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Ocean Cargo Rates Peak as Demand Surges

Ocean Cargo Rates Peak as Demand Surges

Covid-19, Limited Capacity, and More Factors Have Driven Freight Rates to Set New Records

Although back-to-school season and holiday preparations consistently make August a peak season for ocean freight, this year is seeing a uniquely high increase – in both rates and capacity. The blanking of sailings earlier in the summer in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with concerns over tariffs as the first trade agreement with China nears expiration, has generated a boom in demand that outpaces capacity. As a result, Asia-US West Coast spot rates have set new records, with Shanghai to US West Coast routes seeing a 167 percent increase from 2019.

Further, analysts are predicting another General Rate Increase (GRI) for trans-Pacific ocean cargo routes this month, marking the fifth since June 1. While earlier in the summer, increased rates were driven by significant numbers of blank sailings (a response to reduced exports from Asia due to Covid-19), these new GRIs are built on a surge of demand as inbound volume sees a year-over-year increase. We explored the factors at play in this increase, as well as potential future events that may impact rates further.

Spot Rates Increase Ocean Cargo

Capacity Versus Demand

Since the start of the year, capacity and demand have been drastically fluctuating. The onset of Covid-19 meant a sudden halt of economies, starting in China and Asia. With fewer imports – and lower consumer demand – carriers cut capacity radically, with 19 percent of total sailings blanked in May and 15 percent in June.

This summer, economies began to move again and US imports from Asia rose by more than 20 percent between June and July. In particular, a significant consumer demand for items like fitness equipment, at-home activities, and furniture, as well as the consistent demand for PPE, drove retailers to increase their imports to satisfy demand. Now, with only 3 West Coast sailings blanked for August and September, capacity is nearly back to normal – yet need for space is outpacing it. To combat this, carriers have added additional sailings from Asia, or “extra-loaders,” with 10 scheduled for August and an extra 5 for September; however, these additional sailings haven’t been enough to eliminate the capacity crunch, maintaining increased spot rates.

External Factors at Play

Beyond Covid-19, additional factors are also at play. Uncertainty surrounding the US-China trade deal has driven importers to bring their goods over from China earlier than normal, hoping to avoid the potential of a large tariff increase. Likewise, as the American election looms, importers and carriers alike are doing their best to anticipate potential shifts in the market.

Seasonal trends have also shifted – consumers are prioritizing furnishings and other goods for at-home use outside of their typical peak seasons and forgoing traditional purchases for this time of year like back-to-school gear or Halloween items.


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Phase One of US-China Trade Deal Reduces Tariffs

Chinese and American Exports See Decrease in Duty Rates

As part of a Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement between the United States and China, signed on January 15, 2020, both countries have halved tariffs on many imported goods. The relevant duty reductions were applied on February 14, 2020.

China’s reductionsus-china trade deal will affect only the extra tariffs put in place on American imports last September. Tariffs on U.S. crude oil will drop from 5% to 2.5%, while total duties on soybeans are reduced from 30% to 27.5%. In total, this will affect roughly $75 billion of exports from the United States. China’s Ministry of Finance announced the reduction and stated it was designed to “advance the healthy and stable development of China-U.S. trade.”

Similarly, a White House spokesman stated the China trade deal “protects American innovation and creates a level playing field for our great farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs.” As of February 14, the U.S. has cut duty rates from 15% to 7.5% for a wide variety of goods, including any imports which fall under List 4A. These Chinese imports account for about $120 billion of goods. For List 4B, planned additional duties of 15% have been suspended. However, an additional $250 billion of goods will retain a 25% tariff, including Lists 1, 2, and 3.

For updated duty rates for all lists, see STR Trade’s compilation.

Effects of the China Trade Deal

International trade relationships with China have also been recently affected by COVID-19, which has shut down factories, seriously reduced the efficiency of ports and delayed supply chains across Asia. Former Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren has stated that the combined effects of coronavirus and the Chinese trade war have revealed the retail supply chain’s potentially detrimental reliance on China. Similarly, American technology companies including Apple and Google are looking to reduce their reliance on China’s production. Supporters of the administration’s efforts agree that the trade war was a necessary step in forcing a shift away from dependence on Chinese production.

Most business leaders, including executives from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Intel Corp., and Boeing Co., are in favor of the new trade agreement, though they hope these negotiations will continue.

In contrast, the deal has been criticized as being harmful to privately-owned businesses in China who can’t afford the more expensive American imports, allowing state-owned enterprises more market power. Additionally, as the agreement requires China to purchase $200 billion of American goods within two years, government-subsidized SOEs are likely to increase their share of imports. Critics of the China trade deal say this is counterintuitive to the Trump administration’s focus on reducing SOE’s influence over the economy. Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro has stated that these state-owned enterprises will be the target of “phase two” trade talks.

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