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Suez Closure Leaves Container Imbalance Unchanged at European Ports

container imbaance at Europe's leading ports
Hamburg container terminal (Michael Lindner photo courtesy of HHM)

Published May 4, 2021 3:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The anticipated box crunch at European ports following the closure of the Suez Canal at the end of March has been less severe than expected, according to Container xChange. The online container leasing and trading platform, however, reports that Europe’s exporters are struggling to find boxes due to the continuing imbalance as carriers' priorities empties.

“Europe’s top container terminals have been struggling to keep congestion at bay, with incoming boxes outweighing outgoing boxes for much of 2021. The closure of the Suez Canal appears to have made the box crunch at Europe’s hubs only slightly worse than it already was,” says Dr. Johannes Schlingmeier, CEO & Founder of Container xChange.

As an analysis of the market, Container xChange maintains the Container Availability Index (CAx), which monitors the availability of containers to help customers determine container repositioning and trading decisions.

The CAx readings have risen higher at Europe’s top container ports since the temporary blockage of the Suez Canal in March interrupted the flow of containers to Europe, but not beyond the levels of recent weeks. The average CAx reading of incoming 20-foot dry-containers across three of Europe’s biggest ports – Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg – climbed just three percent in the most recent weekly reading Container xChange reports. 

According to Container xChange, incoming box traffic has been heavy since March at all three ports. Europe’s leading box hubs are still receiving far more boxes than are departing. At Rotterdam, the increase in incoming 20 ft. dry containers was most stark, with box numbers rising 3.75 percent week-on-week. At Antwerp, the week-on-week increase was 3.5 percent, while at Hamburg it was 2.2 percent.

“What we’re hearing from our container leasing and trading members is that they find it increasingly difficult to book export containers with the carriers across Europe,” says Schlingmeier. “It seems shipping lines are prioritizing empty containers in order to move the boxes back to China as fast as possible.”

In Container xChange’s Container Availability Index (CAx) an index reading above 0.5 means more containers are entering the port than departing. The most recent data shows that imbalance with Hamburg recording a CAx reading of above 0.8 since week nine of this year and its index score now stands at 0.93, up from 0.48 at the beginning of 2021. Rotterdam’s CAx reading has also risen steadily in 2021, climbing from 0.65 at the beginning of the year to 0.74 in week 9 and now up to 0.83. Similarly, Antwerp started at 0.38 and is currently at 0.9.

In contrast, the situation at heavily-congested Felixstowe has been dire all year according to Container xChange. The hub’s lowest CAx was 0.87 in week 3 and is currently at 0.95.

The lack of strong movements in the index demonstrates according to Container xChange that while the ports saw an increase in volumes it was less than anticipated and continued the patterns that had already been in place in recent weeks.