Why the Rising Cost of Shipping Matters

The prices that container ship owners charge for carrying manufactured goods around the world are pretty good indicators of economic activity. Some 90 percent of all trade involves oceangoing ships, so the business of shippers like Maersk reflects changes in demand fast. The Hamburg Shipbrokers Assn. of Germany maintains an index that tracks the prices charged by container ship lines. After plunging in 2009 the index has risen every month since, for a total gain of around 97 percent year to date. "They have seen a remarkable recovery," says Harald Serck-Hanssen, global head of shipping, offshore, and logistics at Oslo financial-services group DnB NOR.

While the container index has charged way up, it's still well below its recent peak in the spring of 2008, indicating the global recovery has a long way to go before it recaptures all the ground lost to recession. Philip Damas, a director at Drewry Shipping Consultants in London, figures demand for container ships will cool off in the second half, once stores and factories have replenished inventories, but will remain solid. Separate indexes that track oil tankers and carriers of raw materials like grain have gone up too, though not in the same smooth straight line container ships have followed.

The bottom line: Prices charged by owners of container ships have risen around 97 percent since December but are still short of their 2008 peak.

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