The race in the U.S. import trades is closing as inbound and outbound trade struggles to pick up steam.
Global ocean carriers handled more than 4.2 million 20-foot-equivalent units of U.S. containerized imports in the first quarter, and the separation between the Top 2 carriers in the trade came down to two fully laden mega-ships.
To say the four-year rivalry between those carriers — Denmark’s Maersk Line, the world’s largest ocean carrier by fleet capacity and global volumes, and world
No. 2 Mediterranean Shipping Co. — is tightening understates how close the two carriers are in the U.S. space race.
In the first quarter, the difference between MSC being the largest import, export and overall carrier in the U.S. trades came down to a mere 26,090 TEUs, the lead Maersk held on the head-haul import lane, according to data from PIERS, a JOC sister company.
The gap in the quarter tightened as Maersk, whose import volumes make up more than 60 percent of its overall U.S. volumes compared to MSC’s virtually evenly balanced import-export ratio, saw its first quarter U.S. import traffic slip 3.4 percent year-over-year while MSC’s volume increased 2.2 percent.
MSC topped the list of JOC Top 40 Container Carriers in the U.S. export trades with a 118,725-TEU margin over Maersk. In the process, the Geneva-based carrier overcame a 1.7 percent year-over-year decline in volume as Copenhagen-based Maersk registered a 9.2 percent decline.
Maersk’s total first quarter U.S. volume dropped 5.8 percent year-over-year to 733,794 TEUs, good for a 9.9 percent share of the market. Coupled with MSC’s flat volume year-over-year, the Swiss carrier widened its gap in overall U.S. trade to 92,635 TEUs while claiming an 11.2 percent share.
Overall U.S. trade rose 2.6 percent year-over-year to nearly 7.4 million TEUs during the first quarter, and was up 2.4 percent over 2008’s pre-recession first quarter. First quarter imports increased 3.7 percent year-over-year to 4.2 million TEUs and were 1.3 percent above 2008’s first quarter. Imports represented
56.9 percent of total U.S. trade in the first quarter, despite volume declining at 11 of the JOC Top 40 import carriers year-over-year, and 16 lagged their pre-recession 2008 results.
On the export side, the Obama administration has a long way to go to meet its National Export Initiative goal of doubling exports in the five years to 2014. To reach that mark — 21.7 million TEUs by the end of next year — the U.S. will have to make up a 9.2 million-TEU gap this year and next. Through 2012, containerized exports grew 15.7 percent, to 12.5 million TEUs, from the 2009 NEI baseline of 10.8 million TEUs, a far cry from the pace needed to get there.
And it’s going to be an even taller task following the first quarter’s paltry 1 percent growth year-over-year, a gain that brought growth to 31.9 percent since the pre-recession first quarter of 2008. Overall, export volume declined at 15 of the Top 40 export carriers.
As of June 3, research analyst Alphaliner calculated active liner capacity at 17.2 million TEUs aboard 5,934 ships, including 16.8 million TEUs on 4,957 fully cellular active ships. That represented a 1.3 percent increase since early April, with nine fewer ships in the fleet. The 10 largest fleet operators control 63.9 percent of the market with 11 million TEUs in capacity, 48.6 percent owned and 51.4 percent chartered. The Top 10 fleet operators have 147 ships on order, totaling nearly 1.7 million TEUs and representing 15.1 percent of their existing fleet capacity.
Top-ranked operator A.P. Moller-Maersk — which includes Maersk Line, Safmarine, MCC-Transport, Seago Line and Mercosul Line — held a 15 percent share of the global fleet, while No. 2 MSC had a 13.5 percent share. The A.P. Moller-Maersk orderbook, at 372,281 TEUs, represents 14.4 percent of its existing fleet, while MSC has 177,534 TEUs on order, or 7.6 percent of its current fleet, according to Alphaliner.