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The sharp increase in Asian imports, while US retailers are stockpiling for the holidays, has led to a serious shortage of transport capacity for US exporters, and agricultural producers are now struggling to find the containers they need to ship their products to foreign buyers.

Container companies that want to meet the high demand for goods from China are rushing to unpack the containers and bring them back to Asia, according to industry representatives. As a result, US exporters have fewer crates to fill with soybeans, wood, cotton and other products.

We are now fighting with real carriers who refuse to book and cancel transpacific agricultural exports, said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agricultural Transport Coalition, a trade association representing U.S. farmers. We’re blocked by foreign markets.

This deficit is partly the result of a significant imbalance in the value of goods transported across the Pacific Ocean. For example, US imports from China include large quantities of electronics, clothing, toys and other industrial goods. US exports are highly concentrated in key agricultural commodities and food and beverage products, which have a lower market value.

Container shortages are not uncommon during the summer months, but this year they have worsened and have spread to ports around the world as demand has risen dramatically from record levels in just a few months.

Due to strong import demand in the United States, container freight rates from China to the US west coast seaports have exceeded USD 4,000 per container, while the average price of container transport from Los Angeles to Shanghai has averaged USD 518 in recent weeks.

For forwarders, this means that it makes more financial sense to rush to Asia than to wait inland for a few weeks to reach the exporters and then return to the coastal port.

Demand is driven by American consumers ordering goods such as sports equipment, entertainment equipment and furniture, says Niels Haupt, spokesman for the German container line.

Hapag-Lloyd AG

. The ships from China to the United States are overflowing and there is a great demand for empty crates in China. We expect it to continue in the first quarter.

The increase in American imports began in mid-summer, after world trade came to a standstill as a result of the city closures caused by the Covida 19 pandemic. The large US retailers rushed to replenish stocks that had been depleted at the start of the pandemic and began to drag more Asian products into warehouses and e-commerce stores as consumer sales resumed.

The Global Port Tracker report, prepared by the National Federation of Retailers and Hackett Associates LLC, indicates that the major US ports imported 2.11 million containers in September, an increase of 12.5% on the previous year and the highest monthly figure since 2002.

We’re seeing more imports for resupply than ever before and they can’t be processed fast enough, said Gene Seroka, general manager of the Port of Los Angeles. We have 6-cell containers and the time we spend at the terminal has almost doubled to more than 4 days. This is a one-way street and the empty crates are processed last.

In the nearby port of Long Beach, 88,903 more empty than loaded containers were handled in October.

Seroka said that the Covida 19 pandemic exacerbates the situation because fewer people work in warehouses and terminals as a result of the policy of social distance.

For more information, see Logistics report

Imbalances in trade affect ports and cargo owners around the world. In South Korea, government officials on Thursday called container line officials to warn them of contract violations with Korean exporters after complaints about empty boxes were sent to China amid higher freight rates.

Freight brokers in China and Singapore reported that they were inundated with requests for more outgoing freight. There’s a race to book every empty container that comes in. We haven’t seen such a question in more than ten years, according to an intermediary in Shanghai.

As retailers continue to import record quantities of goods, industry leaders expect imbalances and shortages of outdoor equipment to persist during the holiday season.

The peak shipping season lasts from August to early October, but this year we have a peak steroid season that began in July and continues to this day, said Steve Ferreira, managing director of New York-based consulting firm Ocean Audit Inc.

Write to Costas Paris at [email protected]

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