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Shippers navigate a troubled market

If you read the international shipping media during the final quarter of 2022, you would be forgiven for thinking that it’s “Game Over” for international trade. 

As the year closed, most commentators were forecasting a return to barely profitable shipping rates, and contemplating the prospect of 2023 bringing new capacity to what had suddenly become an oversupplied market. 

On top of that, regulators around the world are discussing the possible end of the much-cherished antitrust immunities for the shipping consortia. Additionally, the first mandatory global fuel efficiency requirements for existing ships will take effect this year. 

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In December 2022, the industry’s flagship digital trade platform, Tradelens announced it was ceasing operations by the end of March 2023. 

The decline in global economic activity following the interest rate hikes by central banks caused the collapse of spot rates. That, plus rocketing energy prices triggered by the war in Ukraine, has now reversed the equally unexpected spike in demand for consumer goods during 2020 and 2021. US imports returned to their pre-COVID levels in January 2023. 

Carriers thrived, as the nine global container shipping lines that dominate the sector will have reported aggregate profits approaching $500 billion over 2021 and 2022. 

Yet, 2021-2022 was a period when the predictability of ship arrivals, and the availability of goods to importers, dropped to historic lows. Global shippers were paying top dollar for worst-ever service levels.

To secure some level of commitment, many importers and exporters were persuaded by carriers to switch more of their container volumes to a contracted basis. Abetted by industry commentators confidently forecasting that record high rates were here to stay, many shippers locked-in at contract prices prevailing in the first quarter of 2022.

shipping-containers

But as the era of Quantitative Easing gave way to interest rate hikes, spot shipping rates tracked consumer demand downwards from mid-year, leaving many shippers regretting their decision. Shipping lines have continued to make money, but are now dialling down their outlooks for 2023.

Many shippers have been scarred by these experiences. It is likely that the only metric to fall faster than the spot rate benchmarks has been the levels of customer satisfaction in the industry. This is leaving a legacy of doubt and mistrust that could haunt relationships for years, and it could not come at a worse time for carriers. 

Aside from the generally accepted doctrine that business is better if your customers respect what you do, there are four transformational developments that will play out during 2023. So far, the shipping industry has already started looking for the support and cooperation of its customer base in these four categories.

Decarbonisation

Shipping is significantly lagging behind every other industrial sector in its commitment to the Paris Agreement goals of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The costs will be enormous, and persuading customers to carry their share will be a crucial factor in whether ships operating with novel fuels receive the patronage they deserve. 

Things have not gotten off to a good start with the proposal to impose a global carbon tax on marine fuels. Most shippers assume it will just be passed on to them in higher rates and surcharges. 

The shipping industry urgently needs to set out its decarbonisation plan. They need to answer the question of which fuels will be used on which routes, and over what timescales, before attaching an arbitrary and up-front price for its customers.

Digitalisation

2022 was a turning point in the digitalisation of international trade, with the introduction of the Electronic Trade Documents Bill being introduced in the UK Parliament. This is set to give legal recognition to electronic Bills of Lading in English law, the basis of most international trade contracts. 

Getting customers and shipping lines to use prototype digital systems has, however, proved challenging. The demise of the pioneering Tradelens project, led by Maersk and IBM, was an unexpected set-back for digital advocates. 

A lack of trust between the parties seems to have impeded wider adoption. Additionally, a reset of the digital relationship between platform providers and users is urgently needed to help reignite the drive to full digitalisation.

Shipping Tips for Importers

Disruption

Regardless of the successes or failures of the shipping industry during COVID-19, it was evident that global supply chains were unable to withstand the shocks they endured. It would have been unreasonable to expect zero disruption, but the belief that it will never happen again is equally unjustified. 

The global trading community needs to be better prepared for the “Next Time”, when the uncertainty of supply exceeds the scale of consumer demand. Carriers want more volume on contract to give better visibility, but they should first reflect on shippers’ experiences in 2022.

Digitalisation will help, as will greater awareness of supply chain vulnerability in the boardroom. Ultimately, a deeper working relationship between shippers and shipping lines will be a prerequisite for the success of the many resilience plans that are now being formulated around the world.

Diversification 

Shipping lines may stumble into this new paradigm through accident. Many are using their windfall profits to augment their range of services to include inland logistics, warehousing and sortation facilities, and “final mile” deliveries. 

Some have even purchased airlines or acquired cargo aircraft. If these “full logistics offerings” are to succeed, there will need to be a greater degree of risk sharing between shipper and carrier than the zero-sum game that is the current standard. 

Providing a door-to-door service, which shipping lines claim they want to do, means saying to your customers “You won’t hear from us other than when your goods have been collected and when they have been delivered … at the agreed times and the contracted price – no excuses, no surcharges”. After shippers’ collective experiences over the past three years Global Shippers Forum says good luck to that in 2023!

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