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Barely has the dust settled on the latest round of general rate increases (GRIs) introduced by carriers on the Asia-Europe trade, when one of the leading carriers has announced further increases over the course of the next few months.

Hapag-Lloyd today said that it intends to introduce a $500 per teu GRI on 15 April, followed by another GRI of the same quantum on 13 May, on the trades between both Asia and northern Europe and Asia and the Mediterranean.

“I’m not surprised that they are looking for a new round of increases,” Neil Dekker, editor of Drewry’s Container Forecaster told The Loadstar. “The fundamentals on the trade aren’t great – the volumes remain weak, and despite the series of blanked sailings load factors are far below 90%.”

On Friday carriers introduced a new GRI on the westbound trade between Asia and Europe, at various levels, ranging from Hapag-Lloyd at the top end with $750 per teu to around the $600 per teu mark for carriers at the lower end of the scale.

The early assessment would be that the last week’s GRI was a partial success, based on the fact that the Shanghai-North Europe leg of the Shanghai Containerised Freight Index jumped $424 per teu to $1,423 from $999 per teu the week before, representing an increase of 42%.

The question is whether these prices can hold up over the remainder of the month while more capacity is introduced. The market leader on the trade, Maersk Line, has been moving this week to try to counteract fears that additional capacity will further depress rates.

It is only a few months until the first of its Triple-E class vessels, capable of carrying 18,000teu, are due to be delivered and subsequently deployed on the line’s Asia-Europe AE10 service. Five of the new ships are slated for delivery this year, with a further 15 due to come into operation over the course of 2014 and 2015.

However, Maersk senior executives have also argued that despite the unprecedented size of the new vessels, the actual capacity increase will not be as much as many assume.

“As we introduce new and larger ships, if the market is not growing we will pull out other capacity to make the balance for us,” Maersk chief executive Soren Skou told this week’s edition of Maersk Post.

In the same pages, chief operating officer Morten Englestoft added that the line would look to redeploy the tonnage currently employed on the AE10 service as the new vessels were phased onto the route.

“They will replace the 13,100teu charter tonnage vessels, which will be cascaded to other services. We estimate that we will only increase capacity by about 1.5% in 2013, in line with our ambition of growing with the market,” he said.

According to maritime consultancy Alphaliner, volumes on the Asia-Europe trade shrank by 5% last year, while it is forecasting a growth rate of just 1% in 2013.

With this anaemic growth, the sentiment from forwarders canvassed by The Loadstar was that the increases would be welcomed if they could be made to stick. “I really hope they do stay at a sustainable level because this situation of constantly low rates just can’t go on,” one said.

It has coincided with one of the most frenetic periods of long-term contractual tendering by shippers. One freight service provider said that there had been more tenders put out for ocean contracts in the last three months “than the last three years combined”, and it appears that shippers willing to ink annual contracts on the Asia-Europe trade were able to achieve substantial cost savings over those playing the spot market – at least given rates’ current levels.

The Loadstar understands that the vast majority of annual contracts on the trade are at a freight rate level of below $2,000 per 40ft container, while the spot market looks set for further fluctuations over the coming days and weeks. Check out The Loadstar for further news later in the week.

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