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Container shipping: Cargo supply and demand conundrum

Volumes are recovering in China, but will there be any consumer interest in the merchandise that will soon be arriving on European and US shores?

China’s containerised exports are showing signs of returning to normal, but with many destination countries going into lockdown there is growing concern about whether road and rail networks and distribution chains will be able to cope with inbound cargo

WITH exports out of China returning to normal, and ships that had been temporarily idled coming back into service, it is tempting to conclude that the worst may soon be over for container shipping after a rough start to the year.

But what happens when these fully-laden vessels start arriving in North America and Europe, where the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is still at an early stage? Already, the economic consequences are severe as country after country goes into lockdown.

So there is real concern in industry circles about whether ports and landside transport networks will be able to cope with this cargo surge.

And perhaps just as importantly, will there be much demand for the merchandise on board these vessels, typically fashion items, electronic goods, furniture, and other household products, as consumers stay away from shopping malls and retail outlets? The same goes for components and semi-manufactures as factory production is scaled back in the west.

So the first question is whether much of what is now being shipped from China will just end up in warehouses, as consumer spending falls away.

Then there is the question of whether there will be sufficient numbers of dockworkers, truck and train drivers, and other personnel needed to keep supply chains functioning.

So far, ports appear to be working normally in Europe and the US, but already there is anecdotal evidence of truck driver shortages in some places, such as France. And although the various restrictions on travel do not apply to cargo, there are reports of huge traffic jams as frontiers are closed across much of Europe, creating serious disruption and delays for the logistics industry.

This was underlined by Hapag-Lloyd chief executive Rolf Habben Jansen, who acknowledged that cross-border trucking delays in Europe are likely to have an impact on the supply chain.

The first hard evidence of what will happen when these heavily-laden ships that will soon be heading out of China arrive at their destination ports is likely to be seen in Los Angeles and Long Beach first.

With shorter voyage times from Asia to the US than between Asia and Europe, the two southern Californian ports should soon start to receive the more ships as factories in China return to full production.

So far, both are working normally, but with Californians under a ‘stay-at-home’ order, will there be sufficient numbers of longshore workers to handle the ships, will there be enough trucks to deliver freight to distribution centres within a 200-mile radius, or railfreight capacity to take cargo to midwest destinations?

In Europe, similar issues apply, but with some local differences as shortsea shipping plays a major role.

With many passenger ferry services suspended, that will also affect ro-ro freight traffic, on which many countries rely heavily, particularly in Scandinavia.

Will fully cellular feederships be able to provide enough capacity to compensate for fewer freight ferries?

The crisis may, hopefully, be coming to an end in China, but it is only just beginning in Europe and North America.

The recovery in volumes out of Asia will be welcome for ocean carriers, but it is the lack of demand on the other side of the world that may prove to be a much bigger problem for the container shipping industry in the long run.

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