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While Europe and North America begin to grapple with the alarming spread of coronavirus cases, shipping activity in China appears to be picking up, according to new data from liner consultancy SeaIntelligence.

It says there is now a clear reduction in the number of announced blank sailings by carriers as trucking operations resume in China, leading to increased export cargo arriving at ports and ships are needed to handle the backlog of containers.

“The weekly measurement of carriers’ blank sailings out of China show the coronavirus impact is now subsiding rapidly,” said SeaIntelligence chief executive Alan Murphy.

“The bulk of the blank sailings were announced during weeks seven and eight; weeks nine and ten have seen a clear tapering off, and the level of new announcements of blank sailings is back to normal.

“This means carriers are seeing demand ramping back up to normal levels over the next few weeks,” he added.

However, while that might offer some relief to Chinese exporters and their international buyers, the knock-on effect from the unprecedented number of blanked sailings from Asia since Chinese New Year is seriously hitting Europe’s container ports, feeder services, barge operators and trucking.

According to Sea-Intelligence data from last week, the number of Asia-Europe blanked sailings had reached 46, of which 29 were directly attributable to the coronavirus outbreak.

And there are reports that many of the vessels that did sail from China are arriving less than half-full at their first port of discharge in Europe. One UK terminal operations manager told The Loadstar he had “struggled to keep up” with the number of vessel deletions.

“That also means that the feeders are dropping off as well, as there is no point in them calling if there is nothing to tranship,” he said.

“There is no doubt that our throughput numbers for the first quarter will be significantly down in the first quarter, but hopefully we will see the anticipated v-shaped recovery in Q2 and Q3 that will go some way to repairing the volume damage,” he added.

Meanwhile, the feeder operators are having to survive on ad hoc “scraps” in the absence of the normal relay requirements. One north European feeder source told The Loadstar it had cancelled calls “left, right and centre”, as the containers “were just not there”.

Like their ocean carrier customers, feeder operators are able to save port costs and fuel during weak demand periods, but still remain responsible for ship charter hire payments, unless they are able to redeliver the redundant vessels back to owners.

The dramatic slump in imports due to lack of demand for the haulage sector has been “brutal”, according to a Felixstowe-based operator.

“We have had to lay off some of our drivers, as business is just not there at the moment,” he told The Loadstar.

Indeed, the impact of the cancelled ships from Asia is being felt right across the industry service sectors, from port agents to customs brokers and warehousing.

Meanwhile, European and North American exporters to Asia are likely to continue to see far higher-than-average freight rates as container supply chain bottlenecks continue to shift.

“Back haul freight rates are beginning to increase as carriers increasingly favour empty repositioning for the limited back haul sailings,” said Mr Murphy. “This is in order to get into position to capture what is expected to be a peak in Chinese exports in the medium-term future. It could well be expected that back haul rates will be pushed even higher.”

This appears to be particularly acute for Europe-Asia shippers, where 20ft containers remain heavily in demand – CMA CGM on Friday announced a peak season surcharge of $200 per teu and $400 per feu on shipments from morthern Europe to the Indian subcontinent from 15 March; and Maersk similarly announced a peak season surcharge of the same level on shipments from southern Europe to Asia from 16 March.

There appears to be one sliver lining for both carriers and customers, however: sharply declining fuel prices look set to remove issues around the IMO low-sulphur rules, at least temporarily.

“Two months ago, IMO 2020 was set to be the carriers’ major problematic issue. Today, low-sulphur fuel prices are dipping below the levels of normal fuel last year.

“Furthermore, the sudden price war on oil has the potential to send fuel prices back to levels seen in 2015/16, and hence make the cost of low-sulphur fuel the least of the carriers’ problems,” Mr Murphy said.

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