China port congestion falls sharply, trans-Pacific shipping rates retreat



Trans-Pacific spot container rates have plateaued and in some cases pulled back, spurring speculation that container investors’ bull run has peaked and relief is on the way for U.S. importers.


The case for calling the top: Chinese container port congestion has dramatically declined over recent weeks, Chinese factories are being plagued by power outages that constrain export capacity, and U.S. consumer sentiment is faltering.


The counterargument: U.S. port congestion remains historically high, rates were only temporarily reduced by China’s Golden Week holiday, data on declining rates is ambiguous because different indexes give different numbers, and there is a huge inventory restocking mountain to climb even after consumer sales slow.


Congestion down in China, soaring in US

The big change on the congestion front is in China. As of Sept. 24, there were 153 container ships at anchor off the ports of Shanghai and Ningbo, according to data from Denmark-based eeSea. On Monday, eeSea data showed 81 container ships at anchor off the two ports, a decline of 47% in just two-and-a-half weeks. (As noted by Alphaliner, a number of the vessels still at anchor are not waiting to load; container ships heading into drydock anchor off Shanghai and Ningbo.)


One explanation is that the earlier congestion was linked to the passage of Typhoon Chanthu and was quickly resolved. Another possibility: Golden Week allowed terminals to catch up. A more bearish theory: Factory power outages are already affecting Chinese export flows.


Consultant Jon Monroe reported that his team in China now sees “very little delay — one to three days max.” He noted that Chinese ports “pretty much work around the clock” and “moving export containers is much faster and efficient than handling import containers.” Hence, China can clear backlogs quicker.


It’s a very different story in Los Angeles/Long Beach. Over the same period when Shanghai/Ningbo anchorage numbers declined 47%, Southern California anchorage numbers haven’t budged. There were 61 container ships at anchor or drifting on Monday, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. The count back on Sept. 24 was 62. (The record was set on Sept. 19, when 73 container ships were anchored or drifting off Los Angeles/Long Beach.)


The sharp reduction in congestion off Shanghai and Ningbo over the past 18 days implies that more ships have been loaded and more cargo is moving toward its final destination, including U.S. ports.


Different indexes, different rates

According to the Freightos Baltic Daily Index (FBX) — which does include premium surcharges in its calculations — Asia-West Coast spot rates were down to $13,025 per forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU) on Friday. While that’s 3.4 times last year’s rate, it’s 37% below the all-time high of $20,586 assessed by the FBX on Sept. 15. On Monday, the FBX Asia-West Coast index partially recovered, jumping 33%, to $17,377 per FEU.


The FBX put Friday’s Asia-East Coast rate at $19,392 per FEU, down 13% from the record high of $22,289 per FEU on Sept. 15. It also rose Monday, by 7% to $20,695 per FEU.