China’s decision to slow down its national export volumes as part of a two-month covid lockdown of Shanghai and its crucial ports and factories has given stressed out supply chains a chance to catch their breath from the lengthy container backups seen at transport hubs in recent months, according to analysis from logistics data vendor Project44.
However, other variables such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising inflation and interest rates, and a looming U.S. West Coast port worker contract negotiation could add new hurdles even as retailers begin to stock up inventory in preparation for the winter holiday peak, the company said.
So far, the recent pause in the flow of goods “has given carriers, ports, and other players in the supply chain the chance to catch up, speed up the delivery of cargoes, and reposition empty containers for when the manufacturing floodgates open again,” Chicago-based Project44 said in its “Ocean Carrier Report” for May, released on Thursday.
As part of that process, ocean freight carriers are trying to manage their fleets strategically to stop a sharp slide in freight rates, avoid congestion, and reduce vessel delays. “One of the factors prompting carriers to void services during the low season is the sharp decline in spot rates,” Project44 said. “Freight rates have been in freefall in the first four months of the year with a 40 ft container from Shanghai to Long Beach down 43% from $13,000 in January to $7,400 in April. The sharp decline in demand for containers in the spot market has been accompanied by a significant drop in vessel delays as carriers are able to turn vessels around faster.”
Specifically, port congestion and vessel delays have dropped by a 1% decline in lead times between China and the principal U.S. ports in April compared to the previous month. That decline was even steeper between China and the main ports in Europe and the United Kingdom, with an overall drop of 3.2% month-by-month in April.
However, disruption caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict is exerting pressure in the other direction, as some ports in the region as “still finding their feet,” and blank sailings in the next two months will continue to affect reliability into the region, Project44 said. In fact, some lead times have even risen, since many carriers that have “preferred to maintain the integrity of their service coverage” by not canceling port calls continued to experience some of the congestion delays that have built up at European ports.
Looking down the road, conditions may soon get even more complex, since China moved this week to ease its eight-week covid lockdown in Shanghai. That change follows another see-saw in international logistics, after the country’s extended “Chinese New Year” holiday period likewise slowed production and shipping in January.
Despite those pendulum swings in trade activity, the slowdowns have generally helped container flows from a U.S. perspective. “The inroads made into clearing congestion in U.S. ports has had a significant impact on vessel delays on the trade between China and the U.S. East and West Coasts and, in particular, the improvement in dwell times at Los Angeles and Long Beach has contributed to carriers being able to get delays moving in the right direction,” Project44 found.