Empties Inflating Asian Port Stats?

Asian port throughput figures these days need to be taken with even more than the usual grain of salt. One well-placed source last week said, and another confirmed, that a number of Asian ports are artificially inflating their numbers by luring container lines to unload and store at their facilities large numbers empties at exceptionally low rates.

Since Asian ports generally report their container numbers as an aggregate of all moves -- empties, domestic, laden, transshipments - in other words, anything that hits the gantry crane -- such large scale empty moves will inflate the port's numbers. And that appears to be the general idea as some Asian ports, highly competitive when it comes to port rankings, grow distressed at the hits their numbers have taken as trade has tanked this year.

Empty containers, which exist in large numbers due to the slowdown and need a place to be stored, are a tempting target.

Due to freight rate weakness in east-west trade lanes, terminals are already under pressure from their carrier customers to lower their fees and offering good deals on empty moves and storage is a convenient way to help the carrier in hard times. The degree of number inflation due to empty moves is hard to estimate, but it's fair to say that with trade down and empties up, the mix of containers at Asian ports will be heavily skewed towards empties this year. This makes analyzing Asian port figures even more difficult than normal, because aggregate numbers are far from apple-to-apple.

Singapore's longtime No. 1 ranking among container ports is based on its huge transshipment volume, while the moves at No. 4 Shenzhen are overwhelmingly from the hinterland to export markets. No. 2 Shanghai is a mix of hinterland throughput and transshipment from the Yangtze River.

Contact Peter Tirschwell at ptirschwell@joc.com.

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