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Port Congestion In Southern California Hits Record Highs

Global Economy
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The shipping-focused trade publication Freight Waves reports that port congestion is hitting all-time highs in October of 2021. There is currently $26 billion worth of cargo stuck on container ships off the coast of California, and the wait to get into a port is now almost two weeks, which has never happened before. While the number of ships stuck at sea off Southern California came down slightly from the record 73 ships stranded in September, Freight Waves says, “The reality is that the port congestion crisis in Southern California is not getting any better. That fact is backed up by a new record number of ships (79) waiting to get into port on October 20. For anyone still hoping the supply chain crisis would ease and help lower consumer price inflation by the holiday season, this report certainly dashes those hopes. 

Los Angeles’ average anchorage-to-berth wait time hits record-high 13 days.

container ships

Photo: Shutterstock/MSPhotographic

There was fleeting hope that Southern California port congestion had turned the corner. The number of container ships waiting offshore dipped to the low 60s and high 50s from a record high of 73 on Sept. 19, trans-Pacific spot rates plateaued, the Biden administration unveiled aspirations for 24/7 port ops, and electricity shortages curbed Chinese factory output.

The reality is that the port congestion crisis in Southern California is not getting any better.

The time ships are stuck waiting offshore continues to lengthen. There are simply too many vessels arriving with too much cargo for terminals, trucks, trains and warehouses to handle.

The number of ships at anchor or in holding patterns is once again at record levels. According to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, 79 container ships were waiting off Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday, yet another all-time record.

port congestion in southern california

Chart: American Shipper based on data from Marine Exchange of Southern California. Data bi-monthly April-Nov 2020; daily Dec 2020-present (Photo: Freight Waves)

Massive value of cargo stuck offshore

Marine Exchange data shows that ships waiting offshore on Thursday — including the 79 container ships as well as six additional cargo vessels carrying containers — had aggregate capacity of 597,250 twenty-foot equivalent units. To put that in perspective, that is 28% more than the Port of Los Angeles imported during the entire month of September and 70% of the combined Los Angles/Long Beach port complex’s September imports.

Assuming ships are at capacity, how much cargo value is out there in the “floating warehouse”? What’s in each box, and its value, varies dramatically — it can be worth a few thousand dollars or several hundred thousand dollars. But Port of Los Angeles stats provide a good guide.

The total customs value of the Port of Los Angeles’ containerized imports in 2020 was $211.9 billion. Given that imports totaled 4,827,040 TEUs, this equates to an average of $43,899 per import TEU. (Several other sources also estimated average cargo value at around $40,000 per TEU.)  

This suggests that the cargo currently waiting off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday is worth around $26.2 billion, more than the annual revenues of McDonald’s or the GDP of Iceland.

Imports trapped on ships for over a month

Data from the Signal platform shows that wait time from anchorage to a berth in Los Angeles rose to an all-time high 13 days on Wednesday, up 65% from the beginning of September.

port congestion in southern california
Chart: American Shipper based on data from Los Angeles Signal. Note: Average is 30-day trailing average. (Photo: Freight Waves)

But the average wait time doesn’t tell the full story. Ships have been sitting in San Pedro Bay for more than twice that long.

Most of the vessels that still have no terminal berth assignments despite extended wait times are small ships operated by Chinese players such as BAL Container Line that entered the trans-Pacific market for the first time this year. Some of the ships stuck in the queue have been chartered at exorbitant rates, raising the question of whether charterers accounted for such lengthy delays.

American Shipper was contacted by a U.S. manufacturer who has over 100 containers of goods trapped aboard the Chinese-owned Zhong Gu Jiang Su. The ship has been waiting offshore for over five weeks, since Sept. 13, and has yet to obtain a berth assignment, according to the Marine Exchange master queuing list.

The U.S. manufacturer, who booked through a freight forwarder, spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is really impacting our production,” he said, noting that the trapped goods are “a major component” in his company’s manufacturing process.

port congestion in southern california
Container ships off LA/LB on Friday morning. Map: MarineTraffic 

“We can’t get any type of help or get any type of escalation from anyone,” he said. He was told that the ship operator “hadn’t negotiated with the terminals for a berth” before arrival, which led to the extended delay.

Among the Chinese-linked ships with no berth assignment stuck in the queue, the Martinique has been waiting the longest, since Sept. 9. Loadstar reported that it is on charter to Transfer, which is owned by a Chinese logistics provider that is in turn partially owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

The BAL Peace has been waiting without a berth assignment since Sept. 25, as has the S Santiago.

According to Alphaliner, BAL is chartering the S Santiago for around $125,000 a day. An industry source told American Shipper the rate was $135,000 per day. So far, that ship has been waiting — and not loading any more revenue-generating cargo — for 27 days straight.

Originally posted on Freight Waves.



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