Some container vessels have been sailing from Asia to Europe under-utilised in recent weeks due to an acute shortage of empty boxes.
All carriers report severe shortages of the popular 40ft high-cubes (HCs) at their depots, and there has also been a run on 40ft standard boxes – even 20ft containers are sometimes showing as unavailable.
The latest container availability index report from Container xChange shows availability across China “still at a record low”.
Forwarders have had to scramble for boxes due to the more lucrative transpacific trade securing the biggest share. However, big spikes in spot rates from Asia to Europe in recent weeks seem to have levelled the playing field on competition for boxes between the two tradelanes.
To mitigate the serious equipment imbalance, ocean carriers have adopted an aggressive strategy for European and US exports, temporarily suspending bookings, preferring to fill backhaul ships with as much empty equipment as possible.
To deter all but the most valuable cargo, European exporters to Asia are being asked to pay in excess of $5,000 per 40ft to secure a December shipment, with many carriers also refusing to accept export bookings until mid-January.
Meanwhile, the empty equipment so desperately needed back in Asia is scattered around depots across Europe, particularly in the UK, where embattled ports have been forced to limit the restoration of containers back onto already overcrowded terminals.
And despite technological advances, containers are sill spending a surprisingly long time empty at depots, incurring storage costs and not earning revenue — a global average of 45 days, but closer to 63 days in regions with low container availability.