Source: UNCTAD, Review of Maritime Transport, Various years.
Maritime Container Freight Rates (USD per TEU), 1993-2009
The evolution of container freight rates along major long distance maritime routes reveals some trends:
  • Economies of scale. Increasing capacity and competition had a notable impact on rates. For instance, in spite of inflation rates have declined through the 1990s and remained stable through the 2000s. This indicates the allocation of large containerships along these routes.
  • Significant imbalances in containerized maritime freight rates have emerged along major trading routes. Prior to 1998, the "spread" between eastbound and westbound rates used to be relatively narrow, a couple of hundred USD per TEU. From 1999, the rate spread increased to about a thousand USD per TEU, a reflection of the substantial global trade imbalances. On one hand, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 created a substantial devaluation of their respective currencies (with the exception of the Chinese Yuan which was pegged to the USD until 2005), which made exports cheaper. On the other hand, the same period was characterized by significant economic growth in North America with its associated consumption and a level of deindustrialization. American containerized imports thus increased at a rate which was significantly faster than exports.
  • While rates between Europe and Asia and between the United States and Asia have steadily declined and then stabilized, rates in the opposite direction (from Asia) have increased and are subject to some volatility, which is mainly linked with business cycles. Since many Asian economies rely on exports, their demand is impacted by cycles of growth (e.g. 1996-1999) and recession (e.g. 2001-2002 and 2008-2010).