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The trade gap between the Mediterranean and North America has widened significantly, according to recent analysis from Drewry.

The analyst says steady growth on the headhaul westbound leg has been marred by “sliding backhaul activity”.

Drewry noted that December saw year-on-year growth of 8.4% on the westbound leg, a “stark contrast” to the 19.8% decline on the backhaul eastbound trade.

Indeed, with the stronger conditions westbound, Maersk Line today announced a $300 per container general rate increase from the Med to North America to begin on 1 April.

According to Drewry’s 12-month rolling average data, the fall in eastbound trade was particularly pronounced in September and October – around the time it became apparent that the 19-member Eurozone was moving from a negative deflationary mode towards stagnation.

Drewry said that with the peak season looming, carriers needed to pin their hopes on a Eurozone recovery to address the weaker eastbound leg. According to the analyst, vessel utilisation levels from North America to the Mediterranean fell to a lowly 38% by December, compared with around 50% at the beginning of 2014.

And the immediate outlook for the trade remains pessimistic. According to data from its Container Freight Rate Insight, Drewry said: “The average all-in rate charged by forwarders for spot cargo from New York to Genoa sank to $1,120 per 40ft in January 2015, down 8% month-on-month.”

Moreover, if carriers are increasingly obliged to scratch around for cargo to fill eastbound slots, the chances that spot rates will spiral downwards increases.

The widening trade imbalance, says Drewry is illustrated by the supply-demand ratio between the Mediterranean and North America in December: estimated monthly capacity was 156,000 teu, with demand in the westbound direction at 104,000 teu and eastbound at just 60,000 teu.

Since the end of last year, the euro’s value has fallen by about 15% against the dollar to around $1.08, prompting some economists to predict parity by the summer.

Consumers and industries in southern Europe, already challenged by austerity measures, now face paying higher prices for US goods than previously, thus further denting trade prospects.

This week, the European Central Bank finally launched its €60bn per month quantitative easing programme, which aims to increase consumer spending by pumping money into the troubled Eurozone. It is a strategy that generally worked for the US and UK economies in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but economists are divided as to whether printing money in an unwieldy Eurozone will have the same impact, not least due to the continuing Greek debt saga that is overshadowing events.

The four major east-west vessel sharing alliances will need to keep a close eye on the impact of the QE programme and be prepared to adjust their capacity between Mediterranean and North American ports accordingly to mitigate freight rate erosion.

Meanwhile, according to the latest data from Container Trade Statistics, volumes between Asia and Europe declined year-on-year by 2.9% in January to 1.4m teu, no doubt also reflecting softer demand from European consumers for Asian goods.

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