Carriers boxed in by too much surplus – and costly – equipment


Ocean carriers are ramping-up efforts to off-hire surplus leased containers or retire their ageing boxes to reduce huge storage costs.

With the global downturn in demand, and a collapse in freight rates across many tradelanes, carriers are laser-focused on cutting costs, and storing surplus containers is a significant drain on profitability.

There is substantial oversupply from a global pool of some 55 million teu of equipment, with thousands of surplus boxes laying idle in depots around the world.

In August, container leasing companies, which supply around half the equipment used by shipping lines, were optimistic in their outlooks, reporting a slowdown in the return of boxes, but with a ‘no-show peak season’ triggering slumps in demand and freight rates in September, the green shoots of a recovery were flattened.

However, the problem for carriers hobbled by daily hire and storage costs of too much equipment, is that a high percentage of their container fleets are subject to long-lease agreements, meaning they will have to pay penalties for early returns.

Moreover, the second-hand container market is extremely poor, with prices said to be at record lows. Indeed, a Suffolk-based container storage executive told The Loadstar today carriers “all have tonnes of equipment across Europe”.

She added: “UK pricing is holding up a bit better than in places like Hamburg, Antwerp and Rotterdam, as the surplus isn’t quite so bad. A 20ft retirement unit would be around $1,000 and a 40ft HC probably $1,350, on average.”

Meanwhile, Drewry reported that the manufacture of new containers this year was expected to be the lowest since 2010, when, following the global financial crisis, just 450,000 teu was produced.

And Drewry added that the sector was also still dealing with the oversupply of containers that had built up during the pandemic.

With so much equipment stranded at congested terminals or in extended use on delayed vessels, carriers had rushed to order more containers, driven by inflated freight rates and the ability to charge premium fees to guarantee a supply of boxes to protect their supply chains.

“While 2023 will not see production plunge to that level, output this year is only expected to be in the 1.3m to 1.5m teu range, down from 3.8m teu in 2022 and 7.1m teu in 2021,” said Drewry’s senior analyst, container equipment research, John Fossey.

Nevertheless, he added, the manufacture of special equipment, like flat-rack containers and open-top boxes, had “bucked the trend”, with demand “relatively strong”.

Mr Fossey explained: “Partly, this is related to owners ordering fewer of these types of containers during the pandemic, when the focus was on buying 40ft high-cube equipment. In addition, a growing number of ageing open-tops and flat-racks need to be replaced, and demand to move breakbulk and project modules by container is growing, particularly for cargo associated with the renewables energy industries.”


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