In the shipping world, ‘Santa’s Sleigh’ is the big containership fleet, which carries the goods from manufacturers in Asia to the retailers in Europe and North America in good time for consumers to prepare for the holiday season. How full the ‘sleigh’ appears to be each year gives an interesting indication of the health of the containerised freight sector.

A Tricky Sleigh Ride

Broadly, the containership sector has generated a huge potential surplus of capacity since the global financial crisis. By the end of 2016, despite the recent surge in demolition activity, 9.1 million TEU of capacity will have been added to the fleet since the end of 2008, equal to growth of 84%. During the same period box trade has grown by around 34%. For those who deliver the world’s consumer goods, this has required a huge balancing act, managing surplus supply through slower speeds, and idling of capacity. The difficulty of this has created huge volatility in freight rate levels. Meanwhile, from early 2014 freight rates seemed to have been moving sharply downhill. Goods for the holiday season are usually moved to retailers with plenty of time to spare in the peak shipping season from May to October, but nonetheless overall movements in mainlane trade and capacity deployed (see graph description) give us a good idea of how full ‘Santa’s Sleigh’ might have been.

Last Christmas

Following the acute drop in freight rates in 2014, things were looking tricky for the bearers of gifts by the end of 2015. Spurred by ‘mega-ship’ deliveries and 8% growth in the boxship fleet, mainlane running capacity grew by 5% in 2015. But trade had hit the buffers. Although there was annual peak leg volume growth of 6% on the Transpacific, peak leg Far East-Europe volumes slumped by 3% on the back of a sluggish Europe, collapsing Russian volumes and destocking by retailers (perhaps not enough folk had been well-behaved enough for Santa to pay a visit?). At one point Far East-Europe spot freight rates hit $205/TEU, catastrophically low levels for the liner companies.

Wonderful Christmastime?

But things have eventually started to look a tiny bit brighter. Disciplined capacity management (cascading and idling) allied to slower deliveries has seen mainlane capacity drop 3% this year, whilst peak leg mainlane volumes look set to be up 2% with Far East-Europe growth back in positive territory. With the collapse of Hanjin, there’s one less sleigh driver, potentially allowing others to fill up more. Mainlane freight looks like it might have bottomed out; Asia-USWC spot rates jumped from an average of $1,459/FEU in Q3 2016 to $1,732/FEU in Q4 to date.

The Best Kind Of Present

How do things look for ‘Santa’s Sleigh’ in 2017? Well, with more capacity to come, any gains will be very hard won (and for the charter owners there’s still plenty of capacity idle). But it looks like there should be further cargo growth, so the challenge for Santa will once again be to maintain an appropriate amount of space for all the gifts. If he does that, the sleigh might feel fuller next year. That would be a nice present for the liner industry.

SIW1088

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