Home » What’s a Containerized Freight Index and Why You Should Care?

What’s a Containerized Freight Index and Why You Should Care?

by | Jan 28, 2024 | Blog Post

A containerized freight index, such as the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index and the China Containerized Freight Index, tracks the cost of shipping containers on major trade lanes. If ocean shipping represents a large expense for you, it helps to have a handle on how rates fluctuate week to week and over time. This article will explain containerized freight indexes, with particular focus on indexes that track outbound rates from China.


What is a containerized freight index?

Shipping freight indexes capture current market rates by monitoring and aggregating rates across various trade lanes. Some indexes are public, while others are available exclusively to subscribers.

Data on rates is collected from carriers, shippers, freight forwarders, government sources and trade associations. This data is compiled and presented as the average for the monitored route or region.

Think of freight rate indexes as the always-on heart rate monitors for container shipping. They track and analyze how much it costs to ship goods, which is crucial information for businesses whose supply chains rely on ocean shipping services.

Indexes are helpful to identify directional trends in the market. For instance, spot market rates falling can suggest a softening market.

One important thing to understand is that not all freight indexes are calculated in the same way. The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI), for example, is based on spot rates provided by non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOs) at origin for container exports out of Shanghai. Drewry’s World Container Index (WCI) and the Xeneta Shipping Index (XSI) are based on both contract and spot rate data provided by shippers or forwarders. Also, different indexes can include different surcharges/add-ons, so they may yield different results when checking on the same trade lane at the same date range.

For these reasons, different indexes may report different results.

An index that is more oriented toward spot rates from smaller shippers, for example, would have trended far higher than other indexes during fall 2021 during the peak of global shipping demand. That same index will trend far lower today than contract rates and other indexes because of softer demand.

Publicly available index data also differs from private data available only to subscribers. Drewry and Xeneta clients, for example, can view data derived from only their specific lanes and, therefore, will get a more accurate point of comparison with their own rates versus using public indexes, which offer a more general view of the market.

Since such a large proportion of the world’s products are manufactured and shipped from China, it makes sense that shippers, journalists and economists are very interested in indexes that track exports from China.  Let’s take a look at two important indexes published out of China: The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index and The China Containerized Freight Index.


The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index

The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index is a highly cited metric used to discuss the health of global trade.

Introduced in 2009, SCFI holds a significant position in the international container market since Shanghai is the world’s largest port. The index tracks rate developments for exports from Shanghai to base ports in major trading regions globally. The SCFI has gained prominence in line with Shanghai’s ascent as a global transport hub. Today, it is frequently cited in discussions about the current state of the container freight market.

By zeroing in on specific routes, this index lets shippers understand which trade lanes are hitting their wallets hardest and why. It’s crucial for those looking to keep their finger on the market’s pulse because these costs can fluctuate widely.

The SCFI moves up and down based on the spot rates of the Shanghai export container transport market based on data compiled from 15 different shipping routes.

While it is referenced quite often as a barometer of container freight rates out of China, this index has its limitations. It has a narrower scope than nearly every other freight index: it only tracks exports (not imports) from a single market (Shanghai) and it relies upon weekly spot rates, which can be quite different than long-term contract rates. Roughly 75% of the global market actually runs on contracted rates, so while the SCFI is useful in gauging the current state of the market, it’s not always the best reflection of the price being paid by most shippers.

The SCFI covers rates only, but many assume higher rates mean higher volumes. While that could be the case, there are times when an overabundance of freight capacity in the market may bring rates down despite growing export freight volumes. So SCFI data must be viewed in a broader context.


China Containerized Freight Index

The China Containerized Freight Index (CCFI) was established in 1998 to monitor container freight rates across 10 major ports in China, including Dalian, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, Nanjing, Ningbo, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. It encompasses 12 major trades, spanning significant markets in the Far East, Asia, Europe, Mediterranean, Australasia, North and South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Weekly data updates are published every Friday.

While the SCFI is based on spot rates from Shanghai to the ports in the index, the much broader China Containerized Freight Index (CCFI) is based on the price of containers leaving from all major ports in China, and is a composite of spot rates and contractual rates.

Unlike the SCFI, the CCFI doesn’t just focus on one port; it throws a wider net over multiple Chinese ports to provide a more comprehensive read.

Think about it, if you were planning a simultaneous outside event happening in different cities, you wouldn’t just check the weather in one city; you’d want a broader forecast.

The CCFI stands out because it offers insights that stretch beyond Shanghai’s shores, capturing nuances from other significant hubs such as Shenzhen and Ningbo. This is crucial since not all cargo sails through Shanghai, despite its heavyweight status in global trade.


Other Containerized Freight Indexes

The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index and the China Containerized Freight Index are commonly used by shippers that manufacture in China and ship to the US, Europe and other world markets. Other commonly used ocean freight indexes include:

Another index to be aware of is the Containerized Freight Index Futures (CoFIF), reflecting freight rates for containers shipped from Shanghai to European ports. The freight futures are being traded since August 2023 with the aim to help firms hedge against fluctuation risks in container freight. The product is being traded on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange, a subsidiary of Shanghai Future Exchange, and is regulated by the China Securities Regulatory Commission.


The best freight indexes are more local

The rate to ship the exact same volume of the exact same commodity for the exact same distance can be wildly different if you ship from different ports. Container volumes at the port, trade flows, equipment imbalances, and other factors contribute to the difference in rates. For that reason, stick with a containerized freight index that captures data at a granular level for your trade lanes, versus relying on global-level indexes.


Does a containerized freight index predict rates?

Ocean freight indexes typically provide information on current shipping costs rather than predicting future costs. These indexes serve as a benchmark for the current market rates. They are based on the actual transactions and agreements between shippers and carriers, reflecting the prevailing prices for transporting goods via sea.

While the indexes offer valuable insights into the present state of the shipping market, they do not inherently include predictive elements. Future shipping costs can be influenced by various factors such as geopolitical events, economic conditions, fuel prices, regulatory changes, and global supply and demand dynamics. As a result, predicting future freight costs involves analyzing a broader range of factors and is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty.

That said, freight indexes can provide useful data for planning purposes.  It’s not unlike stock fund indexes. Such indexes can’t predict future fund performance, but past performance and patterns can help to make informed judgments about how they might perform going forward.


Be an informed buyer of container shipping

Knowledge is power – especially when it comes to freight rates – and container freight indexes can provide a good, objective barometer on the direction of freight rates.  The China-focused indexes offer vital insights, from Shanghai’s bustling docks to China’s vast port networks, that can inform your decision making.

Dimerco is strategically focused on managing freight to, from and within Asia and regularly references these trade indexes. If you’d like to benchmark your own shipping rates out of China or just need the support of an Asia-Pac logistics specialist, contact Dimerco today and let’s start a conversation.

New call-to-action