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MSC is deploying the world’s biggest ships to evacuate empty containers from China to the US, as carriers on the transpacific try to overcome imbalances after weeks of coronavirus disruption to their box control systems.

There have been reports of severe equipment shortages in the US and Europe as a consequence of carriers blanking around half of all headhaul sailings since Chinese New Year, due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak.

Alphaliner said MSC was redeploying the 23,756 teu MSC Mia to the transpacific leg of the 2M’s North Europe-Asia-USWC, combined AE1/Shogun-TP-6/Pearl, loop, and it will be the largest container vessel ever to call at the US.

It added that two weeks later the 23,656 teu MSC Nela would shift from the AE2/Swan Asia-North Europe loop to the transpacific, to perform a similar function.

Alphaliner noted that, by replacing the normal 13,000 teu-plus ships that habitually operate its transpacific strings, MSC and 2M partner Maersk would be able to reposition more than 6,000 teu of empty containers to the US to ease pent-up booking demand.

Meanwhile, the damage to the US San Pedro Bay ports’ throughput by China’s enforced manufacturing lockdown is evidenced by February figures, just released by the Los Angeles and Long Beach port authorities.

At Los Angeles, the largest box port in North America, imports plummeted 22.5% last month, compared with February 2019, to 270,025 teu, while exports declined by 5.7%, to 134,468 teu. Empty container movements slumped by 35% to 139,544 teu.

At neighbouring Long Beach, imports dropped by 17.9%, to 248,592 teu, although exports were actually ahead by 19.3%, to 125,559 teu, and empty containers were down 12.8% to 164,277 teu.

However, executive director for the port of Long Beach Mario Cordero was optimistic about recovery.

“Once the virus is contained, we may see a surge of cargo, and our terminals, labour and supply chain will be ready to handle it,” he said.

However, notwithstanding hopes of a “v-shaped” bounce-back among ports and carriers, one leading liner analyst is warning that the industry is facing a contraction in global container volumes not seen since the financial crash of 2008.

Via his Linked-In platform, SeaIntelligence Consulting’s Lars Jensen warned that with the pandemic rapidly escalating in Europe and the US, the shutdown of non-essential public workplaces, events and leisure activities would see import demand drop sharply.

“Hence the expectation of a surge out of China to make up for the earlier shortfall will be postponed,” said Mr Jensen.

He added that if the virus crisis played out in a similar fashion to the financial crash, when consumers and businesses suddenly reigned-in their spending, it could result in a 10% contraction in container volumes, equalling a shrinking of some 17m teu globally for container lines and a loss of around 80m teu for container ports and terminals.

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