Opinion: Navigating through high maritime freight rates


By Imesha Dissanayake

Maritime Freight rates have been on an upward trend since the second half of 2020. The Drewry’s composite World Container Index (WCI) as at 30th September 2021 increased to USD 10,361 per 40ft container, which is 292% higher than the same period in 2020. The average composite index of the WCI (Drewry), for year-to-date, was about three times higher than the five-year average of USD 2,430 per 40ft container.

The causes of the historic highs in shipping freight rates have been owing to a multitude of factors. These include COVID-19 disruptions, container inventory imbalances, Suez Canal blockage and lack of competition in the shipping industry, which has been weighing into the growing trend of freight rates. Industry experts believe that the freight rates would not recover to pre-pandemic levels in the 6 to 12-month period.  However, recently, two of the world’s top container lines (CMA CGM Group and HAPAG-Lloyd) have pledged to freeze their spot rates and put off any further increases in spot freight rates for containerised cargo. This may persuade other carriers to follow suit and lead to an improvement in freight rates.

  1. COVID-19 Related Disruptions

In the second half of 2020, global economic activity and trade witnessed a sharp rebound driven mainly by the manufacturing sector. However, the services sector and especially the most contact-intensive activities such as port operations lagged behind owing to the continued need for social distancing, labour shortages and other limitations of the pandemic. This resulted in delays and congestions at ports particularly in Europe, USA and recently in China with the outbreak of the Delta variant. This led to increased turnaround time for vessels causing disruptions to regular schedules of carriers and also created a large-scale container imbalance. The outbreak of the Delta variant can also further disrupt trade in Asia where around 42% of global exports are sourced according to United Nations estimates. These disruptions are coming at a time when the industry is preparing to ramp up for the Christmas holiday season, which could cause a further acceleration of freight rates in the near future.

  • E-commerce – Split shipments

As lockdowns and limitations on movement became the new normal, consumers opted for electronic modes of purchasing goods and services and, businesses followed suit by improving their e-commerce channels. E-commerce retailers have been relying on split shipments where when an online order that contains multiple products is broken down into separate shipments to enable fast and efficient delivery. These factors coupled with the shortage of containers have further aggravated the freight rates while also creating a harmful ecosystem of increased shipments and freight costs.

  • Less Competition in Shipping Lines and Alternatives for Shipping

The limitations on belly capacity in passenger aircraft due to the decline in passengers travelling by air has led to the lack of alternatives for ocean freight. This has led to capacity constraints in the shipping industry as opposed to the overcapacity seen in the industry prior to 2020 and the difficulty in avoiding soaring freight rates. However, at present, the strong earnings of the shipping industry have triggered new orders for ships this year, doubling the orders received for all of 2019 and 2020 according to Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO). These new ships that are scheduled to be added to the fleet from 2023 onwards, could ease capacity constraints.

  • Decarbonisation

Globally we are witnessing an accelerated effort towards decarbonisation measures such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) measures to reduce the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by ships, which are to be in force on November 2022. A study done by UNCTAD on the impact of these measures by IMO revealed that this will lead to slightly higher freight rates as a result of internalizing external costs and also as a result of going at lower speeds to reduce CO2 emissions. While the magnitude of these increases are relatively small when compared to current fluctuations in freight rates, these will be relevant for many years to come until the sector has reached an energy-efficient level.

  • Suez Canal blockage

The container ship that was wedged in the Suez Canal at the start of the year, though for a short period, had ripple effects on the industry. This further aggravated the already stretched shipping market. As the ships took longer to reach their destinations, the shortage of empty containers increased further in this period. This led to high pressure and increased freight rates not only for the routes passing through the Suez Canal but also for the routes nearby.

Impact on Sectors


Sri Lanka’s export industry is reliant on imported raw materials for its exports. According to statistics by the Central Bank, intermediate imports account for around 50-60% of total imports in the country. This makes the country’s exports relatively expensive due to the increased procuring cost of imported raw materials and increased shipping cost of exports. Even though exports such as apparel, which consists of a larger portion of the country’s export basket are exported Free-On-Board (FOB), this still increases the final price of the export as the buyer incorporates the freight cost into the final price of the product.

Factors that had supported Sri Lankan exporters to receive competitive freight rates prior to the pandemic such as the country’s strategic location (being the last port of call to destinations such as the UK, Europe and USA) and regulations such as “All in Freight Rate” where all charges of shipping had to be consolidated into one rate, too are no longer working favorably for Sri Lankan exports, given the current constraints in capacity.   

