Freight shipping capacity constraints

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The NY Times has a story on shipping costs:

Fighting for freight, retailers are outbidding each other to score scarce cargo space on ships, paying two to three times last year’s freight rates — in some cases, the highest rates in five years. And still, many are getting merchandise weeks late.

The problems stem from 2009, when stores slashed inventory. With little demand for shipping, ocean carriers took ships out of service: more than 11 percent of the global shipping fleet was idle in spring 2009, according to AXS-Alphaliner, an industry consultant.

Carriers also moved to “slow steaming,” traveling at slower and more fuel-efficient speeds, while the companies producing containers, the typically 20- or 40-foot boxes in which most consumer companies ship goods, essentially stopped making them.

With freight rates that high, why isn’t the idle portion of the fleet coming back into service?

The shipping companies slowly added ships back into the system early this year, but they did so haltingly, not wanting to add too much supply and risk having their rates fall. (Major carriers largely hew to the rates set by carrier groups, which are allowed to discuss and set voluntary rates, under antitrust immunity.)…

Because of slow steaming, which takes containers out of the system for a longer period of time, and because places like Russia and India began to demand container space, finding something to ship goods in, much less space on a ship, has been problematic.

“There aren’t enough actual containers, so therefore, even if the vessel capacity situation is easing up a little bit,” said Peter Tirschwell, senior vice president for strategy at The Journal of Commerce, “you now have equipment that people can’t get.”

[HT: Seb]

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