Tuesday, February 24, 2009

392 Container Ships Sitting Idle in Ports

392 Container Ships Sitting Idle in Ports
(Cargonews Asia)

The number of empty container ships worldwide has climbed to a record high. A total of 392 vessels are currently sitting idly in ports, up from 210 at the beginning of last month. The unused cargo space is equivalent to about 1.1 million standard units (TEU) of empty containers, or 8.8% of the total world capacity, the Straits Times reported. This figure surpasses the previous high of five percent set in 1986, the year United States Lines went bankrupt.

According to media reports, demand would have to grow at an average of 15% over the next three years 'just to restore equilibrium' by early 2013. A 10% figure, however, was more realistic, pushing recovery to 2014.

Hobbled by a combination of an oversupply of ships and a dwindling demand for goods, the shipping industry is facing one of its most challenging times. Shipping lines have responded by sharply cutting capacity to reduce costs and push freight rates back up.

APL, a unit of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), said yesterday it would raise its rates on the Asia-Europe route by US$250 per container from April1. That followed similar moves by other shipping lines. Detlev Kerber, APL's vice-president for the Asia-Europe trade, said: "Freight rates in this trade have been falling drastically for more than a year. In many cases, not even variable transportation costs are covered by current freight rates. … Our intention is to restore freight rates in the Asia-Europe trade to a sustainable level."

Shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk laid up eight ships in December and issued a profit warning ahead of its results announcement next month.

NOL, meanwhile, has acted to cut $200 million in costs by laying up 15 ships and chartering another six, a response in part to its fourth-quarter net loss of $149 million. NOL chief executive Ron Widdows said the year would be challenging, and 2010 would likely be weak as well. He anticipates that the company will report losses this year.

World trade has taken a beating as the United States and Europe battle major recessions. The important Asia-Europe trade route has virtually collapsed, and the world's major ports are seeing traffic slow dramatically. Container traffic through Singapore ports shrank 19.6% in January, following a 14% decline in December, as Singapore's exports tumbled a record 35% last month. Smilarly, container traffic through Hong Kong's port slumped 23% last month.

The World Bank has predicted that world trade will shrink 2.1% this year – the first decline since 1982.

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