Steve Chuang’s Hong Kong-based electronics manufacturing company has enjoyed steady demand from the US and Europe over the past year. But, like many Asian exporters, he is struggling to get his products to customers.
Chuang’s business, which makes solar energy electronics, is just one of many enjoying a trade boom that has helped the regional economy bounce back from last year’s pandemic-driven downturn.
But their success is being held back by disruption to global shipping supply chains. The surge in exports from China to the west, combined with disruption at ports due to coronavirus, has left many containers out of position, resulting in queues of ships outside ports and soaring freight rates. The Chinese media have dubbed it “a single box is hard to find”.
The amount it costs to send a 40-foot container from China to the US has more than quadrupled in the past year, Chuang said: “We have never seen anything like this in the last two decades . . . Empty containers cannot get back to Hong Kong.”
China has recovered faster from the pandemic than any other big economy and its exports of lockdown-related goods, electronics and medical equipment have soared.
Export volumes have been rising at a double-digit rate for several consecutive months, and at the end of last year China’s trade surplus hit a record high.
But the rise in demand for its products comes as pandemic-related restrictions and staffing shortages in ports across the US and Europe delay the return of containers to east Asian ports.
Roberto Giannetta, chairman of the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, said a lack of truckers and warehouse workers elsewhere in the world inhibited the ability of ports to return containers to China.
“There’s a huge number of containers that are just sitting around the middle of nowhere . . . Australia, eastern Europe, middle America,” he said. “It’s like a kind of perfect storm preventing containers from returning back to Asia.”
Hu Haoli, assistant to the president of Wanlong Chemical in Wenzhou, said freight rates remained elevated, although it had only a limited impact on his business because the products it sells are high-end.
But for other companies, especially China’s vast textile industry, the delays are having a more severe effect. An exporter in Shaoxing, a city on the east coast of China, said the sharp rise in freight rates in December had caused many textile businesses to shut.
Shipping executives had hoped the traditional factory closures that usually accompany the lunar new year would slow production volumes, giving shipping lines a chance to catch up. But those hopes have failed to materialise — some Chinese factories pressed employees to keep working over the holiday in a bid to keep pace with global demand.
The delays and shortages risk pushing up goods prices. In Hong Kong, Chuang said he faced shipping delays of two to four weeks and his company is negotiating with customers to share the costs, which have increased the price of his products by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent.
Having so far mainly affected routes out of Asia, there are signs that the shortage of containers is starting to feed through into the return leg, hitting companies that import into China. In January McDonald’s in Hong Kong announced the delays had disrupted its supply of hash browns. It also experienced a brief shortage of peanuts for ice-cream sundaes.
Ports are scrambling to find more containers to help alleviate the shortages. For example at Ningbo, a big facility in China’s Zhejiang province, authorities recently helped to source an additional 730,000 empty containers.
John Fossey, head of container equipment and leasing research at Drewry, a maritime research consultancy, said production of shipping containers slumped year on year in the first half of 2020, although it ramped up in the second half, taking total output up by 10 per cent over the full year.
But these new containers will cost more: as a result of the soaring demand, combined with rising costs of raw materials such as steel, the price of a new container for delivery this summer is now about $6,200, its highest level on record, according to Fossey. This is “likely to put several owners off contracting new equipment”, he warned.
While some reports from China indicate improving activity at its ports over recent weeks, others within the shipping industry remain pessimistic about the prospects for the coming months. Willy Lin, chairman of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council, thought there would be “no relief” until summer at the earliest.
He flagged the growing likelihood that manufacturers could turn to overland trade routes, particularly by trucking from Guangxi province in southern China to Vietnam and on to South East Asia. Chuang said that some businesses were seeking to export to Europe by land across Russia.
Meanwhile, Asian exporters are scrambling to secure shipping space.
“Just about every single available ship in the world is being used at the moment, because there’s so many ships that are just sitting there [at ports] waiting to be offloaded,” said Giannetta.
Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai