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Sri Lanka exporters, importers battle high rates, box shortfalls to maintain trade lifeline

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Sri Lanka’s exporters and importers are working against multiple global and domestic logistics disruptions in the post-Covid-19 period to keep exports ticking and supply the country with essential foods and raw material as freight rates soar.

Exporters are also facing shortfalls of containers with import controls in Sri Lanka, compounding global bottlenecks in shuttling empty containers.

Though freight rates have started to stabilize gradually from Covid-19 peaks, Sri Lankan shippers are paying high rates and battling capacity bottlenecks.

Perfect Storm

Freight rates from Colombo to Europe, China and Hong Kong have jumped over 200 per cent, to the US over 150 per cent and to Singapore over 100 per cent, Sri Lanka’s Shipper Council Chairman Suren Abeysekera said.

Freight rates were competitive before the Covid-19 pandemic, helped by large container ships coming into service, but pandemic disruptions rapidly pushed up rates as ships were taken off service reducing capacity.

The Shanghai Freight Index has jumped three-fold compared to 2019 last quarter while the Drewry’s World Container Freight Index also shows a threefold jump from 2019 with the average spot freight rate jumping from 1500 dollars in March 2019 to 4800 dollar by March 2021, Abeysekera said.

“In my 21-plus year experience I have never seen something like this before,” Abeysekera said calling it a ‘perfect storm’ in ocean freight.

The resurgence of economic activities after Covid lockdowns ended, and the rush to build up stocks had created congestion in the global logistics system.

Shipping companies were making large profits and orders have also been placed at shipbuilders.

“Whatever that stopped during COVID, couldn’t come back to its former glory even though the industry came back quickly to match the consumer demand,” Abeysekera explained.

Costly Delays

Across the logistics chain, there are delays and congestion, which is a cost to shippers.

“Congestions created at ports amplify this issue with ships spending more time close to ports rather than moving cargo on water,” Abeysekera said.

While global trade has not actually grown, it is the disruptions and delays that are causing capacity problems, he said.

“Remember the number of ships in the world has not suddenly increased but most are out of schedule creating havoc to demand when it needs supply.”

“It is our understanding that the current volatility in the ocean freight market would continue throughout 2021 and shippers in the country should adapt to the new norm in containerized shipping,” he said.

The industry has taken a number of initiatives to mitigate the situation; more innovations are being underway, but there are also measures that authorities can take, he said.

Box Shortfall

Overall ships are fuller than before, reducing the ability of shuttles to be emptied.

Globally there were difficulties in getting hold of empty containers and also specific types such as food-grade boxes, refrigerated containers and different sizes such as 40-foot containers and 20-foot containers.

Vessels delaying their return to Asia due to congestion in export destinations had also contributed to a shortfall of containers in Asia. Others have also got stuck in inland ports.

There is at least one investigation by regulators to probe whether an artificial shortage is created, he said.

In Sri Lanka exporters are facing difficulties getting empty containers in general and specific types of containers.

Sri Lanka’s import controls had created shortfalls of empty containers, whereas, in the past, there was an excess of boxes on the island.

“Specifically for Sri Lanka, the reduction of imports has had a direct impact on container availability,” Abeysekera said.

“Generally, Sri Lanka has an imbalance in the number of containers with more inflow than outflow. But currently, it is reversed.”

Due to import imbalance, the 20’ equivalent size containers have a better availability compared to 40’ and 45’ containers in Sri Lanka.

But the overall export cost of 2 x 20’ containers instead of a 40’ container is incomparable.

Shippers Innovating

Shippers are taking several measures on their own to mitigate the fallout and maintain the external trade lifelines of the country.

Forecasting volumes to shipping lines and maintaining accuracy is one way to make sure shipments can be made on time.

“Currently, the earlier you could forecast the lines, the better chance for exporters/ importers to obtain space on vessels,” Abeysekera said.

“Presently, forecasting is done as early as and when found weeks ahead by some users. This helps with rates as well.”

The creation of a common container pool without having to look for containers in specific yards would also help, he said.

It is not clear whether an online data-based could be set up for container freight stations to update data daily.

Official Measures

State authorities could also take measures that would help combat the problem.

Sri Lanka has lost a number of ocean services during the congestion that happened during a Covid-19 spike at Colombo Port last year.

Though many lines have returned some are still bypassing Colombo.

“Sri Lanka should market its Colombo port internationally as a port which successfully combats Covid and attract vessels back to its shores which will increase capacity for local importers and exporters,” Abeysekera said.

Attracting new lines to Colombo would also help.

Sri Lanka can also invite shipping lines to use Colombo as their hub in Asia, he said.

Additional ships calling in Colombo will give more business to shipping agents and other service providers including husbandry and ship services.

Sri Lanka however has placed controls on foreign ownership of shipping agencies, which some say has prevented the island from following on the path of Singapore where regional offices are set up.

