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  June 9th, 2016 | Written by

Are East/West Trade Routes Recovering?

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  • Carriers in the Asia-to-North Europe route had full ships in the past few weeks.
  • Carriers are hoping this is the start of a sustained recovery for Asia-to-North Europe demand and rates.
  • The apparent bottoming out of the Russian economy is improving the trade outlook for this year.

Since the middle of April the picture for westbound trade from Asia to North Europe “has decidedly taken a turn for the better with many of the carriers reporting full ships.”

That, according to a recent report from Drewry, the London-based maritime consultancy, followed a period between mid-February and mid-April when headhaul volumes in that trade were perceived to have been quite soft.

“Nevertheless,” Drewry concluded, “it would be too premature to proclaim that the long-awaited recovery in the Asia-Europe trade is now well under way.”

Among counterarguments to the recovery theory is that the latest figures represent restocking after the post-Chinese New Year slack season. Another is that some retailers are calling forward some of their peak season shipments, which would normally move between July and September, thanks to the carriers’ slow-steaming policy. Low interest rates have taken the pressure off retailers to keep tight inventory levels; moving goods during the summer reduces the risk of delay during the usual peak holiday shipping season.

“Some British importers,” Drewry reported, “have brought in stock early fearing that a vote to leave the EU in the June referendum would immediately weaken the pound, making imports more expensive.” In the first quarter of 2016, UK imports grew by 4.6 percent, four times the trade average. Some retailers on the European continent have also fast-tracked imports in anticipation that Brexit could also put downward pressure on the euro.

On the other hand, an apparent bottoming out of the Russian economy is improving the trade outlook for this year. In 2015, imports into Russia dropped by 25 percent. In the first three months of this year volumes were the same as last year.

Capacity on the westbound leg of the Asia-North Europe trade fell by 8.2 percent in April as compared last year. The capacity of 867,000 TEU was 100,000 less than in July of last year.

After rates fell to lows of $300 per 40-foot container in mid-March, efforts by the shipping lines “to seek increases in the spot rate market at the start of May met with a fair degree of success,” Drewry noted, “even if it was followed by the customary slippage as the month progressed.”

Rates rose to over $1,300 per 40-foot container before dropping back to $850. “There is a clear intent on behalf of the carriers to push further forward with the rate recovery program in June,” Drewry concluded, “with declarations to seek increases averaging $1,000 in one or two stages during the month.”