The freight rate war currently taking place between Asia and Europe, and between Asia and the U.S., and the further addition of new ships, will force carriers to resort to more slow steaming.

Although slow steaming continues to be a contentious issue with shippers, more is on the way as fuel prices remain stubbornly high and ocean carriers can no longer absorb the bill due to the parlous nature of their finances.

Drewry believes that ocean carriers are losing money at present due to the freight rate war taking place in the east-west trades, and they are still confronted with surplus capacity. At the end of April, there were still another 31 ships over 10,000 TEUs due for delivery this year, and carriers are running out of places to hide unwanted 8,000-TEU vessels cascaded out of the Asia-Europe trade lane.

Cargo growth between Asia and the US is insufficient, as it is between Asia the East Coast South America, which means that either more vessels will have to be laid up, or further slow steaming introduced. The latter is the most logical, particularly as it was difficult to justify throughout most of last year due to freight rates being so high.

Slow steaming to escalate | Drewry Container Insight

But with east-west freight rates now plummeting to sub-economic levels again, ocean carriers can return to the view that ‘shippers get the service they pay for’ by further releasing pressure on their vessels’ accelerators. They have a wide margin to play with, as shown in the following tables of the three fastest and slowest services from Asia to Northern Europe, and from Asia to the West Coast North America.

The wide variance in speeds shown is difficult to explain, as ocean carriers do not appear to get much of a freight rate premium for faster service, although market feedback is mixed on this. Schedule optimization seems to be more important, taking into account the range of ports that need to be served at both ends. And, once a schedule has been decided, vessels cannot easily be added due to berthing window restrictions in most ports, which explains why there has been so little change over the past nine months.

According to Drewry’s Container Forecaster’s Slow Steaming Monitor, the average number of vessels deployed in services between Asia and North Europe only shifted from 10.4 in 2Q12 to 10.6 in 3Q12, to 10.5 in 4Q12 and 10.7 in 1Q13. The corresponding changes between North East Asia and the West Coast North America were 5.7, 5.7, 5.7 and 6.0.

Estimated overall vessel speeds remained more-or-less constant between September and March, although Drewry’s research shows that there were wide variances at individual schedule level, depending on the extent of port optimization required. The estimated overall westbound and eastbound averages between Asia and North Europe changed from 18.7k and 15.4k to 19k and 14.9k respectively. And between Asia and the WCNA, the eastbound and westbound averages changed from 19.8k and 15.2k to 19.3k and 14.7k.

For an average voyage between Asia and North Europe deploying 11 vessels running at 19k westbound and 15k eastbound, an extra vessel could be added by increasing westbound transit time by two days through a speed reduction of 1.5k, which would mean having to add five days on the way back through a speed reduction of 2k. It would make it difficult for Maersk Line to maintain ‘Daily Maersk’ with the same transit time guarantees, however.

The calculation is more difficult in the transpacific due to the much more variable transit times of existing services between north, central and southern Asia to north, central and southern WCNA ports, but, due to the much shorter distances involved, the time lost would be far less.




Our view

Further vessel reductions between Asia and Europe and between Asia and the U.S., should be expected soon. It will result in longer transit times, but schedule reliability should improve due to the greater opportunity for making up lost time.

Reprinted with permission from Drewry Maritime Research.