Source: UNCTAD, Review of Maritime Transport.
Containerized Cargo Flows along Major Trade Routes, 1995-2012 (in million TEUs)
Container flows are quite representative of global trade imbalances, which have steadily been growing since the mid 1990s and up to 2008. For instance, there are 1.9 times as much containers moving from Asia to the United States (13.3 million TEUs in 2012) than vice-versa (6.9 million TEU), meaning that the equivalent of 6.4 million TEUs had to be repositioned across the Pacific. More than half the slots of containerships leaving the United States are for empties, particularly for major container ports such as Los Angeles. The Asia-Europe trade route is facing a similar imbalance. It is not uncommon to see whole containerships being chartered solely to reposition empty containers. Thus, production and trade imbalances in the global economy are clearly reflected in imbalances in the physical flows of containers and transport rates. Maritime shippers spend on average $100 billion per year to operate their container assets. Of this, about $16 billion is spent repositioning empties.
For Transpacific trade, it costs more per TEU for eastbound flows than for westbound flows, making freight planning a complex task for container shipping companies. For Asia-Europe flows, westbound rates are higher than eastbound rates. Thus, production and trade imbalances in the global economy result in imbalances in physical flows and transport rates. Even if eastbound trans-Pacific rates are lower than westbound trans-Pacific rates, in theory conferring an advantage to American exports, costs differences are so in favor of Asia (China) that the American economy does not take much advantage of this benefit. There is however evidence that the growth of imbalances has receded. The global recession that was felt in 2009 lessened American and European imports from Asia substantially.