Stagnating trade and a ballooning surplus of shipping containers, following easing of pandemic era supply chain constraints, has led to a collapse in newbuild container output, which is forecast to slump to its lowest level in 14 years.
Drewry estimates that global box production contracted 71% YoY to 306,000 teu in the first quarter of 2023, the lowest level since the same period of 2010. While some recovery is anticipated through the remainder of the year, full-year output is not expected to exceed 1.8 million teu, the lowest level since the recession-ravaged year of 2009, according to Drewry’s Container Equipment Forecaster.
Currently, several factories in China are either closed or operating on significantly reduced working hours, with full-scale production expected to commence in June. Meanwhile, commercial production at two new plants in Vietnam is not expected to start before 3Q23 with output scaled back from original expectations. The Hoa Phat Group factory in Cai Mep and the join venture plant between Ace Engineering and Seojin Systems in Haiphong together will have the capacity to produce 600,000 teu a year by 2026.
Meanwhile, this year has seen record returns of containers to leasing companies, while carriers have been busily disposing of ageing and surplus boxes in their owned fleets. Currently, the priority for most container owners is to adjust their equipment pools to better match current trading and vessel supply parameters, and to remove ageing or damaged boxes that have accumulated as a consequence of supply chain congestion over the period of the pandemic.
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Drewry expects such retirements to match last year at around 2.8 million teu in 2023. Despite high levels of disposals into the secondary market, used dry freight container prices have held up well and are expected to remain steady through the year.
As a consequence, the global fleet of containers is forecast to contract 2% this year to 49.9 million teu, representing the first fall in 14 years. The global container shipping trade is expected to remain weak, expanding just 1% in 2023, but a recovery in cargo demand is anticipated in subsequent years as the global economy gathers momentum.
This together with an expanding vessel fleet will drive increased demand for newbuild shipping containers, with output forecast to more than double next year, according to Drewry’s latest assessments. This will return the global shipping container fleet to modest growth, which is forecast to expand at an average annual rate of 2.9% over the period to 2027, according to Drewry’s Container Equipment Forecaster.