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Strong Outlook for Container Volumes in 2021 Continues 2020 Recovery

container volumes rebounded in 2020 build strong momentum into 2021
(file photo)

Published Jan 7, 2021 8:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The outlook for the container shipping markets remains strong moving into 2021, a far cry from the dramatic declines the industry experienced at the start of 2020. A new analysis of container volume shows that the market recouped much of its early losses and with few blanked sailings projected for 2021 will continue its momentum.

Data from eeSea’s Blank Sailings Tracker shows that the shipping lines’ schedules contain very few blanked sailings for the first quarter of 2021. On the three main East/West liner trade routes, less than two percent of sailing are blank for February and at this time less than one percent for March. That compares with 20 percent last February and more than nine percent in March 2020.

Looking toward the second quarter of 2021, at this time very few lines have announced plans to blank sailings. A year ago, between April and June, nearly 15 percent of sailings were canceled by the carriers.

“In the first half of last year, blank sailings were widely considered as a way of managing capacity during the Covid-19 crisis,” said Simon Sundboell, CEO of maritime and supply chain intelligence company eeSea. “This is now being blamed for the unanticipated increase in freight rates and significant delays across the supply chain. There seems to be an impression that carriers are deliberately holding back capacity to push up freight rates. We don’t see that.”

On the three main East/West routes, January’s effective capacity is up by 7.6 percent over the corresponding period in 2020, with almost the same percentage of blank sailings, reports eeSea.

“We see that carriers are snapping up any available charter tonnage,” said Sundboell. “There is no idle capacity left, carriers are delaying scrapping, and the first new tonnage orders have even been placed.”

The momentum that is carrying forward into 2021 also fueled the recovery in container volumes for 2020. New data from the shipping industry association BIMCO shows that after a 5.0 million TEU (7.3 percent) drop in volumes in the first five months of the year, volumes were down by only 1.7 percent as of November 2020, representing a loss of 2.6 million TEU at the end of 11 months.

The Far East to North America trade route saw the strongest recovery. After 11 months, volumes were more than six percent ahead of 2020 or up by 1.1 million TEU, according to BIMCO. However, the Intra-Asia route remained down just over one percent, while the Far East to Europe was down more than five percent as of the end of November.

“BIMCO now expects global container volumes to have fallen by less than 1.5 percent in 2020, which is far better than what we anticipated when the pandemic raged in Q2,” says Peter Sand BIMCO’s Chief Shipping Analyst. He, however noted that it remained a profitable year for liner companies. 

“Looking ahead, the coming quarters will see a strong focus on the repositioning of empties and even out the imbalance caused by the stop-and-go demand of 2020,” concluded Sand. “Furthermore, the focus will now turn towards the Chinese New Year, which is set to be different to any other in terms of both celebrations and exports.”