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Global News Ocean shippers may ‘pay up’ for secure capacity despite weak market

Registration dateFEB 03, 2023

Peter TirschwellJan 20, 2023, 11:55 AM EST
Articles reproduced by permission of Journal of Commerce.

Peter Tirschwell
Jan 20, 2023, 11:55 AM EST
source : (The Journal of Commerce)

Ocean shippers may ‘pay up’ for secure capacity despite weak market Observers generally agree that while weakness will prevail in the container shipping market in the first half of 2023, demand will return in the second half, although it’s too soon to gauge the extent of the rebound. Photo credit: Robert Mandel /

It is common knowledge that trans-Pacific container spot rates have come plummeting down to earth and are now back in familiar, pre-pandemic territory. Old timers are experiencing déjà vu as carriers resort to bygone tactics such as pricing for market share, imposing general rate increases, and expounding on their own cost increases to push rates to higher levels.

But not all is the same as 2023 begins. Many believe volumes will be weak in the first half due to recession fears, inflation, satiated consumers rebalancing their spending, and a longer-than-normal Chinese New Year owing to manufacturing interruptions resulting from Beijing’s rethinking of its zero-COVID policy.

Even as those conditions prevail during the traditional contract negotiating cycle, weighing down contract rates, it does not automatically mean shippers will be driving the hardest possible bargains with newly vulnerable carriers, even those shippers bristling after difficult experiences with carriers during the pandemic.

That’s because shippers can see the risks inherent in hammering a dwindling number of major carriers that could then withhold capacity if the market tightens again, as some believe it will in the second half of the year.

Such a scenario would be the result of carriers flexing capacity through their alliances and a potentially mild first-half recession. That would then phase into a restocking surge as retailers finally see an opening to align inventory to real-time consumer preferences and demand levels after three years of gaping inventory mismatch.

“Because there is so much uncertainty as to how carriers will manage softer cargo demand by curtailing their network capacity, I believe the larger retailers are willing to pay up to get secured predictable allocations,” said Kurt McElroy, executive vice president at Apex Maritime.

“Paying up” would be part of a deeper mutual understanding regarding capacity allocations, addressing one of shippers’ biggest grievances during the pandemic, when in many cases space commitments by carriers proved illusory amid extreme capacity shortages.

“If the markets take off again this year, for whatever reasons, the same situation with supply-demand could play out again as it did last year,” McElroy said. “That is all the more reason that BCOs [beneficial cargo owners] and their selected carriers and non-vessel-operating common carriers [NVOs] need to have a meaningful contracting relationship that is based on solid principles and mutually beneficial fundamentals.” Risk avoidance as COVID legacy Paying for that assurance would be a possibly unprecedented twist in an otherwise weak market in which spot rates collapsed despite aggressive carrier intervention, suggesting that a mindset of risk avoidance in supply chains is an actual — as opposed to theoretical — legacy of the pandemic.

“It is clear there is too much capacity in the market at the moment, but demand will pick up,” said Dominique von Orelli, global head of ocean freight for DHL Global Forwarding. “We are convinced that the second half will see an increase in the demand and different consumer behavior, but the first half will be rather slow.”
Carriers feel pinch from trans-Pac volume decline
Others agreed that the first half looks weak, but the outlook for later in the year is still a wild card.

“Ocean liner profitability and market rates will continue to fall until there is a recovery in global demand and a reduction in overall inventory from large retailers and importers,” that would precipitate restocking, Jason Cook, managing director of Ardent Global Logistics, wrote in a recent market update. “We don’t expect this to happen until the end of Q2 [or] beginning of Q3 2023.”

There is significant debate and uncertainty around what 2023 will bring. Many believe carriers have lost control of the market, pointing as evidence to all the blank sailing activity since last fall failing thus far to stem the decline in spot rates. With capacity abundant as volumes declined and port congestion eased, carriers have reverted to a market share mindset — yet another vestige of an earlier era — and there is little indication that carriers will reassert control over the market.

To a degree, carriers have also held off on some blank sailings to restore reliability. And spot rates have not yet fallen to the point where carriers are losing money, the traditional trigger of a widespread culling of capacity.

If carriers are indeed in a weaker negotiating position, they will do what they have always done: offer deals that are too good to turn down. That could leave some shippers to walk away with a highly favorable deal, even if a risk assessment suggests they should have paid more.
· Contact Peter Tirschwell at and follow him on Twitter: @petertirschwell.