Every year at just about this time, ocean container shipments inbound from China and other Asian ports begin to surge as retailers ramp-up inventory levels in anticipation of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday buying period. Ever year at this time, Supply Chain Matters features commentaries noting how the ramp-up is progressing.
Last year, we raised early concerns about potential labor disruptions occurring along U.S. West Coast ports. We all know how that turned out. Multiple industry supply chains encountered long delays and inventory disruption, some at considerable cost.
This year shows signs of different industry dynamics that could once again lead to some disruption, or at the least, the need for very careful and methodical supply chain planning and synchronization.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a combination of tepid growth and a continued sluggish Eurozone economy has now motivated ocean container carriers to significantly cut back on scheduling. According to the report, the G6 Alliance, consisting of carriers APL, Hyundai Merchant Marine, Mitsui OSK, NYK, Hapag Lloyd and OOCL announced this week the cutback of 12 round-trip sailings from Asia to Europe starting in September. This equates to a one-sixth reduction in capacity for that route. This follows an earlier announcement from the 2M Alliance consisting of Maersk Line and MSC indicating it with withdraw 10 percent of capacity from the Asia to Europe route until further notice.
The timing of these cutbacks, while advantageous to container carriers, is not advantageous to industry supply chains. The open question is whether the removal of this much container capacity heading toward Europe will have any later impacts as we move closer to the holiday season.
It is further another indication of the significant gross overcapacity situation of ocean container fleets. According to the WSJ, freight rates between Shanghai and Rotterdam barely cover carrier operating costs, hence the announced cutbacks. The carriers are significantly reducing capacity to insure higher freight rates, in spite of dramatically reduced fuel costs.
In a related development, industry leader A.P. Moeller Maersk, in reporting its latest financial results, gave strong indications that it will defend and even expand its industry market share position. That raises the likelihood of additional industry cost or capacity cutting moves. The question is timing.
Maersk Lines additionally revised its estimates of global container volume down to a range of 2-4 percent from the previous 3-5 percent growth estimate which is a further acknowledgement of reduced global shipment volumes.
For industry supply chains, especially those that are B2C and retail focused, the timing of these ocean industry cutbacks is troublesome, coming at the time of peak seasonal movement. On the one hand, such cutbacks in scheduling may provide added flexibilities for alliances moving surge container volumes from Asia to North America. One of the newer mega-container ships can carry lots of last-minute cargo. On the other hand, the reduction in capacity places added pressures on various procurement and supply chain planning teams to carefully plan remaining inbound movements and required safety-stock levels. The challenges of container chassis availability and the ability of certain ports to be able to efficiently unload and reload the newest mega-container ships remains an open concern.
If any major U.S. or European port were to encounter a disruption or significant backup over the next three months, carriers will likely be reluctant to have ships sitting idle and generating additional operating costs. The open question is how many supply chain teams elected to balance inbound movements among U.S. West and East coast ports, and now, European ports.
Once again, it is going to be a challenging holiday surge period where careful planning will prove to be a key difference. Sales and Operations planning teams need to have a keen eye on supply chain planning and execution along with early-warning mechanisms. The lessons of from 2014 have hopefully translated into enhanced planning and risk mitigation since the turmoil of global transportation continues to play out.