What is Just Beyond the Horizon for Shipping in the Rest of 2021 & 2022?


Looking within a short-term horizon, the outlook for container shipping over the next 2-3 months appears relatively well-known, although certainly not well-liked by shippers. In essence, we will continue to see a situation of bottleneck problems, capacity shortages and high pressure on rates. This is, hopefully, not a surprise to anyone now.

But what happens if we look beyond this horizon and try to contemplate the market situation in the second half of 2021 as well as into 2022? There are multiple elements and all need to be considered.

First of all, there is demand.

Currently demand growth is between normal and high in most trade routes, but is extremely high into North America. This has an impact on all trades as this growth absorbs a significant amount of vessel capacity which, in turn, pulls vessels away from trades with lower demand growth.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has just published their new global economic outlook, and they have revised economic growth projections for 2021 and 2022 upwards. They now expect global GDP to grow 6.0% in 2021 and 4.4% in 2022. And while the growth in 2021 should be seen in the light of the declines in 2020, it should be noted that the 6.0% growth in 2021 certainly exceeds the -3.3% global GDP decline in 2020. For the U.S. the growth expectation for 2021 is higher at 6.5%, while for China and India it is much higher at 8.4% and 12.5% respectively.

This means that we should anticipate strong container demand growth to persist through not only 2021 but also 2022 based on these economic projections.

The very high freight rate level presently is sustained by severe bottleneck effects, and the problematic issue is that the ripple effects from the Suez incident will further postpone the ability to re-balance container flows as well as handle port congestion. In all likelihood, the bottlenecks will not be removed until sometime during Q3 2021 at the earliest – and if the peak season during summer is stronger than normal this might not be until Q4 2021.

Carriers do have more vessels on order and have placed orders for basically a million TEUs of vessel capacity over the past couple of months. However, these new orders will only be delivered in 2023-2024 and hence do little to impact the market conditions in 2021 and 2022 where vessel deliveries are relatively subdued due to a quite small order book. This has caused charter rates for container vessels to grow rapidly and we are now seeing carriers charter container vessels for a multi-year period at very elevated levels. This implies that carriers expect a tight market for vessels in the next couple of years.

Considering all these elements, an image emerges of the market conditions in the later part of 2021 as well as into 2022.

For Q3, and possibly into Q4, we will continue to see a very tight market in terms of capacity and freight rates will see a continued pressure to remain at very elevated levels. The main driver is shippers who in the present environment prioritize supply chain resilience more than transactional freight costs.

Coming into late 2021 and further for 2022 the bottlenecks will disappear and a more normal supply/demand environment will emerge. This will cause a reduction in freight rate levels, but due to the continued strong demand growth and modest delivery of new vessels the reduction is unlikely to be at the same levels as seen before the pandemic. It is more likely that a new rate level matching the 2014-2015 period will emerge which is certainly lower than the present spike, but also substantially higher than the 2019 levels on most trade routes.