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What China COVID spike means for shipping

Home News What China COVID spike means for shipping

What China COVID spike, massive lockdowns mean to shipping

Will China handle this outbreak differently and keep export cargo flowing?

COVID is not done with shipping yet. China is suffering its worst outbreak since the pandemic began. Shenzhen (population: 17.5 million) went into lockdown Sunday, closing factories. Cases have surged in Shanghai, where new restrictions are in place.

Shanghai is the site of the world’s largest port, Shenzhen the third largest. When an outbreak hit the Yantian terminal in Shenzhen last June, twice as many vessels were delayed as in the Ever Given accident in the Suez Canal.

How the new outbreak affects trans-Pacific container shipping depends on whether ports close along with factories, and if so, for how long, said George Griffiths, managing editor of global container freight at S&P Global Commodity Insights.

The worst-case scenario was described by Container xChange as “a major shockwave to an already crippled supply chain.” Bjorn Vang Jensen, vice president of Sea-Intelligence, warned in an online post that if Yantian closes, “the whiplash effect when it reopens will lay waste to all the progress (maybe being) made in the U.S.”

Positives and negatives

The worst case may still happen, but it hasn’t yet. Liner giant Maersk reported Monday that all ports in China, including those in Shenzhen, were operating normally and “remain business as usual.” Warehouses in Shenzhen are closed through Sunday. Warehouses in Shanghai and Qingdao remain open, although truckers require negative COVID tests to pick up cargo.

Griffiths told American Shipper, “If no ports shut down but volumes coming out of factories are reduced [by lockdowns] that actually would be pretty good for ports.” It would allow more backlogs at Chinese export terminals to get loaded on ships, and help to normalize supply chain flows without forcing carriers to “blank” (cancel) sailings.

If Chinese ports do close, causing ships to drop calls or blank entire sailings, it would be short-term positive for U.S. ports — but they’d pay the piper later.

“Any respite [U.S.] ports can be offered in terms of imports will be positive, given the number of containers that are currently quayside and the number of issues in the hinterland. It will allow an easing of those problems,” said Griffiths.

Data from project44 shows how average container dwell times in Yantian surged to over 20 days in the wake of last year’s shutdown, far above dwell times seen during Lunar New Year and Golden Week holiday periods. The more containers stuck in China, the less bottleneck pressure in California: When Yantian shut down last year, the ship queue off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach dwindled to the single digits.

“But the demand was still there,” said Griffiths. “Just because it couldn’t move didn’t mean it went away. It just meant that the demand had to be compensated for at a later date.”

After Yantian reopened, the queue of ships waiting offshore of Southern California shot up throughout the second half of 2021. Rates rocketed to new heights. “Yantian was really the big driver last year. When we saw rates go stratospheric, it was because of the release of all that pent-up pressure that had built up in the market,” said Griffiths.

“If we see the [Chinese] ports start to close now, we could see what happened in 2021 start to play out again.”

Source: Freight Waves

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