Oakland, CA / July 11, 2012 – U.S. agriculture exporters now have a new tool to track container equipment availability at key locations nationwide, to assist them in planning their shipments to Asia.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released its first Ocean Shipping Container Availability Report (OSCAR), utilizing data provided by 10 major global container lines in the Westbound Transpacific Stabilization Agreement (WTSA). Going forward, OSCAR will provide freight shippers with a weekly snapshot of current equipment availability at 18 inland intermodal load points, in the form of aggregate net surplus or deficit totals for the participating carriers. It will also forecast likely availability at each location two weeks out, based on advance carrier bookings. The report is now available on USDA’s website, at http://www.ams.usda.gov/oscar.
“OSCAR represents a model industry-government collaboration, bringing added transparency to the export supply chain,” said WTSA executive administrator Brian M. Conrad. “Putting the right data collection and reporting processes in place has required persistence and hard work by both ocean carriers and USDA, and WTSA lines appreciate the critical leadership role USDA has played in launching this valuable pilot project.” Tracking and managing container equipment has been an ongoing operational challenge in heavily imbalanced trade lanes such as the transpacific, Conrad noted. U.S. agricultural exporters, with their specialized geographic and commodity characteristics, have been among the most severely impacted.
The joint USDA/WTSA pilot project is an outgrowth of discussions begun in 2010, amid severe space equipment shortages in the transpacific trade as Asia-U.S. import demand suddenly spiked, and ships idled in the global downturn returned to service. Most Asian container production capacity had closed down by that point, leaving carriers scrambling to locate and deploy scarce container equipment, and to quickly reposition empty containers back to Asia once they had been unloaded. This often left U.S. exporters short of vessel space and equipment to get their products to market, even as export demand in Asia was strengthening.
Agriculture exporters face particular equipment challenges in the U.S.-Asia freight market, where they account for about 20% of total waterborne shipments. Many products are perishable, with short lead times to market; shippers need equipment in rural areas far from where import containers are unloaded and stored; heavier agricultural cargoes generate demand for more equipment because containers reach their weight limits before they are fully loaded; a historic 2-to-1 ratio of higher-value import traffic versus return export loads forces export shippers to compete for vessel space with empty containers being repositioned to Asia. Finally, shippers of farm products are dependent on specialized refrigerated and temperature-controlled equipment that are not widely used from Asia to the U.S.
Conrad emphasized that OSCAR is not intended to create an exchange where specific, named carriers advertise surplus containers in a particular location and are put in touch with customers. Individual carrier data is collected by WTSA and submitted in aggregate to USDA, anonymously, for posting in weekly reports. “The main purpose behind OSCAR is to provide visibility into how equipment flows tradewide on a week-to-week and seasonal basis, so that exporters are able to work with their carriers to access containers in the most efficient way possible.”
In its current form the report strikes an important balance, identifying areas in the U.S. where potentially surplus equipment accumulates throughout the year but also retaining an accurate, real-world understanding of what the container surplus and deficit data actually represent.
“Surplus or deficit data attributed to a specific carrier can easily be misinterpreted,” Conrad explained. “Surplus containers on a given day might be pre-allocated to other customers or trades; a deficit in the same location might simply reflect priorities based on a carrier’s cargo mix, customer base or inland terminal arrangements. There are many underlying factors affecting a carrier’s equipment situation from week to week, and we wanted to ensure that these would not compromise the report’s value as a planning and reference tool.”
WTSA is a voluntary discussion and research forum of ocean and intermodal container shipping lines serving the trade from ports and inland points in the U.S. to destinations throughout Asia. More information about WTSA can be found at www.wtsacarriers.org.