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  November 8th, 2016 | Written by

U.S. Elections: Bad News for Container Trades No Matter Who Wins

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  • Drewry: U.S. container business is likely to suffer.
  • Container carriers and port operators continue to invest in upsizing and expansions.
  • Some U.S. container trades have shown health recently.

As a bitter and bizarre presidential election fight in the United States draws to a close, the maritime consultancy Drewry says that no matter who wins, “international trade relations are destined to sour.”

With that, Drewry concluded, the container business is likely to suffer as well.

But container carriers and port operators continue to invest in upsizing and expansions—and, to be fair, some U.S. trades have shown healthy numbers recently—meaning, they will get hit by a cruel reality if Drewry’s prognostications come to fruition. The container carrriers, especially, have suffered from extremely low freight rates over the last two years.

Both presidential candidates have voiced skipticism over international trade, with Republican Donald Trump saying he would tear up existing trade agreements, and Democrat Hillary Clinton saying she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is currently awaiting U.S. congressional approval. Trump has also proposed imposing tariffs on U.S. imports, which could set in motion retaliatory tariffs from other nations on imports of U.S. goods, all of which would be harmful to the U.S. container trade.

But it’s clear that we’re not there yet. Westbound Mediterranean-to-North America traffic rose by 10.2 percent month-on-month in August, with growth almost entirely attributable to a 9,000-TEU increase in U.S. imports. Year-on-year growth is an impressive 11.7 percent. The favorable dollar-to-euro exchange rate supported this growth with Mediterranean exports appearing more financially attractive.

Eastbound North American-to-Mediterranean traffic also recorded gains but not to the same extent as the westbound trade, rising by 9.8 percent to 56,000 TEU in August. However, this is a drop of 6.8 percent year over year, reflecting the flip side of dollar-to-euro exchange rate. (The euro has been on an upward track since August which may turn the trade back in favour of the eastbound services.)

Capacity on the westbound service continues to climb, up 1.8 percent month over month and 20.8 percent year over year. Mediterranean Shipping Company is upsizing ships on its U.S. West Coast-Mediterranean service, connecting through the Panama Canal, replacing 4,000-5,000 TEU vessels with 9,000 TEU and bigger neopanamax ships.

Eastbound services are also experiencing capacity growth with an additional 3,065 TEU entering into service in September, a rise of 1.9 percent month over month and 20.1 percent year over year. While no change is expected until operations begin in April 2017, U.S. regulatory approval of the OCEAN Alliance could shake up capacity on this trade in the near future. According to the agreement filed with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), members plan to kick off the alliance with 175 container ships of between 4,200 and 18,000 TEU in the U.S. trades.

Climbing traffic and capacity in August led to an uptick in utilization to 70 percent. Freight rates climbed on that news in August, but those gains were reversed in September.

U.S. container terminals are betting on see strength in this trade. MOL’s TraPac confirmed an agreement with Port of Oakland to double its marine terminal size at the port.

MSC is in talks to take over Hanjin Shipping’s 54 percent stake in Long Beach’s Total Terminal at Pier T. MSC already controls 46 percent of the terminal. Expansions are also taking place at the Mediterranean end of this trade.

The bottom line is that if Drewry is right that the U.S.-related container trades are destined for a downslide post-election, carriers and port operators alike are in for even tougher times in the years ahead.