MARITIME | Shippers facing container shortage

By Robert Wright, Transport Correspondent | FINANCIAL TIMES

Container shipping demand is rebounding so fast that there might be too few containers available for Asia’s exporters during the coming busy season, several container shipping lines have warned.

Denmark’s Maersk Line, the market leader, Hong Kong’s OOCL, one of the most admired operators, and another significant line have all said soaring growth – running at about 23 per cent year-on-year in Asia-Europe trade – has wrong-footed them.

Partly because they had expected only single-digit growth, none has ordered enough containers to cope with this year’s peak season, which traditionally runs from June to October. The peak is a result of shops’ stocking up ahead of northern hemisphere summer holidays and the run-up to Christmas.

The surprise rebound comes after a worldwide container trade slump of about 10 per cent in 2009, making it the worst year in the industry’s 54-year history.

Lars Reno Jakobsen, Maersk Line’s head of Network and Product, said neither the line nor its customers had anticipated the unprecedented surge in demand in most trades. The market had been expecting only single-digit growth just six months ago.

“We already see a very tight equipment situation,” he said. “We expect an even more pronounced and serious shortage of containers in the coming months as we enter the peak season.”

Maersk Line, part of the AP Møller-Maersk Group, had ordered new containers and was leasing others, Mr Jakobsen said. It had also reactivated previously laid-up ships – including a series of super-fast ships moored on Loch Striven in Scotland – to rush empty containers from consuming areas back to Asia.

CL Ting, managing director of corporate planning for OOCL, said the problems had been exacerbated by labour shortages in Chinese container factories and the slowing down of most ships in the past two years to save fuel.

Exporters from Asia might find lines turning goods away because of equipment shortages, he warned.

“Equipment shortage certainly will have an impact on booking acceptance in the months ahead, should trade volume stay strong,” Mr Ting said.

Another carrier, which asked not to be named, said customers were being encouraged to return empty carriers as soon as possible.

“If this is not done effectively then there will definitely be major market shortages of equipment in August and September, resulting in vessels sailing under-utilised,” it said.

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