During 2008, U.S. exporters were often frustrated by a shortage of seagoing containers to meet overseas demand. But as 2009 dawns, container capacity on export trade lanes appears to be more abundant, according to industry experts.
"There is no container shortage on an aggregate basis," Ted Prince, president of Consolidated Chassis Management and chairman of the Intermodal Association of North America, told attendees at an October conference of the Paris-based Bureau International des Containers et du Transport Intermodal. "It's just a matter of getting the containers to the people who want them. The issue for the people who are ready to export is whether or not it makes financial sense to move those containers where they need them."
Mark Yeager, president and chief operating officer of The Hub Group, a major player in the trans-shipment sector, said container capacity has loosened in recent months as the global economic downturn curbs shipping activity. "At the beginning of the year, we saw some serious tightness for shipping boxes," Yeager said. "That has eased substantially in the past few months."
But now the big question for the U.S. economy in general, and U.S. exporters in particular, is if that's necessarily a good thing. "Hell no," said Michael Wolfe, an intermodal veteran and currently principal of the North River Consulting Group. "You want vigorous competition for U.S. exports. It would be ideal to have that along with a strong dollar. Having a more balanced economy and a more competitive manufacturing sector feeding exports is the healthiest scenario."
But as the global financial crisis dampens economic activity in international markets, such a scenario appears unlikely, at least in the short term. In fact, global weakness was evident long before financial markets began seizing up in the third quarter of 2008.
During last year's second quarter, international shipping volume came in at 1.99 million containers, a 5.9-percent drop when compared with the same period in 2007, according to a report from the Intermodal Association of North America. That was a slight uptick from the first quarter of 2008, when international volume dipped to 1.92 million containers, which was the first time in two years that shipments fell below the 2 million mark.
"There has been a diminishment in the growth of shipments, which can be tied to a weaker economy," Wolfe said.
Rodolfo Sabonge, vice president of market research and analysis for the Panama Canal Authority, said the financial crisis likely would blunt demand for international trade for "a year or two." Sabonge based that prediction on a similarly profound slump following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Been there, done that," he said. "This will have an impact on consumer confidence. But it will be relatively short-lived. This really is a very cyclical business."