Sri Lanka historically had an imbalance between the 20ft containers and 40ft containers. This imbalance was further aggravated by the imposition of the import ban on certain items such as vehicles, which limited the 40ft container imports to the country. Therefore, exporters in Sri Lanka are also facing a container shortage, which in return adds to the already high freight rates. 


Importers usually pass on their freight costs to the consumers. Under almost every conceivable scenario (whether FOB, Cost and Freight – CNF, etc.), an importer will bear the cost of any increase in transportation costs including paying for insurance and other related costs, which too have increased. The higher freight costs also increase the duties and levies. All of these costs are eventually passed on to the consumers. This could further intensify the inflationary pressure in the economy given the expansionary monetary measures followed by the Government during the past year. The inflationary pressure will also affect consumer welfare with the unprecedented challenges posed by the current pandemic.

On top of exorbitant freight rates comes the limited availability of dollars in the country to settle import bills. This creates delays initially at the banks, which then in most cases lead to delays in the customs clearance process, adding further demurrage charges that have to be borne by the importer. These again exacerbate the cost of imports to the country and the price paid by consumers.

Solutions to Navigate through High Freight Rates

The solutions to navigate through the growing freight rates are twofold. The first set of solutions are for the private sector, which can be carried out by individual exporters and importers prior to the shipment of goods in order to mitigate high freight rates. The recommendation for Government entities is to reduce other trade costs and lower the business operational costs for traders, as, price controls would not resolve the current situation and, may further aggravate it by creating more supply chain bottlenecks. A brief overview of these solutions are set out below.

  1. Solutions for the Private Sector
  1. Strategic Planning

Strategic planning can aid in limiting the exposure to high freight rates and be a cost saving for traders as rush orders can incur heavy costs on the traders. Through careful planning, these high freight rates can potentially be managed. Strategic planning also includes analysis done on freight rates both historic and future estimates in order to better understand the trends and to plan accordingly. This will enable traders to make informed decisions backed by data and information.

  • Optimising Markets and Shipments  

Freight rates can be optimised by focusing on numerous factors such as route, market and shipment. Deciding between Full-Container-Load (FCL) or Less-than-Container-Load (LCL) or as groupage can help optimise the freight rates as there are multiple charges involved in an LCL or groupage compared to FCL. Using the right type of containers such as 20ft container for weight-based cargo and 40ft container for volume-based cargo can also help optimise freight cost. It is also imperative to identify the right incoterm such as FOB, CNF, CIF (Cost, Insurance and Freight), FAS (Free Alongside Ship), etc. as these aid in identifying who pays for the various charges of the shipment and the responsibilities thereof. Route and market optimisation is another option to lower freight rates by analysing the routes used by the various carriers and markets that have a container deficiency. Carriers may offer special deals to customers who are able to ship cargo where a container is already being repositioned or customers that can triangulate container shipments. This would also offer an opportunity for Sri Lankan exporters to diversify into new markets such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, etc. where there is a container deficit. This will induce shipping lines to drop off empty containers in Sri Lanka for exports to these markets and defray carriers’ empty re-positioning costs.

  • Solutions for the Government

Reducing Other Costs through Trade Facilitation

Automation of all trade related agencies are pivotal to have a resilient industry and bring in strategic transformation, leveraging on the opportunity presented by the pandemic. Under Category C commitment for Sri Lanka under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), Article 8, a mechanism to develop a Border Agency Corporation is required by Sri Lanka. Although, the automation of few individual agencies were seen, the lack of integration and inter-agency connectivity is a deterrent for this process. Implementation of the National Single Window (NSW) is the long-term permanent solution for the country to keep the business operational costs low to face situations of this nature or worse scenarios in the future. Therefore, the Government can look to accelerate the implementation of this long-overdue project without any further delay.  The blueprint for the National Single Window has already been developed.

Full report can be accessed at – Navigating through High Maritime Freight Rates

The writer is a Research Associate attached to the Economic Intelligence Unit of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. This article is part of the Strategic Insight Series, which focuses on key contemporary topics that matter to the private sector. Topics such as Renewable Energy, REITS, State-Owned Enterprises and FinTech Regulatory Sandbox amongst others have been covered by the briefs to date.

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