The increase in containerisation of cargoes and the expansion of the global containership fleet have had a significant impact on global trade and economic development. However, this would not have been possible were it not for the humble shipping container, and it can be instructive to examine developments in the box fleet arena as a comparator to the wider world of container shipping.
Get Back To The Box
Containers are an integral part of global containerised trade, facilitating the easy and efficient movement of millions of tonnes of goods worldwide. As such, it is important not to overlook this facet of container shipping. Containers mainly come in either standard 20ft or 40ft general purpose units, although there are other more specialised sizes and designs, such as those designed to carry refrigerated cargoes or liquids. At the start of 2016, total containership fleet capacity stood at 19.7m TEU, and there were an estimated 38 million TEU of containers globally, equivalent to around two boxes per TEU of vessel slot capacity. Back in 2000 there were just under three containers for each containership slot. Meanwhile, global container trade stood at an estimated 175.2m TEU in 2015, five times greater than the volume of containers at the start of 2016, with this ratio having remained broadly steady for a number of years.
A Reactionary Force
Nearly all (a reported 98% in 2015) of the new containers produced globally are manufactured by a small number of companies based in China, and tracking Chinese exports of the boxes gives a clear idea of production trends. In 2015, 2.7 million new boxes were exported (compared to a high of 3.1 million in 2007). Container production capacity is very flexible and able to react quickly to market changes (much more rapidly than shipbuilding capacity, for example). During the downturn of 2009, when container trade fell 9% y-o-y, Chinese exports of containers dropped by 77% y-o-y. Following this, as box trade recovered, so did the output of the containers themselves. Since then, production has continued to fluctuate as container trade growth has accelerated or slowed and in 2015, as container trade growth moderated, Chinese container exports fell by 0.3m units.
Own It, Or Lease It
Much like the containerships themselves, container ownership is split between companies who lease the containers to operators and containership operators. From 2005 to 2009, operators took ownership of an increasing share of containers and at the start of 2010 owned 59% of the volume of containers. However, since the financial crash containership operators have pulled back on box ownership (potentially to focus their financial resources elsewhere). As a result, at the end of 2015, container leasing companies owned 48% of the container fleet.
Although containers may be partially overlooked by many in the shipping world, they remain a key part of the industry. Not only are they are vitally important for the smooth running of the global supply chain, but developments in the production and ownership of containers also offer an interesting comparison to the boxship sector itself.