2021 will be the first year in the history of container shipping when carrier profits approach $100 billion and average freight rates jump by 50%, UK-based shipping consultancy Drewry believes.
The profit surge is driven by huge operational disruptions as ports battle congestion and lack of equipment availability drives market prices.
Volumes are expected to continue to rise through the third quarter of 2021 peak season and to end the year with annual growth of approximately 10%. The growth is expected to continue next year, but probably only about half as strong as consumer spending is likely to move back towards services as COVID-19 related restrictions are lifted.
Drewry believes that the containership fleet is not growing fast enough to meet insatiable demand right now. A scarcity of open charter fixtures means that some lines are scouring the second-hand market for expensive new assets to add to the pile, but others can only supplement with newbuild deliveries, or are simply having to make do with what they have.
Due to cautious newbuild contracting of recent years, Drewry expects the cellular fleet to only increase by 4.2% this year and 2.8% in 2022, in both cases significantly below that of world port throughput projections.
Appetite for new tonnage has accelerated since the second half of 2020 and in less than six full months this year’s contracting activity is already close to the record 2.7 million TEU placed in 2007.
Drewry maintains the view that high levels of newbuild contracting for 2023 pose a risk of overcapacity returning to the market during that year, but future supply requirements are heavily clouded by new environment regulations due to become law at the start of 2023, that may or may not see significant chunks of the containership fleet slowdown in order to comply.
“The big change to our forecasts comes from our freight rate and profitability outlooks. Box shipping rates reached new highs in 2Q21 as spot rates continued to surge and contract pricing followed suit. At the moment it is hard to predict when prices will peak as worsening supply-chain disruption continues to stoke pricing on a weekly basis,” Drewry said.
“We are now getting accustomed to seeing triple-digit annual growth rates for spot rates on most lanes. That these instances are no longer shocking is further proof, if needed, that the market truly is crazy right now.”
Average freight rates (spot and contract) across global trades are expected to rise by around 50% in 2021, an uplift of as much as 30% on our March forecast, indicative of the acceleration in pricing seen already through 1H21.
The extreme increases in freight rates have naturally translated into blockbusting carrier profits, according to Drewry.
Carriers posted a record EBIT result in 1Q21 of $27.1 billion, up from what now looks a miniscule $1.6bn in same period one year ago. So impressive are the latest quarterly results, they even eclipsed the full-year 2020 EBIT of $25.4bn.
Drewry has made a major upgrade to our full-year 2021 industry EBIT outlook, forecasting approximately $80 billion for this year, up from the estimate of $35bn.
“If freight rates surpass expectations in the remainder of the year, we would not be surprised to see an annual profit line in the region of $100bn,” the consultancy added.
“For 2022, we expect EBIT to drop by a bit more than one-third due to softening freight rates and rising costs that may stay higher for longer with many carriers locking into expensive longer-term charter fixtures. Nonetheless, it would represent another astonishing performance by historical standards.”
Drewry is less optimistic about a solution being found to fix the supply chain disruption and thinks the market is facing medium-term or extended under-supply. Events at the South China port of Yantian (a Covid-19 outbreak in May hobbled operations for nearly a month, with knock-on congestion at nearby ports in Asia), and earlier in the Suez Canal, demonstrate just how fragile the container shipping eco-system is and how challenging it is to try and build in more resilience.
Supply-side disruption has become the key driver of freight rates and remains the top sensitivity to our forecasts. Drewry now thinks lower port productivity will continue into 2022.
Subsequently, Drewry expects the Global supply-demand index to average 105.7 in 2021, up 0.9 points on the previous assessment.
“Even if carriers do revert to type and the current newbuild craze ends the upcycle in 2023, they will have made so much money between 2020-22 that they will be set up for years to come. They could potentially make as much profit in this window as they could have hoped in a decade, or more,” the consultancy concluded.