Russian exporters are being hampered in their efforts to reach overseas markets by a shortage of empty containers, one of the side-effects of a devalued rouble caused by a combination of plummeting oil prices and trade sanctions.
Imports in to Russia have plunged over the past year because of the plight of the country’s economy that has crushed domestic demand.
But a weak currency has also significantly improved export prospects as Russian businesses adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
However, meeting the demands of overseas customers has proved a severe headache because of a lack of containers in which to move cargo, according to Andrey Naraevskiy, liner and business development director for Ruscon, one of the country’s leading container logistics companies.
This has never been a problem in the past, given the big trade imbalance with imports easily outstripping exports, leaving plenty of containers available to move outbound freight.
Over the past year, though, import volumes have collapsed. In the first seven months of 2015, there was a 33% decline to 909,000 teu, with ports such as St Petersburg particularly hard hit because of the loss of foodstuffs bought from the US and Europe before the trade embargo.
The situation “has been challenging, to put it mildly,” said Mr Naraevskiy in a telephone interview from Novorossiysk.
One of the few bright spots has been the potential for exports, which are now much cheaper for overseas buyers in countries that have not imposed sanctions. But volumes have been slow to pick up, partly because of the lack of empties.
Overall, containerised exports have only risen by about 1%-2% so far this year, according to Mr Naraevskiy. But the past couple of months have seen a surge in exports, with growth levels nearer annual rates of 10% to 15%.
That reflects several factors.
The slump in import volumes has seen a corresponding slide in freight rates, whereas those for exports have soared.
Freight rates for Russian exports are now higher than those for imports, a situation not seen before and one to which ocean carriers are only just starting to adjust.
Recognising that Russian exports now represent a relatively lucrative source of revenue, some lines are beginning to position empties to Russia to meet pent up demand.
What concerns Russian exporters is whether boxship operators will continue to provide empties, or if demand in other parts of the world could choke off supply.
“The main factor influencing further growth of Russian exports will be the availability of empties,” said Mr Naraevskiy.
And that in turn will depend on whether container lines continue to consider it financially worthwhile to reposition empty boxes, given the lack of inbound cargo into the economically ailing Russia.