In the wake of the massive rate hikes and record profitability for ocean carriers in 2021-2022, the container shipping industry has returned to pre-pandemic/historical profitability levels. Accompanying that is mounting uncertainty about growth in volumes from one of carriers' biggest and most profitable — at least recently — trade lanes: the Asia-to-North America trade. Despite this down cycle, the COVID-era bonanza in profits provides carriers with a degree of insulation from lower rates and rapidly declining earnings. Where carriers are more exposed is in steadily rising operating and capital costs. The reduction in effective capacity through the drought-plagued Panama Canal will last well into 2024, forcing new routing and deployment considerations. Facing an inflationary environment that is dampening demand, carriers ultimately will have to reduce capacity. For now, that’s come through more aggressive blanking of sailings, much to the chagrin of shippers and forwarders alike. At the same time, maritime regulators are becoming more aggressive, with the Federal Maritime Commission's new mandate from Congress and the sunsetting of Europe’s block exemption. That’s forcing carriers to reconsider the risk exposure of vessel-sharing agreements and their networks. Europe’s new emission trading system is giving carriers a taste of the higher costs tied to decarbonization that they’ll need to pass through to customers. More generally, shippers remain reluctant to embrace more expensive green shipping services, even as carriers invest billions of dollars for ships that will be able to run on cleaner fuels. While it may be a familiar down cycle of overcapacity, new geopolitical and regulatory challenges, coupled with a dimming global economic outlook, promise something entirely new.
This session, an annual TPM focal point, will take stock of the trans-Pacific trade and cast an eye to what is shaping up to be an uncertain and angst-filled 2024. In the process, it will answer the following questions:
• How big a drag is the down cycle on carrier profitability?
• What is the supply-demand outlook for 2024 and 2025?
• How are major external and internal forces reshaping networks?
• How are carriers managing decarbonization investment risks?