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How will the European energy crisis affect freight markets?

A slowing eurozone may pull ocean container rates down further

Volatility in European power markets stemming from EU and U.K. sanctions against Russian energy — imposed in retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February — may soon cool off, but only after carving a slice out of the continent’s economy. 

On Monday, U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss announced plans to cap household energy bills at the equivalent of $2,300 annually. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz unveiled a 65 billion euro relief package to ease the pain of energy prices that have quadrupled in his country.

These crisis measures are meant to reduce the economic damage caused by a continentwide natural gas supply crunch following the cancellation of Nord Stream 2 and Russia’s shutdown of Nord Stream 1. Historically high energy prices could sap consumers’ ability to spend money on other goods and services, dragging down economic growth.

But last week, Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Gandolfi wrote that his team did not think that the scope of the price caps being contemplated would be nearly enough to avert a 1970s-style energy crisis.

“We see scope for the introduction of price caps in power generation, which we estimate could save Europe c.€650 bn pa,” Gandolfi wrote in a client note on Saturday. “Yet, price caps would not fully solve the affordability issue: the increase in energy bills would still be of +€1.3 tn, or c.10% of GDP, we estimate.”

Europe’s economy was relatively healthy until the energy crisis, growing GDP by 3.9% year over year (y/y) or 0.6% quarter on quarter in the second quarter of 2022. But now the eurozone manufacturing PMI has slipped to 49.6, and the S&P Global Germany Composite PMI for August was revised lower to 46.9.

Slowing economic growth in the EU has been exacerbated by high inflation, which hit 9.7% y/y in August. That has put a jumbo interest rate hike of 75 bps on the table as European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde meets with her colleagues in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this week.

Ocean container rates from Asia to Europe have already fallen dramatically this year — and have dropped especially sharply since the beginning of August.

(Chart: FreightWaves SONAR. The Freightos Baltic Daily Index, China – North Europe in white and Drewry’s World Container Index, Shanghai to Rotterdam, in green. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

The Freightos Baltic Daily spot rate from China to North Europe, displayed in white in the chart above, has fallen 24% since July 3, from $10,397.55 per forty-foot equivalent unit to $7,869.10. Drewry’s spot rate from Shanghai to Rotterdam, Netherlands, displayed in green, dropped 18% over the same period, from $9,280 per FEU to $7,583.

Those recent ocean container rate cuts came after the market had already been softening for months; container rates on the Asia-Europe trade peaked last October. The sudden, violent step-down in spot rates may indicate that the incremental goods spending is way off in Europe, and ocean carriers are starting to optimize for asset utilization rather than EBIT per shipment. 

If the steamship lines follow their well-established playbook, their response to soft demand could be to trim capacity, switching out vessels on the main services with smaller ships and deploying those assets elsewhere. The problem is that they might not have anywhere to go: Trans-Pacific ocean container spot rates are also way down on softening demand.

Upstream ocean container bookings data from FreightWaves Container Atlas reveals that European exports are set to slow markedly as well. Ocean container bookings outbound from Rotterdam to all global ports have experienced downward pressure since July:

(Chart: FreightWaves Container Atlas. Ocean Booking Volume Index from Rotterdam to all global ports. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

The Ocean Booking Volume Index from Rotterdam to all global ports is down by 25.4% since July 5, a sharp downward trend, albeit the index is still at an elevated level compared to pre-pandemic freight flows. Lead times out of Rotterdam run a little over 10 days, so the trend lines above reflect booking activity approximately 1.5 weeks ahead of the freight physically moving on a vessel. 

The widely cited European Road Freight Rates Benchmark is at all-time highs but appears to be inclusive of fuel costs (diesel in the EU is up 69% since January). The Russian invasion of Ukraine has restricted the supply of truck drivers in Germany, where migrants make up 24% of the driver workforce, as Ukrainian men returned home to fight. European road freight analysts are betting that weakening economic growth will keep rates from rising higher.

“The effect of rising costs in 2022 is now very evident with road freight rates across the European continent reaching new all-time highs,” wrote Transportation Intelligence economic analyst Nathaniel Donaldson. “Initial fuel price rises following the invasion of Ukraine have held and produced a much more costly environment for European road carriers whilst industrial action and a worsening driver shortage keep capacity tight. A range of indicators are pointing towards a drastic slowdown in consumption and production, which will ease further increases while high costs keep rates elevated.”

The EU energy crisis has already taken a bite out of Europe’s consumption and production, weakening demand for transportation capacity in, through and out of the region. Recently announced fiscal relief measures will likely not be large enough to avert an acute economic slowdown, with knock-on effects for global transportation markets like ocean container freight.

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John Paul Hampstead

John Paul conducts research on multimodal freight markets and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. Prior to building a research team at FreightWaves, JP spent two years on the editorial side covering trucking markets, freight brokerage, and M&A.