Trans-Atlantic shipping suffers ‘meltdown’ as rates hit new low

Trans-Atlantic shipping suffers ‘meltdown’ as rates hit new low

The bigger they were, the worse it was when they fell. Transatlantic shipping experienced a significant boom. Spot prices have dropped even more than they did during the COVID epidemic.

Thorsten Meincke, head of ocean and air freight at German freight forwarder DB Schenker, stated that the decline he witnessed in the business was likely the deepest and fastest in his history. This statement was made during an online panel discussion on Tuesday.

Peter Sand, the chief analyst at freight-rate data provider Xeneta, states that the trade, which was previously stable and uneventful for many years, has experienced a significant collapse. This trade had emerged as a prominent player in the container freight market in 2022, defying expectations by maintaining high rates even as other sectors faced decline.

CFO Xavier Destriau mentioned that lower trans-Atlantic rates are balancing out the recent increase in trans-Pacific spot prices for Israel’s Zim. Zim is an ocean carrier traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Destriau warned on Wednesday’s second-quarter earnings call that there is intensified pressure in the Atlantic trade lane. It has been extremely resilient up until recently. Today is under severe pressure. The trans-Atlantic accounted for 13% of Zim’s volumes in the first half, according to the data.

Analyst at Jefferies Omar Nokta also talked about the impact on other markets, like the transatlantic. Nokta says that rate gains for Zim in the trans-Pacific area are “offset by weakness elsewhere.” Zim needs to get more money from places other than Asia and the Pacific.

Carriers poised to pull capacity

Hapag-Lloyd is a German ocean shipping company that does a lot of business in the international market. Analytics company Alphaliner says that as of July 1, Hapag-Lloyd had a 20% piece of the Europe-U.S. market, making it the second largest carrier in the area. Only MSC has a bigger share of the market. In its most recent financial report, Hapag-Lloyd said that the Atlantic trade made up 18% of its first-half turnover.

Hapag-Lloyd CEO Rolf Habben Jansen discussed the decline in Atlantic shipping during the quarterly call on August 10 and the live group discussion with DB Schenker on Tuesday.

He said that The Atlantic has gone to a very, very low level. Habben Jansen stated that they are actively considering the need to cancel sailings. In certain situations, it is not possible to recover our expenses. It is necessary to take action in order to maintain control over our costs. It is possible that we will do something fairly soon.

Alphaliner Report Highlights Overcapacity and Declining Rates

The rise and fall of the Europe-U.S. trade was highlighted in a recent report by Alphaliner. Alphaliner recounted that carriers shifted capacity to the Europe-North America trade, where ocean rates were much higher, once the big east-west trades from the Far East to North America and Europe cooled down after the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a textbook example of how competitive shipping markets work and of the business saying, “The best cure for high prices is high prices,” the extra tonnage that went after high transatlantic rates caused overcapacity compared to demand. This caused rates to go down, which should eventually cause ships to leave the trade.

Alphaliner stated that the party for liner operators in the trans-Atlantic is over. MSC, the largest carrier in this trade, has already begun removing tonnage.

Spot rates down double digits vs. pre-COVID levels

How much lower are rates on the other side of the ocean? Even though the numbers from different measures vary a bit, they all point to a huge drop below what was “normal” before the pandemic.

According to the Drewry World Container Index (WCI), spot prices from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to New York City peaked in early November 2022 were $7,426 per forty-foot equivalent unit. From their highest point, they fell 79% to $1,593 per FEU in the week ending August 10. Compared to rates before COVID, the WCI rating is 19% lower than it was at this time in 2018 and 33% lower than it was in 2019.

Trans-Atlantic contract rates more than double spot rates

Statistics from Xeneta show that spot prices have also dropped, but contract rates are still much higher than they were before COVID and are much higher than current spot prices. Spot costs between Northern Europe and the East Coast have dropped from a high of $8,793 per FEU in the middle of May 2022 to an average of $1,510 per FEU as of Thursday. This is a drop of 35% from the same time last year, before COVID started. Data from Xeneta shows that spot prices in the trans-Pacific have recently gone up above contract rates.


(Chart: Xeneta)

Airlines are doing well in the international market. They can move contract loads instead of spot goods. Many shippers moved their goods to the spot market in the second half of 2022. Trans-Pacific contract prices were higher than spot prices at that time.The current spread across the Atlantic suggests that contract businesses face a similar risk.

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