The degree to which the moratorium on rate increases is a public relations exercise in response to mounting shipper frustration is unclear, given that carriers still charge so-called premiums of thousands of dollars on top of spot rates to guarantee bookings, reports IHS Media.
'We believe that spot rates have peaked, and we do not pursue further increases,' a spokesman for Hapag-Lloyd said, adding that the carrier's rate increases announced for September 15 and October 1 were being reviewed.
'Our action focuses on the trades where we have seen extremely high FAK [freight all kinds] rate levels, mainly from Asian origins, but also on some other non-Asia related trades where FAK market levels have just gone too high,' the spokesman added.
Those comments came just one day after CMA CGM shocked the market by announcing it would immediately cease all spot rate increases until February 1, 2022 to prioritise 'its long-term relationship with customers in the face of an unprecedented situation in the shipping industry.'
But arguing against the view that spot rate levels are moderating is the worsening underlying condition of the container shipping market that has driven spot rates to record levels on the major east-west trades.
There is growing congestion at ports in Asia, the US, and North Europe and bottlenecks across inland logistics chains that will ensure a continuation of upward pressure on rates likely for several months to come.
'Velocity is slowing down significantly,' said Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority. He said that import, export, and empty containers at the port of Charleston and the inland port at Greer have grown to 56,000 from 35,000 a year ago, and that average dwell times are a week versus four days a year ago.
Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst at BIMCO, said the current state of the market meant spot rates will likely continue to rise even if carriers do not implement their own general rate increases or hike the FAK levels.
'The heat could be on for a couple more months as retailers seek to stock up ahead of the festive season,' Mr Sand said, adding that consumers in the major markets still have money to spend, even though spending on services has also increased.
Dominique von Orelli, executive vice president and global head of ocean freight at DHL Global Forwarding, also expressed doubts that the spot market had reached its peak.
'I am not convinced that that the spot rates have peaked, although I would hope so. Global trade is still totally out of sync,' he said.
'Carriers prefer to look at volume moved on contracts,' Mr Sand said, adding that this sentiment lay behind the move to suspend spot rate increases.
Over the past two years Maersk has grown its longer-term contracts that provide greater predictability and sustainability of earnings than the volatile spot market.
'In this pursuit, we are moving towards a larger share of longer-term contracts, which now has increased to around 60 per cent of our total bookings,' Maersk said. During the second quarter earnings call in August, Maersk CFO Patrick Jany said more than 1 million FEU of contracted volume in the first half had been signed up for multi-year contracts.
Carrier focus on longer-term contracts was confirmed by a trans-Pacific shipper, who said that two ocean carriers had offered three-year contracts at double the rate they were currently paying. The shipper's current contracts are for US$3,500 per FEU to the West Coast, but the three-year contract will allow them to lock in capacity for three years at $7,000 per FEU.