Along the way to becoming the largest container carrier serving the United States, Mediterranean Shipping has struck an almost perfect balance of imports and exports. MSC, which last year become the largest carrier in the U.S. export trade, overtook Maersk Line in total volume into and out of the U.S. in the first nine months of this year, on the backs of an 18.9 percent jump in exports and a 12.8 percent surge in imports, according to The Journal of Commerce’s ranking of Top Import and Export Container Carriers.
In so doing, MSC attained a Holy Grail of sorts in the U.S. maritime trades: Imports outperformed exports by a mere 1.3 percentage point, giving the Geneva-based carrier near equilibrium for its incoming and outgoing vessels. By contrast, Maersk, the world’s largest carrier, handled some 50 percent more imports than exports, with its volume falling 4 percent inbound and inching up 1.7 percent outbound.
Overall, although the U.S. container trade is said to be in recovery, it still has work to do to match pre-recession levels. Year-to-date growth of 5.1 percent was led by an 8 percent spike in exports and 3.2 percent growth in imports. But total volume lagged the levels of three years ago by 1.1 percent, or more than 250,000 TEUs.
The market struggle is evident in the carriers that have come and gone since 2010, when the market staged a mini-boom. Two start-ups entered the U.S. trade that year — the Containership Company and Hainan P.O. Shipping — and two others, Grand China Shipping and TS Lines, expanded their services. TCC and Grand China have since withdrawn from the trade. Further, two U.S.-flag carriers also encountered rough seas: Horizon last month withdrew its trans-Pacific China service and Trailer Bridge filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The JOC Top 5 Export and the JOC Top 5 Import Container Lines carried nearly 40 percent of the 22.1 million 20-foot equivalent units of overall U.S. container trade in the period. Overall volume for the Top 5 was up 2.9 percent year-over-year, with exports rising 8.9 percent and imports off 1.3 percent.
Led by MSC, the JOC Top 5 Export Container Lines controlled 40.7 percent of the export trade, which rose 8 percent year-over-year to 9.3 million TEUs. Individual carrier performance varied widely, however, from a 109.7 percent gain at No. 27 Matson Navigation to a 21.7 percent decline at 38th-ranked Pacific International Lines. For all the talk about exports’ seeming return to stability this year, only 14 carriers among the JOC Top 40 actually increased their export volume year-to-date from pre-recession 2008 results.
The JOC Top 5 Import Container Lines slipped 1.3 percent in year-over-year volume, but held a 39.3 percent share of the total 12.8 million TEUs that moved in the first nine months. Although overall imports increased 3.2 percent year-over-year, individual results again showed dramatic swings. No. 25 Horizon Lines more than tripled its volume in the period year-over-year, though that will certainly change dramatically by the end of the year with the carrier’s retreat from Asia. No. 14 China Shipping showed the largest decline in the period, dropping 26.4 percent. Only MSC, Horizon and 16 other carriers in the Top 40 increased their import volumes in the period compared to pre-recession 2008 levels.
The big story going forward, of course, is how carriers will manage the armada of new vessels scheduled for delivery in the coming year. That capacity already is climbing, according to Alphaliner. As of Dec. 5, the research analyst calculates active liner trade capacity of 15.84 million TEUs aboard 5,991 ships. That represents a 1.2 percent increase, or 184,469 TEUs, on 21 more ships since the beginning of September.
Alphaliner’s top 10 container fleet operators control more than 9.9 million TEUs in capacity, good for a 62.5 percent share of the market. These 10 operators also have 266 ships on order totaling nearly 2.6 million TEUs, representing 26.2 percent of their existing fleet capacity. The Maersk and MSC fleets are set to increase 21.1 percent and 24.2 percent, respectively.
Contact Marsha Salisbury at firstname.lastname@example.org.