China Shipping Exports Rebound, Just as Western Ports Cope With Coronavirus Downturn

The Port of Houston suspended operations at its two container terminals Thursday while authorities investigate a positive coronavirus test result from a worker there.

Photo: Loren Elliott/Bloomberg News By Costas Paris

March 19, 2020 3:51 pm ET

Two months after a near complete standstill in China that rattled global supply chains, the country’s ports are again pushing out thousands of containers that were stranded at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. The massive buildup of boxes at docks in China has left a big shortfall in cargo at ports in the U.S. and Europe since early February, and created a shortage of empty containers that Western exporters need to ship everything from farm products to electronic parts. As China returns to work, fears are rising that the Western ports won’t be able to handle a flood of imports as seaports and coastal cities face their own shutdowns and economic disruption.

“There is a lot of relief that China is waking up after a long hiatus,” said George Lazaridis, head of research at Greece-based Allied Shipbroking. “But what happens if truck drivers and crane operators can’t work in Hamburg, Rotterdam or Los Angeles and New York.

Who is going to pick up the boxes?”

U.S. and European ports have generally been operating normally, although many sites have reported sharply reduced business as global trade has slowed under the pandemic. Shipping executives said they are taking new precautions to protect their own workers and that disruptions could come if some port workers get sick and are quarantined or if authorities impose blanket public lockdowns for an extended period.

“While the situation is improving in Asia, especially China, new measures have been taken in some other places to protect the health of our staff,” French container line CMA CGM SA said in a notice late last week. “As far as France, all staff members will work from home until further notice.”

China government figures show container volumes at the country’s largest eight ports fell 19.8% in February, during the peak of the lockdowns that Beijing imposed, from the year before. Container volumes from China into California’s three largest seaports–Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland–were off 35.2% in February from a year ago, according to trade data research group Panjiva.

The neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together make up the largest U.S. gateway for imports from Asia, handled 132,564 fewer containers in February than they did the same month a year ago. The Port of Seattle closed operations at two of its four container terminals Friday because of diminished shipping demand.

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The Port of Houston on Thursday said it had suspended operations at its two main container terminals after a staffer who works at both sites tested positive for the coronavirus.

Gene Seroka, executive director at the Port of Los Angeles, said he doesn’t expect the same sort of virus disruptions that crippled Chinese megaports like Shanghai and Ningbo last month. Thousands of boxes piled up at those ports as truck drivers, crane operators and other workers couldn’t go to work because they were either sick or quarantined.

“We never saw a port closure in China, and I don’t believe we’ll see a port closure here in Los Angeles,” Mr.

Seroka said. “We have 100,000 people and none work concurrently, or at the same time. I believe we will have an ample workforce that is healthy and has the ability to flex based on the needs of cargo flow and personal health and safety requirements.”

Liner operators said they would deploy their biggest ships to pick up cargo from China, regardless of the situation at Western entry points. The 2M Alliance, made up of A.P.

Moller-Maersk A/S and Mediterranean Shipping Co., said last week they are boosting their capacity of four weekly sailings to Los Angeles and Long Beach.

MSC sent one of its biggest ships–the MSC Oscar, with capacity for 23,000 20-foot containers–into Los Angeles on Sunday, and three other big vessels are expected to arrive by the end of March. These giants are normally on the Europe-Asia trade lanes, and their deployment in the Pacific points to increased trade activity.

“It’s like the roll of a dice to go full steam for China cargo,” said the chief operations officer of a big Asian shipowner that charters ships to container lines. “Our sailings take weeks or months, but the situation with the virus closures changes every day. If the U,S. closes down, I don’t know what will happen with the cargoes.”

“Chinese port call activity returning to 2019 levels supports reports that efforts to ‘re-start’ the Chinese economy may be gaining traction,” said Clarksons research head Stephen Gordon. “Given China’s role as shipping’s biggest market–22% of global imports–this is encouraging, as are the range of tariff reductions, stimulus packages and policies being adopted globally.”

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Liners canceled more than half of all sailings to China in February, when infections reached a peak in that country. The virus outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year holiday, a period when industrial output in China usually slows down.

Lars Jensen, chief executive of Copenhagen-based SeaIntelligence Consulting, said canceled sailings are back to normal levels at this time of the year but that more disruptions may come as the coronavirus pandemic rolls across cities in Europe and Asia.

Mr.

Jensen compares the hit to shipping companies to the financial crisis in 2008, when container volumes contracted 10%. A similar retrenchment now would mean a loss of 17 million containers for shipping companies.

“It’s a massive damage, even if we later get a V-shaped recovery,” he said.

Write to Costas Paris at [email protected]

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