Container ship visits to Chinese ports, measured both in number of vessels scheduled to call and their cumulative capacity in twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEU) plunged in late January and early February – largely due to the normal seasonal downturn associated with Chinese New Year being exacerbated by the onset of the coronavirus. At the same time, the ratio of missed port calls – scheduled vessel calls that do not occur – has risen sharply to levels usually seen in late February and March.
ClipperData: China Container Traffic TEU and Scheduled Vessels to China
Typically, vessel operating companies reduce capacity in the weeks following the two-week Lunar New Year vacation in China. The number of missed port calls – shipping companies bypass a port because of a lack of volume and go straight to the next port in their scheduled rotation – rise during that period. Ahead of the holiday, shippers usually pre-order goods ahead of the drop in Chinese output, which helps minimize the number of missed port calls.
This year, the traffic slowdown, with both fewer scheduled calls and more cancelled ones, is occurring much earlier. This comes even though many airlines have cancelled flight service, reducing air cargo capacity and forcing manufacturers to switch to waterborne transportation even for higher-value and more time-sensitive cargo.
More significantly, the slowdown in port calls is occurring worldwide, not just in China. Shipping companies have been reducing scheduled capacity on most trade lanes as trade wars slow global demand for cargo capacity. In the second half of January and early February, this drop accelerated significantly. The centrality of China to the movement of goods around the world explains this: if Chinese ports are not loading or discharging containers, there is no reason to stop at the port where the shipment is supposed to go to or come from. The move towards bigger container ships is another important factor at play: a missed port call now has a more profound impact on available capacity.