Liner operators continue to struggle with a worsening supply/demand balance, affecting freight rates. "On average, the fleet has year-to-date grown five percent and 19 percent, respectively, compared with 2022 and 2019. On the other hand, container volumes have fallen two percent compared to 2022 and are up only one percent compared to 2019," according to the latest update from BIMCO.

Niels Rasmussen, Chief Shipping Analyst, BIMCO says: “So far this year, container volumes have fallen nearly two percent year-on-year while average freight rates have declined, reaching 2019 levels in September. Since then, they have continued to fall. However, the cost to charter a ship remains 25 percent higher than in 2019.

"Lower sailing speeds have reduced supply growth compared to 2022 but improved congestion has pulled in the other direction. According to Container Trades Statistics’ Aggregated Price Indices, average freight rates so far this year have fallen 56 percent year-on-year as a result but remained 19 percent higher than in 2019. However, in September 2023, average freight rates were back at average 2019 levels and have likely fallen further since."

Key cost items for the liner operators have not followed rates, the update added. So far this year, although the cost of very low-sulphur fuel oil has fallen 29 percent compared to 2022, it has been five percent above 2019 levels. For ships with a scrubber, heavy fuel oil prices have fallen 22 percent compared to 2022 but have been 22 percent higher than in 2019.

“The average cost to charter a new ship has so far this year fallen 73 percent year-on-year but has on average remained 65 percent higher than in 2019, and in December is still 25 percent above the 2019 average. Liner operators’ actual time charter costs are even higher as they are still paying for time charter contracts concluded in 2021 and 2022 at much higher rates,” says Rasmussen.

The more profitable head-haul trades are performing better with year-to-date volumes and current freight levels at six percent and 16 percent, respectively, above 2019 levels.

“As we have pointed out in our recent Container Shipping Overview & Outlook report, the fleet is expected to grow another nine percent in 2024, adding further pressure to the market. Freight rate increases may therefore be hard to come by but time charter rates are likely to continue to fall,” says Rasmussen.

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