflation’s impact on European consumer demand are causing decreased Asia-Europe pricing, while ongoing pandemic-related delays and closures are likewise driving down Asia-North America ocean rates – though these remain extremely elevated compared to pre pandemic prices.

As the lockdown in Shanghai stretches on – and restrictions increase in Beijing and elsewhere – the availability of exports is down significantly. Though authorities are trying to jumpstart production, manufacturing continues to drag. And with the city’s trucking capacity down an estimated 45% it is difficult to get imported materials from the ports to the factories – or available shipments from factories to ports.

These factors have led to an estimated 20-30% drop in export volumes out of Shanghai since the lockdown began and a two-day wait for arriving vessels. Many shippers are diverting exports to Ningbo where export volumes have increased 14%, causing additional congestion.

Ocean freight rate increases and transit times

The latest outbreak in Shanghai is not contained and is spreading to other Chinese hubs. The lockdown is expected to be lifted mid-May at the earliest and continues to contribute to widespread disruption. Though Shanghai’s air and ocean ports remain open, labor shortages are slowing operations. In addition, the availability of goods has dropped since manufacturing and warehouses are closed, and trucking is limited due to quarantine rules and travel restrictions.  

Ports like Yangshan are reportedly operating at 50% capacityleading some shippers to seek alternate ports like Ningbo, resulting in growing backlogs of ships across multiple ports.

Transpacific rates have fallen 5-7% since mid-March, and Asia-Europe rates reached their lowest level since last June – though prices on both lanes remain extremely elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The period between Lunar New Year (LNY) and summer peak shipping season is typically slow in ocean freight, so seasonality could be contributing to the 27% decline on Asia-Europe prices since late January.  But rates fell only 12% after LNY last year, which could mean that inflation is also having an impact. 

Transpacific rates, on the other hand, have not dropped significantly post-LNY or since the Shanghai outbreak points, indicating that underlying demand from the US is the main factor on these lanes.  

freight rates april 2022

When Shanghai reopens, the rebound will cause a surge in ocean volumes that will likely increase congestion, delays, and ocean rates. But with ports operational  and most vessels still making Shanghai port calls, imports needed for manufacturing and empty containers needed for exports will be in place which could speed the recovery.

These are container freight rates for May 1, 2022 according to the Freightos Baltic Index:

Air freight delays and cost increases

Ripples from the war in Ukraine and ongoing coronavirus outbreaks are disrupting air cargo – especially Asia-Europe operations – and putting pressure on air cargo rates. 

The lockdown in Shanghai led to cancellation of flights and reduction in capacity, however with manufacturing shut down, demand for air cargo plummeted thereby counteracting the spike in air cargo pricing.

Freightos Air Index PVG – N. Europe air rates increased 43% from start of March to start of April and then fell 38% by start of May as available exports dropped.  Rates still remain more than three times typical pre-pandemic prices.

Sanctions and COVID lockdowns are currently the main drivers of the capacity and demand. When the lockdown is lifted in Shanghai, both Asia-Europe and transpacific capacity will increase and there will also be a surge of demand. This surge will likely push rates up despite normalized capacity. Furthermore, the war will continue to strain capacity on Asia-Europe lanes, possibly driving elevated costs. 

Trucking delays and cost increases

Climbing oil prices translate directly to higher diesel prices. U.S. diesel prices are up significantly from last year and are likely to go higher as sanctions are mounted against Russia, the third-largest oil producer in the world. These costs could be passed down to shippers, making international shipping even more expensive.

The conflict is impacting ground transport in Europe, with trucking logjams reported throughout the region. Rail service is likewise disrupted by border closures and other disruptions.

In Asian ports, trucking is increasingly unavailable because of quarantine rules and travel restrictions.   

Amazon shipping in 2022

With a 60% annual increase in sales by third party sellers on Amazon’s marketplace last year, the boom in e-commerce continues.

Keeping up with door to door pricing for Amazon FBA shipping can be a hassle.

Want to know what the rates are? Check out Freightos.com’s FBAX, the Amazon FBA freight index.

With data from thousands of weekly pricing points from freight forwarders, we’ve developed a weekly index of freight prices including for Less than Container Load (LCL), Full Container Load (FCL), and air cargo, from major export cities in southeast Asia to the most popular Amazon fulfillment centers in the US.


When will freight rates and shipping prices go down?

In the current situation, many importers and exporters are wondering when they can expect freight rates and shipping prices to go down. The answer? Not yet.

But, despite potential delays and high freight shipping costs, there are a few steps importers can take right now:

Fewer container ships are idling directly off the San Pedro Bay coast, but the port backlog persists farther out at sea

The number of container ships anchored or adrift within 40 miles of the San Pedro Bay Port Complex has decreased significantly—but the backlog persists further out at sea, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

As of Wednesday, only 30 container ships were waiting for their turn at berth directly off the coast, down from a record 86 on Nov. 16, according to the Marine Exchange. However, thanks to a new queuing system that allows vessels leaving Asia destined for Long Beach to get in line upon departure, 66 additional ships are anchored farther out to sea or slow steaming toward the Southern California ports.

“Total container ships backed up was 96 at noon,” the Marine Exchanged announced Thursday.

Slow steaming is when a ship’s speed is deliberately reduced, in this case to ensure the ship does not arrive before its turn in line. The practice cuts fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

While the backlog persists, the decrease in ships directly off the coast means less impact on air quality for residents near the complex, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said.

“We know that many of our people are concerned that ships waiting on the coast are contributing to air quality issues in Southern California,”  he said during a Thursday press conference. “We understand the number of container ships at anchor on the coast should be zero.”

Conclusion:

Well it appears the problem has let up some but it is not over yet, which means that there will be delays in product and resources being delivered, it also means that the cost of our items will continue to go up. This a problem that started with COVID-19 and then continued on when they incentivized people to stay home instead of going back to work. The ever increasing prices of fossil fuels has also made it more costly to ship items at all levels. The Biden run government has failed us every step of the way in the road to recovery.

Resources

beyondthemagazine.com, “WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF SHIPPING CONTAINERS IN 2022?” By Miles Austine; freightwaves.com, “Container shipping’s 2022 outlook: The bulls, bears and wild cards: This year could be even more lucrative for shipping lines than 2021.” By Greg Miller; freshfruitportal.com, “California port backlog will not clear until well into 2022, experts say.”; wsj.com, “Ship Backup at Southern California Ports Is Receding: The number of ships waiting to unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach fell this week to the lowest level since November but remains extensive.” By Paul Berger; freightos.com, “Shipping & Freight Cost Increases, Freight Capacity, and Shipping Container Shortage [2022].”; ibbusinessjournal.com, “Fewer container ships are idling directly off the San Pedro Bay coast, but the port backlog persists farther out at sea.” By Brandon Richardson;