Fast-tracking clearances by border agencies would also help, he said.

Sri Lanka can also relook at import controls, he said. Ad hoc changes are creating ripples and uncertainties in the market.

While the cost of shipping had hit record levels, shippers have to put up with very high service charges from middlemen such as freight forwarders, consolidators.

He says such gauging is unethical given the current context. (ECONOMYNEXT)

 

 



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Crisis over fuel price hike: SLPP constituents crank up pressure on party General Secretary

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Eight lawmakers representing political parties affiliated to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) have urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to take action against SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, MP, for challenging the government decision to increase fuel prices.

The group consists of National List MP Ven. Athureliye Rathana (Our Power of People Party), Wimal Weerawansa (National Freedom Front), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front), Prof. Tissa Vitharana (LSSP), A.L.M. Athaulla (National Congress), G. Weerasinghe (Communist Party), Tiran Alles (United People’s Party) and Asanka Nawaratne (Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya) in a joint letter, dated June 14, have appealed for the immediate intervention of the President and the Premier in this regard.

Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Alles are among 17 appointed to Parliament on the SLPP National List.

They warned that failure to take tangible measures against such actions would result in the deterioration of public confidence in the government. The SLPP parliamentary group comprises 145 MPs.

The group of lawmakers was responding to SLPP National List MP Kariyawasam’s controversial call for the immediate resignation of Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over the sharp increase of fuel prices at midnight on June 11.

They issued the statement consequent to a hasty  meeting called at Minister Weerawansa’s official residence on Sunday.

Noting that the Presidential Secretariat, too, on Sunday confirmed that the decision to increase fuel prices had been taken on June 09 at a meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and attended by Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, the group of MPs accused the SLPP General Secretary of causing a wholly unnecessary problem. The group alleged that MP Kariyawasam’s actions had caused suspicion among the electorate whether a clique was in operation in the SLPP.

Minister Gammanpila, embroiled in simmering controversy has refrained from signing the petition though he called another press conference today (15) to explain the developments.

 The group said that in view of the financial crisis that had been caused by the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic the government was forced to increase fuel prices in spite of it being an unpopular measure.

Political sources pointed out that in February this year MP Sagara Kariyawasam caused a media furore when he asked Minister Weerawansa to apologise for suggesting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be accommodated in the SLPP decision-making body. The group that has thrown its weight  behind Minister Gammanpila also clashed with a section of the SLPP lawmakers over the government bid to allow Indian investment at the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port.

MP Kariyawasam did not answer his mobile phone.

In addition to MP Kariyawasam, MP Jagath Kumara (Colombo District) too strongly condemned the fuel price hike.

The SLPP MPs demanding action against Kariyawasam assured that they would soon submit a comprehensive proposal to President Rajapaksa to provide support to low income groups.

The Presidential Secretariat said that the price increase was necessitated by the financial crisis caused by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) being heavily indebted  to the Bank of Ceylon  and the People’s Bank to the tune of Rs 737 bn. Of that sum, CPC owed Rs 652 bn, the biggest single amount in any of the state sector enterprises.

The Samagi Jana Balavegagaya MP Mujibur Rahman said that Minister Gammanpila owed an explanation why he made the announcement as regards the fuel price hike as the matter came under the purview of the Finance Ministry.  Rahman pointed out that Minister Gammanpila himself subsequently admitted that only the Finance Ministry could decide on this matter. The former UNP MP said that the government’s much touted claim that the decision to increase fuel prices had been finalized on June 09 at the Cost of Living Committee was nothing but a joke. “We thought the Cost of Living Committee was meant to provide relief to the people not to increase their burden,” MP Rahman said.

The SJB spokesperson ridiculed the statement issued by a group of eight MPs. He alleged that the SLPP was staging a drama to divert the attention of the public. Their parliamentary group should take up responsibility for the current crisis having promised to transform the country overnight. Those who had voted for the 20th Amendment in October last year as well as the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill last month were engaged in a futile campaign to save the government, the SJB MP said.

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Basil R wouldn’t have allowed fuel price increase – MP

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Gampaha District SLPP MP Nimal Lanza yesterday said that if Basil Rajapaksa had been in the country, he wouldn’t have allowed the fuel price increase. He said that he strongly opposed the decision as it seriously affected the people, particularly the fishing community.

 

 

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1198 lockdown violators arrested

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By Norman Palihawadane

The Police had arrested 1,198 people countrywide for violating lockdown regulations in the 24 hours that ended yesterday morning, police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said.

A total of 32,593 persons had been arrested on the relevant charges since Oct 30, last year,  he said.

DIG Rohana said that special police teams had been deployed to continue the operations today as well to nab lockdown violators.

During the same period 3,051 persons travelling in 1,757 vehicles were inspected at 14 entry and exit points in the Western Province. Of them, 160 persons travelling in 100 vehicles were sent back for attempting to cross provincial borders for non-essential purposes, violating travel restrictions.

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