Life is becoming sweeter for container ship lines in general and Mediterranean Shipping Co. in particular.
After containerized shipments plummeted last year, nearly all carriers are handling increased volumes this year. U.S. containerized imports and exports rose a combined 12.3 percent in the first quarter — a partial reversal of the nearly 21 percent plunge in the first quarter of 2009 during the depths of the recession.
MSC led the way with a 26.3 percent jump in exports that pushed the Geneva-based carrier ahead of Maersk Line to become the highest-volume export carrier in the JOC’s list of Top 40 Container Lines. Maersk’s export volume rose 7.3 percent.
PDF: The JOC Top 40 Container Lines
The world’s largest container carrier, Maersk retained the top position in imports, with an 11.4 percent market share, down from 11.8 percent in the first quarter of 2009, while MSC’s import share stayed at 8.5 percent.
The percentages represent slices of a pie that is once again growing after shrinking last year. U.S. containerized imports fell 15 percent, while exports declined 8.5 percent in 2009, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, a sister company of The Journal of Commerce.
Volumes began to recover last fall as business credit began to loosen and companies were forced to rebuild inventories they had stripped down during the worst global recession since the 1930s.
The suddenness of the recovery surprised container carriers, which rushed to restore services and put idled ships back into operation. Containers have been in short supply or out of position to handle the double-digit jump in first quarter volume.
The year-to-year increases are inflated by the easy comparisons with the first quarter of 2009, when U.S. containerized imports fell more than 20.5 percent and imports tumbled 21.5 percent.
The only large carrier to post higher year-over-year import volume in the first quarter of 2009 was MSC, with an 8.9 percent increase. Most other carriers showed double-digit declines. Only two small Caribbean carriers on the JOC Top 40 had higher export growth during the first quarter of 2009.
Business improved markedly in this year’s first quarter. Twelve carriers on the JOC Top 40 list posted year-over-year increases of more than 25 percent in imports during the first quarter; nine ship lines had increases of more than 25 percent in exports.
The rebound in imports in the first quarter this year was aided by an uneven recovery in retail sales and by inventory restocking. In January 2009, inventories amounted to 1.48 months’ worth of sales. Government statistics released this month show an inventory-to-sales ratio of 1.14 for May, suggesting that any significant increase in sales will require restocking of inventories.
Changes in routes, schedules and vessel capacity contributed to MSC’s leapfrogging of Maersk in the export rankings and also for other shifts in import and export carrier rankings in the JOC’s Top 40 lists.
APL had solid year-over-year gains in its market share for imports, to 7.6 percent from 6.1 percent, and exports, to 6.4 percent from 5.1 percent. After aggressively idling ships in response to last year’s plunge in volume and rates, APL began to restore capacity early this year. APL ranked No. 3 in imports during this year’s first quarter, up from No. 6 in 2009’s first quarter, and was No. 4 in export volume, up from No. 5.
Evergreen Line’s reductions in capacity caused the Taiwan-based carrier’s market share to slip from 8.4 percent to 7.1 percent for imports and from 6.9 percent to 5.8 percent for exports.
MSC’s volumes were aided by the introduction of larger vessels and new services to Mexico, Panama, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. MSC’s first quarter exports of 333,750 TEUs this year was well ahead of Maersk’s 285,753 TEUs. Maersk remained the leader in imports, which typically command higher per-container rates, with 412,633 TEUs, compared with 310,078 for MSC.
Contact Joseph Bonney at email@example.com.