Since early May, shippers, forwarders/NVOs, ocean carriers and ports have experienced a return to capacity challenges, soaring spot freight rates, chronic port delays and a surge of traffic volumes.

Some shippers are having issues securing capacity at agreed contract rates. The Drewry World Container Index, a weighted average of spot rates on 8 East-West routes, had declined steadily from $3,964/40ft container in January to $2,705 in late April, as carrier networks appeared to settle down after the start of Red Sea attacks. But spot rates then surged 74% between late April and early June – and we know from shippers that many are asked to pay Peak Season Surcharges.

Drewry has previously identified 4 causal factors behind the recent problems:

Stagnant capacity
Very strong demand growth
Shipper behaviour
Operational disruption
Here is our latest independent assessment of these factors and their durations.

Stagnant capacity

Drewry data shows carriers have added many ships to their East-West services to compensate for the longer routes now used by nearly all the former Suez Canal-dependent carriers. On the Asia-North Europe route, according to Drewry Container Forecaster data, carriers have increased their number of ships 24% and their total capacity 17%.

However, this large addition of ships resulted in only a 2% increase in the monthly effective capacity per month, to 1.1 mteu, because these assets are now sailing over longer distances and are less productive than before the Red Sea attacks started.

On the Asia-East Coast of North America route, carriers increased their number of ships by 9% during the same period, but their monthly effective capacity increased by 0%.

This is a key factor behind the current tight capacity: about 1 million teu of ship capacity was delivered in the first four months of 2024, but this made zero difference to the monthly effective capacity provided to the market.

In our analysis of capacity problems, Drewry considers that the remaining capacity due to be delivered during 2024 will, finally, have an expansionary effect on effective capacity. It will not be a repeat of merely correcting the need for more ships after the Red Sea diversions.

Very strong demand growth

Although data for May is still limited, it is clear that transpacific volumes and volumes on several other routes are stronger than a year ago.

According to the National Retail Federation, US containerised imports in May were forecast to reach 2.1 mteu, an increase of 8% from the 1.9 mteu of May 2023.

We note that on May 22, during the pandemic, US imports totaled 2.4 mteu, so the May 24 figure is still 12% lower than during the previous troublesome volume peak.

Shipper behavior

A survey of Drewry Benchmarking Club members – a group of 100+ multinationals – found that a proportion of international shippers are shipping early this year. This precautionary policy, often intended to ensure that shipments arrive on time, may intentionally cause capacity issues and delays because the capacity and infrastructures are stressed.

In our market analysis, we consider an early peak season to be both a short-term change in the market and a signal that there will be a volume vacuum when the peak volumes have been completed.

Operational disruption

Port productivity has also taken a hit in recent months. The time spent by ships waiting before berthing at high-volume ports tracked by Drewry increased 43% between 3Q23 and 2Q24 – to over 400,000 hours. We heard that a major transhipment port in Asia is experiencing a density of shipping containers in their terminals close to the records of the pandemic. Port strikes on the US East and Gulf coasts could widen the operational disruptions

Therefore, the large-scale changes in liner networks and the relocation of much transhipment activity to new locations have still not normalised.

It is now clear that operational disruptions and lower port productivity are severely constraining supply. According to preliminary numbers from the Drewry Container Forecaster (2Q-24 Edition currently being finalised) – the supply-demand balance in the global container market has increased.

With all these moving pieces, Drewry is now considering the likely duration of the Red Sea diversions and the impact of port congestion on supply. Different scenarios must be considered, and some negative factors are expected to continue after the end of this year.

Of the 4 factors causing the current capacity and efficiency issues, only some look to last longer than a year. At the end of the peak season, the continuous delivery of new ships and re-opening of the Suez Canal route could help redress the current supply-demand problems.

Frankly, nobody can answer when normal shipping operations will resume (i.e., when the Suez Canal will be back in full-scale use) with any degree of confidence, but Drewry has tried to harness the collective wisdom of our customers, many of which are involved at the coal face, to at least formulate an educated guess and get a sense of the range of opinions.

The survey results are quite bleak, with less than 17% of the 90 respondents anticipating an end to Red Sea diversions before 2024 is out.

While 2H24 was the second most favoured option, it was a long way behind the clear favourite, 1H25, which garnered a clear majority of 60%. The third most popular choice was 2H25, with 14.4%, followed by 1H26, with 5.6%.Only 3% of respondents were so pessimistic that they couldn’t see an end to the situation before the end of 2026.

Responses to the ancillary question on how long it will take liner operations to normalise once the Red Sea diversions are over, suggests that things will not snap back into place neatly straight away. Most respondents (43%) opted for a 3-month normalisation period, followed by “longer than 3 months” at 27% and 2-months at 25%.

Our View

There is no consensus expectation that the Red Sea crisis will end this year, despite diplomatic talks concerning Gaza. Shippers should expect the continuation of long transit times and higher risks of transport and supply chain disruptions, plus continued capacity challenges in the short term.

Source: Hellenic Shipping News