Summer officially began in the northern hemisphere yesterday, but with large parts of Europe still feeling the grip of a wintery spring, you could be forgiven for mistaking which season we are actually in.

It seems an apt metaphor for the current container spot freight market: is it in the throes of an early peak season, propelled by western retailers “pre-stocking” to avoid congestion and supply chain disruption during the normally busy months of July to September; or is it a hangover from a fallow 2023 with a multi-vertical restocking process under way?

Analyst consensus is leaning towards the former, given how many shippers are still scarred by the super-congestion of the pandemic era and are eager to see a repeat of empty shelves during their busiest period of the year – the fourth quarter.

“I believe this is an early peak, with shippers bringing goods shipments forward to avoid peak season rates and disruption,” Transport Intelligence (Ti) research manager Viki Keckarovska said yesterday.

“US consumer demand is growing, but not at high-digit numbers – certainly not enough to provide a demand shock,” she added.

For US importers, the threat of a strike at the country’s east and Gulf coast ports is also weighing on their minds.

A recent Ti shipper survey found that most respondents thought rates would increase moderately-to-significantly on the Asia-North Europe trade over the next quarter, while on the transpacific, the prognosis was a slight-to-moderate pricing increase.

“The consensus is that rates will further increase, but it won’t be as intense as it has been,” Ms Keckarovska added.

If that is the case, then shippers and forwarders can begin to ask whether we are nearing the peak of spot rate pricing.

This week’s indices provide partial evidence this may be the case: Drewry’s World Container Index showed much flatter growth across the majority of its east-west trades, apart from its Shanghai-Rotterdam leg, which grew 11%, to $6,867 per 40ft, which may be explained by another raft of mid-month surcharges.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai-Los Angeles route increased 7%, to $6,441 per 40ft, Shanghai-New York was up 3%, to $7,552 and Shanghai-Genoa increased 2% to $7,029 per 40ft.

This does not, however, mean supply chain pressures are easing – congestion remains an ever-present threat in Asian export and transhipment hubs, as well as at receiving ports, particularly in the Mediterranean; and there are ongoing concerns about container shortages.

“Drewry expects freight rates from China will continue to rise next week, due to congestion issues at Asian ports,” it said.

There was, however, some divergence among the indices: Xeneta’s XSI recorded a 16% gain on Asia-North Europe, while its transpacific Asia-US west coast route recorded a 14% increase, twice the level of growth seen on the WCI.

In contrast, the Freightos FBX transpacific route gained just 1% week on week.

Meanwhile, spot rates on the transatlantic slipped 1% on both WCI and XSI indices, finishing the week at $2,136 and $1,864 per 40ft, respectively, on the headhaul westbound leg.

If the recent spot rate rally on other trades was due to a demand spike, then the theory that “a rising tide lifts all boats” would have seen transatlantic rates also rise. However, they have been on a downward trajectory since the end of February, and are now at a level broadly comparable with July 2023.

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