Asia–Europe trade records first volume growth of 2020

Asia–Europe trade records first volume growth of 2020

Volume data show that global container demand by July had fully recovered to the level seen in 2019. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Asia–Europe container volume in July recorded its first month of year-over-year growth since October 2019, rising almost 2 percent, according to the latest data from Container Trades Statistics (CTS).

The demand on the trade lane has been improving steadily since the COVID-19 lockdowns of April and May, and the 1.9 percent growth in July took volume to 1.52 million TEU.

There was also an improvement on a global scale in July, when the volume was virtually unchanged compared with the same month last year, with the 14.8 million TEU down by a marginal 0.1 percent, or just 20,000 TEU.

This has confounded industry analysts that are trying to make sense of the demand from economies battered by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and mostly in recession.

“Seen in the light of the continued macro-economic malaise in the wake of the pandemic, it is clear that we are now witnessing a sharp disconnect between overall global economic developments, and the development in container demand,” noted Sea-Intelligence Maritime Analysis in its Sunday Spotlight newsletter. “The normal link between macroeconomics and container trade has been well and thoroughly broken.” 

The analyst said the only reasonable conclusion to draw was that in the month of July, global container demand had fully recovered to the level seen in 2019. 

“Overall consumption is in decline due to the recession — but for now, this is counteracted by people shifting consumption from services into physical goods. Once given the opportunity, it appears highly likely that the spending will revert back to services, when bars, restaurants, travel, events, etc. re-open for business,” Sea-Intelligence explained.

Demand on the rise

While the volume data is for July — regulatory compliance requires a month lag in the CTS numbers — rising spot rates on the main east-west trades show that demand growth has continued.

On the trans-Pacific, the import surge from July and August has continued into September despite carriers adding capacity in the eastbound trans-Pacific with extra-loader vessels. The West Coast spot rate increased 3.3 percent to $3,758 per FEU. That is up 140 percent from $1,566 per FEU in September 2019. The East Coast spot rate jumped 7.9 percent to $4,538 per FEU. That is up 72.5 percent from last year, according to the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI), which is published in the JOC Shipping & Logistics Pricing Hub.

On the Asia–North Europe trade, the SCFI data show rates up almost 47 percent year over year to $1,042 per TEU, and up 23 percent on Asia–Mediterranean routes to $1,082 per TEU.

“These are indeed extraordinary times, for the world as such and for liner shipping in particular,” Peter Sand, BIMCO chief shipping analyst, told JOC.com.

Although rates have been rising on Asia–Europe, Sand said the trade has lagged behind the trans-Pacific, where rates have been rising strongly since May. 

“Europe is different in the sense that it’s the trade with bigger ships — you need more tailwind to lift rates when ships are still not fully utilized,” Sand explained. “Now we see capacity scaling up for some of the alliances, bringing in 18,000-plus TEU ships where 14,000 TEU used to work. This September could be the peak, as Golden Week is bound to make the markets turn.”

Contact Greg Knowler at greg.knowler@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.