Shipping companies suspected of anti-competitive practices

It’s a topic that shipping companies carefully avoid discussing when asked why their freight rates have skyrocketed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They willingly cite port congestion, the shortage of containers, or even the imbalance between supply and demand. Reasons which, in the end, escape their responsibility. However, according to the American administration, an excessive concentration of the sector could also have fueled this surge in prices.

“The root cause of increases in the cost of transport is the anti-competitive nature of the freight market”, thus accuses the American senator Elizabeth Warren, in a letter sent at the end of March to the French CMA CGM as well as to eight other shipowners. A few weeks earlier, US President Joe Biden threatened in his State of the Union address to “crack down on companies that practice abusive and excessive pricing”pointing to the “gigantic profits” sea ​​carriers. Their cumulative profits reached $150 billion.
(about 138 billion euros) in 2021, a historic record.

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Unusually, authorities in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and South Africa decided in early April to cooperate in investigating suspected cartels. The European Union (EU), where four of the five major shipping companies in the world have their headquarters (MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd), is one of the few not to have announced the opening of a investigation, despite repeated requests from several organizations, such as the Association of Freight Transport Users (AUTF), based in France.

Closely monitored prices

With his team of researchers, Olaf Merk, specialist in maritime trade at the International Transport Forum (ITF) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, has nevertheless detected several signs of a possible agreement in the sector: “We noticed that in Europe the ports were not more congested in 2020 than before the pandemic, and the delays had also started long before. » Economists were also surprised to note that in the summer of 2020, when activity picked up in China and demand remained strong in Europe, shipowners waited until September before resuming their shipments at a normal pace. . It was precisely from June 2020 that freight prices began to soar while maintaining high levels since then.

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