Although there is still a slim chance that the fourth quarter produces some rate compression, when freight levels are at an all-time high, there is little motivation for the three major shipping alliances to drop rates significantly during the remaining calendar year.
Shippers looking to 2021 would be wise to consider contingency budgeting – especially if you are a major importer competing in a supply chain environment that continues to be affected by ongoing growth in online sales and e-commerce logistics.
Likewise, there has never been a more important time to reassess your entire import supply chain to validate compliance with evolving trade regulations. Emerging pinch points in the international supply chain are elevating risk for shippers who must be prepared to address traditional risk areas that carry a financial impact.
As we have stated since early 2019, contingency planning must be the part of your monthly and sometimes weekly business plans. Diversification in foreign sourcing has never been more critical, particularly in an election season that has pushed global trade forward as individual candidates differentiating issue.
Close review of the international transportation landscape can lay the groundwork for developing strategies that mitigate that risk heading into 2021.
Alliances Take Control Amid E-Commerce Boom
Consumer behaviors are shifting the traditional retail models, and the unchecked growth of e-commerce is keeping the global supply chain packed with product.
Credit some of that international freight volume to the rapid production and movement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to a global health crisis. At the same time, retail supply chains have been irreversibly impacted by the functional success of e-commerce. Until some of the demand cycles in both realms stabilize, predicting ocean shipping rates will be a challenge.
More importantly, the three major shipping alliances response to COVID-19 demands the attention of organizations that rely on global commerce. Vessel operators have shown remarkable discipline by matching supply to demand volatility.
During the first half of the year, the three alliances (2M, Ocean Alliance and THE Alliance) constricted supply by canceling dozens of scheduled voyages with the intent to remove excess capacity. However the net effect was scarcity of space, i.e. rates were increased monthly or bi-weekly and started to build. Representing 21 ocean vessel operators and roughly 10 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), these alliances have maintained rate discipline as the retail supply chain began to open in July in August.
In the past, increased demand for service and the prospect of rate increase motivated operators to add sailings. With a strategic approach that ensures vessels are filled before others are added, ocean carriers keep upward pressure on rates that are roughly 80 percent higher in a year-over-year comparison to 2019.
This strategy supports a more dependable service for international shippers as it creates more reliability for in-country logistics operators, but if the alliances maintain this discipline, plan for rates to stay elevated. Solid bookings will continue through October and contingency budgeting should be a focus for major importers.
Persisting Pinch Points Create Risk
As we approach what has traditionally been a calm period at the end of the peak season, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are at capacity. Historically higher volume for this time of year will undoubtedly spur downstream challenges deep into Q4 and into 2021.
Finding available chasses to support container movements will continue to be a problem into December. As these containers and chasses (to a lesser degree) move in country and on the rail, it is hard to balance the need for equipment during a disruption-filled year like we’ve had. Vessels hoping to expedite movement for the last wave of peak season freight to North America are now waiting for containers to come back to port so that have something to load and ship.
We know there will be an end to this kind of imbalance, but we have not gotten there yet.
The timing has never been greater for organizations to assess their entire import and export supply chain. Look for places to increase efficiency. Identify pinch points that elevate risk that emerges in times of global volatility. At this point, organizations should have complete awareness of the supply chain challenges arising during COVID-19 and address their preparedness for the next global disruption, both economically and around traditional risk areas.
Trade Regulations and Tariff Battles Require Eye on Compliance
Plaintiffs representing a diverse set of industries are suing the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) for relief from China 301 tariffs. The argument: tariffs implemented without sufficient advanced notice caused unfair and improper financial harm to their organizations. Many shippers have been negatively impacted, some to a crippling point, and they are looking for any dollars they can get.
These organizations – including some of the world’s largest brands – will not likely get complete relief, but their actions demonstrate that businesses will not sit idle when trade laws are put in place, as they argue, without warning.
Meanwhile, implementation of the trade regulations intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to carry some unexpected consequences.
The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is having the largest effect on businesses close to the automotive supply chain, but many companies were lulled into thinking there would be limited changes in the new agreement. Updated documentation is required to execute cross border entries. Make sure to review your international trade compliance processes to avoid this type of needless risk caused by what seems like a simple change in regulations.