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International sea transport in the first six months of 2021

(VLR) Unprecedented increase in freight rates due to a shortage of containers; congestion incident in the Suez Canal; the pandemic of COVID-19 lasting since 2020 becoming more serious with the Delta variation and sweeping over countries in Asia as India, the South of China and Southeast Asian countries is causing shortage of stevedoring workers in ports, including those in the U.S; human resource crisis in the global maritime sector with the difficulty of providing adequate care for some 1.7m seafarers… These consecutive shocks have caused impacts to the sea transport market in the first six months of the year and direct impacts to Vietnam’s activities of production and import-export as well.

COVID-19 - These consecutive shocks have caused impacts to the sea transport market in the first six months of the year and direct impacts to Vietnam’s activities of production and import-export as well.

Enterprises facing difficulties from increasing transport costs and other ones

Although there were records of growth in import-export and maritime activities in Vietnam in the first six months of the year, import-exporters, especially export enterprises, have been facing an uncontrollable increase of container sea transport costs when exporting from Vietnam to ports worldwide, especially routes to North America and Europe. The cost increase has caused serious impacts to production enterprises and import-exporters. Some shipping lines have announced to cut off services on some routes and to have no plans for 2021. Many enterprises had goods ready to be delivered but they have to wait for consolidation announcements from shipping lines to have them exported, delivery time was 7 - 20 days delayed on average. Storage and warehousing costs increase 5% - 10% of the shipment value. A wood export enterprise revealed there were cases that costs to the U.S and Europe of a container was equal or even higher the value of goods in it.

According to statistic from non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOCC) in the first six months of 2021, there have been 12 price increases on average, equivalent to 2 times a month issued by shipping lines on routes from Vietnam to Europe and North America, not mentioning to unannounced price increases. Intra-Asia transport routes has also had sharp price increases compared to the same period in 2021, however the increase frequency has been considered more stable than those of distant routes. According to announcement from shipping lines, freight rates of American routes will keep increasing 10% - 20% in the third quarter of 2021.

The lack of empty containers has been becoming more serious since the end of 2020 and it has lasted to June 2021 with no improvements. In order to secure freight and have empty containers, shippers have to spend an extra of USD 4,000- USD 6,000/ container 40’ to pay for high-class services. However they do not ensure empty containers available at any time and cargo is not guaranteed to be uploaded on vessels as scheduled. Another paradox is that shippers often have to pay an additional “empty fee” for empty container yards to get containers, the cost ranges from VND 1m-VND 2 m /container; sometimes shippers have to pay from VND 3m- VND 4m /container. In addition, transport costs continue to arise when having to pick up containers from distant ports as SSIT, CMIT with a shipping rate of about VND 2.2 m/container or shippers have to pay the full transport costs (about VND 5.5m/trip) if the truck still cannot get empty containers, the costs of keeping the vehicle when waiting in line for 2 - 3 days to get the empty container or running around from one port to another waiting for the empty container. Delay normally happens to all routes with delay time of 7 - 10 days. And shippers have to endure fees for container storage or yard storage or have to ‘gate in” with cargo to the U.S.

Shipping lines’ late payment are getting popular and the rates are getting higher- higher than bank interest rates. According to statistics from exporters and NVOCC, 90% of shipping lines has been collecting high “late payment”.

Main reasons for transport cost increase

There are many reasons for the price increase, of which the main causes can be mentioned as a result of the Pandemic of COVID-19, which caused congestion of goods at some major ports and transshipment ports such as Los Angeles (USA) and Yantian (China), along with the congestion incident in the Suez Canal that made a series of ships lying in line and unable to turn around to catch up with the new journey, leading to the cycling of ships are being reduced, ships are cut off and the scarcity is on the increase. This leads to an imbalance between supply and demand for containers, leading to a shortage of empty containers.

There are many reasons for the price increase, of which the main causes can be mentioned as a result of the Pandemic of COVID-19, which caused congestion of goods at some major ports and transshipment ports such as Los Angeles (USA) and Yantian (China)...

There are a lot of containers in countries in North America and Europe, but there is a shortage of them in China and Asian countries, shipping lines are forced to hire more containers or buy new ones, so freight rates are forced to increase accordingly. After shipping lines merged (MOL, K’line, NYC) or made alliances (MSC, MSK), the competitiveness has decreased, customers no longer have too many options to serve their import- export needs. There has been a trend of “monopoly” along the route forcing customers to choose with many unreasonable costs. Besides, there is the competition of capacity between regions and countries from within shipping lines. According to information from shipping companies, ships from Chinese ports are often prioritized due to large volume of goods and high freight rates. Vessels from Vietnam are often cut off, reducing the number of empty containers due to competitors from Asian countries. In order to get the volume of goods from Vietnam, the sales department was also forced to raise prices for more rooms. In addition, it is not excluded that some shipping lines have taken advantage of difficult times to manipulate the market and make profit. It is clear that the subjectivity from shipping lines, impacts from the pandemic of COVID-19 and other factors have not been enough to push the price increase to a record level when in the first quarter of 2021 most of shipping lines reported their revenues and profits increased at record rate. According to financial statement of business results in the first 6 months of 2021, there was a shipping line with profit increasing 26 times, or there was one with profit increasing 148% year-over-year, reaching USD 2.71bn thanks to recovery of the container transport sector.

Proposals to improve the situation to support Vietnamese enterprises

Although Vietnam’s management agencies as the Ministry of Transport- the management unittogether with the Ministry of Industry- Trade and the Ministry of Finance have had working sessions with shipping lines, the shippers’ association and logistics service providers to find out difficulties and to offer solutions, the situation has not been improved but become more severe.

In the current context, there should be short-term and long term solutions for more efficiency:

» 1. Management agencies (the Ministries of Transport, of Industry- Trade, and of Finance) need to strengthen their managements according to their functions, coordinate with associations of sectors and import-exporters to have discussions with shipping lines to solve difficulties. The discussions should involve representatives in Vietnam and mother companies as well. This cannot be done unilaterally from Vietnam only for shipping lines normally have global policies and their representatives in Vietnam have no decisionmaking authority.

» 2. Industry associations and service providers such as Vietnam Logistics Service Business Association (VLA), Vietnam Ship Agents and Brokers Association, Vietnam Seaport Association and VCCI need coordination in exchanging information on the market situation, freight rates, empty containers and professional activities in order to be partners in dealing with shipping lines in storing freight, freight rates, allowing to import-export containers as CMA has smoothly done.

» 3. It is suggested that the Ministry of IndustryTrade and the Ministry of Home Affairs quickly strengthen the Shippers’ Association in dealing with shipping lines on matters relating to freight rates, freight storage, etc. in the mechanism now. This is an urgent request.

» 4. wIt is suggested that relevant State management agencies consider supplementing the provisions of the Decree 146/CP on public disclosure of transport fees and related costs transparently. Implementing the Decree efficiently, not allowing it to go on as it is now. And it is requested the Ministry of IndustryTrade have investigation and consideration the antitrust of related shipping companies under Vietnam’s Law of Competition.

» 5. It is necessary to call for investments from enterprises in developing Vietnamese-branded shipping, especially, in a fleet of large container ships on long-distance routes such as the America and Europe, partly meeting the needs of Vietnam’s import- export.

Vo Phuong Lan - Member of VLA Executive Committee, Head of Transportation Department

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