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“The perception might be that the [container shipping] industry has turned a corner and the extremely low freight rates seen on the Asia-North Europe trade at the end of last year are now behind us,” said the Drewry report. “We concur with this general view to an extent and we forecast that east-west freight rates, including fuel, will rise by as much 13.7 percent this year, but we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the considerably higher spot rates revealed in the weekly rate indices and think that all is now fixed.”
Higher rates have been enabling ocean carriers to cover their rising costs and turn a profit, but a number of factors could threaten to derail a full recovery. “Demand is by no means certain and we have downgraded our 2012 global forecast to 4.6 percent, largely on the basis of a weak eurozone, crippled by debt,” said the Drewry report.
Ocean carriers successfully implemented rate increases on both the headhaul Asia-to-Europe and Asia-to-U.S. trades in March. This lifted spot rates above or at least close to the respective trade route break even margins. But until very recently, even the largest 15,500 TEU vessels operating on the Asia-North Europe trade were not making money, Drewry continued.
Drewry’s revised assessment is that the industry lost at least $6.5 billion in 2011 – a year that saw global demand growth of 7.4 percent. Drewry described this as a missed opportunity for carriers to build on their surprisingly strong recovery in 2010. wt