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Time and tides wait for no-one and, so it seems, after the flood comes the ebb tide.

Shipping lines seeking renewal of contracts with customers are looking to lock shippers into long-term deals while the fevered market continues to rage.

However, some shippers are questioning the logic, as 2021 comes to an end, even with rates riding high, full ships, a capacity restriction imposed through congestion at major destination ports and a lack of equipment further restricting trade. Markets, it seems, have no way to go but down, according to some.

Carriers are looking to shift customers onto two-year terms for 2022, with some looking at even longer periods, of three or even four years. Shippers too are taking the longer view, with one European forwarder asking: “What are the dynamics the lines are looking at?”

He said there were many newbuildings coming in 2023, and the massive influx of capacity is likely to see rates soften.  But he questions whether ports will be able to handle all the new vessels and “will that force rates back up?”, he asks.

It may be that some lines, particularly those with long-term exposures to very high charter rates, are looking to lock-in rates that will allow them to meet those obligations.

According to one European shipper, the spread of rate indications on contracts from base ports in China and other parts of Asia are between $8,000 and $15,000 per 40ft, with rates for 20ft containers being quoted at much higher than 50% of the 40ft price, placing a penalty on the smaller containers.

Moreover, the shipper said: “Carrier haulage has seen proposed 50% increases on costs on quotes we have had. A mantra shippers all over the world have used is that, while base rates may be stable, the myriad surcharges push up the final rate payable to astronomical levels.

In the US, the shortage of drivers is more acute than in Europe and Asia, made more difficult by the lack of trailers to transport containers. Even so, China specialist Jon Monroe reports that rates did soften as a result of the national Golden Week holiday.

“We are expecting the market to pick up again within the next week. Nothing is a certainty, but the backlogs are real and demand for space is still strong. The silver lining in this very dark cloud is the reprieve from the holiday and temporary closures of the factories should allow the US ports to catch up with the processing of containers through their terminals,” he writes.

According to Mr Monroe, the events of the past 18 months, during the pandemic, have given the logistics industry a cold shower.

“Supply chains are now at the forefront of every executive’s mind when it comes to forecasting and planning,” he said.

Carriers expect continued pressure on both lead times and costs through to the end of next year, at a time they are making record profits.

“Many of the carriers have all but walked away from their contracts, pushing importers to the more costly spot and premium rates. With 2023 not too far away, carriers may find themselves with more capacity than demand once again. More than 5m teu of new capacity will be introduced into the global liner trade,” explained Mr Monroe, adding: “Can global trade, and specifically the US, sustain the volumes we are seeing today?”

Former Barclays analyst and industry veteran Mark McVicar told The Loadstar the market was “gradually returning to normal”. He believes the logjams and challenges within global supply chains will be worked through as demand settles to more realistic levels.

“All the sensible lines said they don’t expect these rate levels to last,” he explained.

However, Mr McVicar pointed to an orderbook that now stands at fractionally over 20% of the fleet, and he expects “markets will start discounting before those vessels are delivered”.

Some carriers will suffer as a result, with carriers having sealed capacity at very high rates with long contracts beyond the 2023 period, when much of the orderbook will be delivered.

“Some lines will get caught, that’s always the way,” explained Mr McVicar. “But I don’t expect it to be any of the big lines; it will be marginal operators” he added.

The analyst did, however, sound a note of caution for shippers, pointing out that the lines were badly caught out in 2009 after the currency crisis, and in the first quarter of 2020, they were very nervous of a return to those levels of income.

Carriers got through the tricky second and third quarters of 2020 much better than they had expected through cutting capacity, so even though share prices fell the lines were in decent shape.

“The lines moved to a more dynamic tonnage management system,” explained Mr McVicar. “The question is, are they going to be alive to managing their capacity in the future? They know how to do it now, after the pandemic, and would  hopefully have learnt those lessons.”

He concluded that there was “a risk of overshoot on [falling] rates,” but the lines were starting from a much stronger position, so while some may falter, the majority – certainly the larger lines – will maintain healthy returns.

“The hope is that we come out of the pandemic with a more sensible industry,” said Mr McVicar.

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