Many container ships are faring, empty, around the world. Sailing on's cheaper than being docked. That's the largest shipping companies response to the recent loss of goods demand. "It's like a bus route. Regardless of the number of passengers, the bus drives a fixed route. It's the same with the largest container ships," says Johan Geeroms, Risk Director at Euler Hermes Nederland.
"It's absurd - container ships as large as apartment blocks. They sail across the world with air as cargo. It's all to do with calculations. How can the corona blow be minimized? By sailing from Europe to Asia with empty containers and returning with them full. China's the world's factory. The flow of goods is starting up nicely there again."
According to Geeroms, the carriers use the cheapest routes. "It quickly costs €500,000 to sail a large container vessel through the Suez channel. It's less expensive to sail all the way around Africa. So, that's what happens now. It takes much longer, but this time-factor is currently less important. Clients aren't in as much of a hurry. No-one wants overflowing warehouses. You can add the extremely low oil price to that."
The corona crisis has disrupted the global flow of goods. "Full containers remain in Chinese factories or ports. That's caused a shortage of empty containers. That's why the container ships leave Europe entirely empty. Usually, there are always empty containers on board. But the current situation beats everything. I know that earlier this year, 30% more empty containers left Antwerp harbor."
A few large companies almost entirely run global container shipments. There's been enormous upscaling too. "There are now ships that transport 25,000 containers. It seems technically possible to build ships that can carry 50,000 containers. That's going to happen too," explains Geeroms.
"At the same time, shipping prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. These are now stabilizing to about €750 to €1,000 per container. It's all about efficiency. Capacity management's being taken to the extreme. And, apparently, its less costly to keep sailing with empty containers. Rather than having the ship docked."
According to Johan, the question is whether future container shipping can continue at this pace. "More and more people are questioning the current globalization. They see dangers in this one-sided, single-country production dependence. Buying closer to home seems to be the alternative, but it's also pricier. The OECD also warns against this - the reversal of global 'value chains' comes at a hefty price. As long as we're still part of this, empty container ships will keep sailing the world's seas."