China’s shipping containers pile up at overcrowded port as overseas orders dwindle
Container leasing and purchasing prices in major Asian ports have fallen sharply, and a rebound is not expected for at least a few months.
Although the Chinese New Year holiday ended weeks ago, not all truck drivers in Shenzhen are back to work. On the expressway heading towards Yantian International Container Terminal, several trucks with no containers on their long trailers can be seen parked on the roadside, part of a static convoy that stretches nearly a kilometre.
“These are only a small portion (of all the empty trucks). The rest had to be parked in Dongguan,” said a driver surnamed Huang, referring to another city in Guangdong that is an hour drive away from Yantian – one of the biggest Chinese container ports for foreign trade.
Huang is one of the lucky drivers. He had just unloaded a container at the terminal on a Friday (Feb 17) afternoon. He said the port has more than 15,000 registered truck drivers, but only around 2,000 of them now have work.
“I feel that this year’s (export) market will be the worst,” he said. “I just heard from many factory bosses saying that their electronic products can’t be exported, as their foreign clients haven’t placed orders, and lots of factories have already moved to Southeast Asia.”
With China still trying to rev up its economic engine after three arduous years under the zero-COVID policy, the export sector – which was the main economic driver during the pandemic – is looking like it will continue to sputter amid dwindling external demand and rising geopolitical tensions, according to analysts and industry insiders.
For many truck drivers, the sluggish scene at Yantian is in stark contrast to the situation two years ago. In 2021, an empty shipping container was very hard to get, as there was so much cargo to send. But now, containers are gathering dust as they occupy every available space around the port.
“In previous years, there were no empty containers at this place,” said another driver who gave his name as Xu, pointing to a space outside Yantian’s automatic toll gate, where empty containers are piled as many as seven high, forming multicoloured stacks of corrugated steel.
“The boxes have accumulated here since the second half of last year. But now they can’t be piled any higher – the stacker crane can reach only seven storeys.”
In November, an official statement from the port’s authorities said that the volume of empty containers stored there had reached the highest level since March 2020, and that it would soon reach the highest level since the port opened 29 years ago.
With the dry boxes remaining idle, container yards – which make money through cargo loading and unloading – are also struggling.
“There is no business,” said the manager of a container yard near the Yantian port, who declined to be named. “Some yards have closed their business.”
Container trends are a crucial barometer of economic progress and global trade, and the current market outlook appears bleak, according to Christian Roeloffs, CEO and co-founder of Container xChange, a leading online platform for container logistics.
“The falling rates and increased availability of containers in certain regions of the world are indicative of weak demand and slower economic growth,” Roeloffs said.
Container leasing and purchasing prices in major ports across Asia, such as Ningbo, Shanghai and Singapore, have fallen sharply in the past year, indicating that the current situation may persist in the foreseeable future, he added.
According to a report earlier this month by maritime research consultancy Drewry, the price for a 40-foot container in December was 45 per cent lower than during the same time in 2021.
The report estimated that prices would continue to fall for the first six to nine months of 2023, before recovering.
The Freightos Baltic Index shows that the rate for shipping a 40-foot container from Asia to the west coast of the United States was US$1,295 in the past week, or 92 per cent lower than the same time last year.
Meanwhile, the rate from Asia to the east coast of the US has dropped by 86 per cent, year on year, and the rate for shipping from Asia to northern Europe has fallen by 80 per cent, the index showed.
In the last few weeks, ex-Asia rates have been relatively level and the transpacific prices remained well below 2019 levels, without the post-Chinese New Year boom that was seen in previous years, said Judah Levine, head of research at Freightos.
The latest report from the US National Retail Federation estimates that the country’s oceanic import volumes will fall 12 per cent in February compared with January, and will be down 26 per cent from a year ago.
“Still-stocked inventories, inflation-driven decreases in consumer spending on goods, as well as signs of a continuing shift back to services are the likely drivers for the decline,” Levine said.
In December, China’s exports recorded the biggest year-on-year slump since the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020, falling 9.9 per cent. It also represented the third consecutive month of decline. Analysts expect further contractions in the coming months.
“The double-digit contraction of Korea’s daily average exports over the first 10 days of February and falling shipping rates suggest (China’s) export sector is likely to face strong headwinds from weakening external demand,” Nomura economists said last week.
This article was first published on SCMP