The number of container ships stuck at anchor off Los Angeles and Long Beach is down to around 20 per day, from 30 a few months ago. Does this mean the capacity crunch in the trans-Pacific market is finally easing? Absolutely not, warned Nerijus Poskus, vice president of global ocean at freight forwarder Flexport. “It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse,” he told American Shipper in an interview on Monday.
“What I’m seeing is unprecedented. We are seeing a tsunami of freight,” he reported.
“For the month of May, everything on the trans-Pacific is basically sold out. We had one client who needed something loaded in May that was extremely urgent and who was ready to pay $15,000 per container. I couldn’t get it loaded — and we are a growing company that ships a lot of TEUs [twenty-foot equivalent units]. Price doesn’t always even matter anymore.”
Restocking driving volumes higher
Poskus said that trans-Pacific import volumes are still rising. He noted that January trans-Pacific imports were up 10% versus 2019 (comparisons to 2020 numbers are skewed by COVID) and 13.5% in February, then jumped 51% in March. “So, we’re now at 1.5 times pre-pandemic levels.”
With imports far outpacing retail sales growth, he attributed volumes to inventory restocking. “The restocking is actually affecting the trade even more than growth in demand. That tells me that this will last even longer. Let’s say U.S. consumer demand slows down in Q3 and Q4. That’s not expected, but even if it does, [capacity availability and rates] shouldn’t improve quickly, simply because of the huge restocking demand.”
Poskus also believes there is a growing export backlog piling up each day in Asia, awaiting available ship slots. If that backlog grows too big, he said, “I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.”
As a result of the backlog and restocking demand, he thinks “prices will remain high and shipping will probably remain difficult for the rest of this year. And then after that, you have the peak for Chinese New Year in 2022.”
About to get even worse
He said that the situation today is the worst he’s witnessed — and he believes it’s about to get even more severe.
“Buckle up. The month of May will be the worst people have ever seen,” he predicted. Because some shippers will have to wait in line behind the growing backlog in Asia, he expects “what’s going to happen soon is that some importers won’t even be able to get on the boat. For them, it will almost feel like trade is coming to a halt.”
Poskus’ comments mirror cargo bookings data. FreightWaves’ SONAR platform features a proprietary index of shippers’ ocean bookings (SONAR: IOTI.USA). Bookings to the U.S. are measured in TEUs on a 10-day-moving-average basis as of the scheduled date of overseas departure. As of Monday, the index was at a new all-time high and forward bookings data showed a continued rise ahead.
Spot premiums back with vengeance
As of Friday, the Freightos Baltic Daily Index assessed the Asia-West Coast spot rate (SONAR: FBXD.CNAW) at $4,797 per forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU) and the Asia-East Coast rate (SONAR: FBXD.CNAE) at $6,306 per FEU — both near all-time highs.
But that’s only part of the rate story. “Indexes are not bills. Premiums are not reflected in the indexes,” said Poskus. Earlier this year, some of the premium charges came down as container availability in Asia improved. That’s reversed, said Poskus, who noted that the Ever Given incident in the Suez Canal pulled container equipment from the market. “Container shortages in Asia are again very bad because of the Ever Given, and it will take another four to six weeks to come back to normal.”
The added premiums to get spot cargo loaded “are back and they’re higher than before,” he said. “They are $2,000-$3,000 above FAK [spot price] and that’s the best case.”
Spot cargo that was booked 21 days prior and was forecast within the shipper’s allocation is still getting FAK pricing on spot, he noted. However, “everything last minute is basically a free-for-all auction. You are basically offering as much money as you can and hoping somebody will take it. Many importers are now struggling. We’re seeing so many new customers approaching us asking for help because they can’t get loaded.”
Contract rates up sharply
A recent presentation by Xeneta, a company that collects contract data, showed Asia-West Coast contracts being negotiated this year at around 30%-50% higher levels than last year.
Poskus’ numbers are around double Xeneta’s. “We are seeing fixed-price increases of slightly over 100% on Asia-West Coast and about 75% on Asia-East Coast,” he said. “Also, almost every single contract rate is subject to peak season surcharges [PSSs], so the prices aren’t exactly fixed. I think the PSSs will reduce the gap between the spot and fixed market.”
Asked about shippers who have yet to conclude their annual contracts, he said, “If you want a fixed price in today’s market, the answer you’ll get from the carriers is that it’s too late. We advised many importers to sign early because the trans-Pacific contract season would close [early] because there’s more demand than supply. And that’s exactly what happened.”
There are exceptions, such as larger shippers with June-to-June contracts who began discussions with carriers earlier this year. “But if you are just a simple importer and you are yet to sign your fixed contract, you will be in the spot market,” said the Flexport vice president.
Advice to importers
Poskus offered several pieces of advice to importers scrambling to get container loads to the U.S.
He noted that carriers need reefers in the U.S. market for refrigerated exports to Asia. On the way back from Asia, these reefers are powered down and can be used as non-operating reefers (NORs) to transport dry cargo. “Believe it or not, carriers are still moving some NORs empty because importers don’t like them. This is a missed opportunity to move cargo in NORs. My advice is: Take that option. If you’re searching for the best solution in this market, you’re going to see even more delays.”
He also suggested moving cargo via less-than-container-load (LCL) shipments. “LCL is still moving. Of course, you cannot move thousands of containers LCL, but if you have something urgent, you can still get space for LCL on May sailings. Instead of waiting, break your some of your shipments down into LCL shipments and at least get some inventory,” he said.
Yet another option: Be creative with routings. For example, direct China-West Coast sailings may be sold out, but cargo can be routed from China through the Panama Canal to Cartagena, Colombia, then back through the canal to the West Coast. “It has a longer transit time but it can be loaded in the same week and it’s an option versus waiting a month and a half to get loaded [for the direct route],” he said.
“Just get your cargo to the continent of North America and from there you can get it to where it needs to go, whether it’s with NORs or LCL or transshipping [through hubs like Cartagena] or shipping it to Canada and then putting it on rail to Chicago and trucking it to New York. It will be expensive, but at least it will get there.
“You have to be flexible. Look for any routing and be creative. It’s a moving target. And don’t wait. If something opens up, act fast.”