48,000+ Boat Calls at Risk in Most Efficient Ports

Image by Barrett Ward for Unsplash

Last week, the World Bank released its annual report on the performance of container ports—arguably, the most comprehensive means to compare shipping terminals around the world. At Auba, we looked closely at its findings with one purpose in mind: to better understand the impact that current trade disruptions could have on global trade as a whole. In so doing, we uncovered that, amongst the 60 most efficient ports in the world—and, by extension, some of the largest—at least 50% are currently subject to some form of mild or severe trade disruption, accounting for 60% of total port calls in the world.

Let us explain why this matters (and how we found these numbers).

Oftentimes, when speaking of ports around the world, the most common metric for their performance is their TEU capacity. Namely, the number of containers they handle in any given year. Such, at least, is the metric most popularly used by the World Shipping Council and most supply chain news outlets—it is even the metric we chose to use for our report on North American Ports. It makes sense; if one cares about the overall value of a container port to trade, there are few units that are as relevant as the amount of cargo entering the port in a given year.

However, TEUs on their own are not the most accurate way to understand port activity—more so if one hopes to understand recent port congestions.

To start, TEUs say little about the activity of a given port—that is, how busy a terminal might be at any given point. Cargo ships vary drastically based on the number of containers they are able to carry, from small vessels carrying less than 1,500 TEUs to giant ships with more than 13,000 TEUs at a time. So, a port that handles one million TEUs could see a considerable traffic of over 660 vessels carrying 1,500 TEUs each a year or 76 ships carrying 13,000 TEUs in the same period. It is, of course, a matter of trade-offs—to handle more ships with less cargo or less ships with bigger cargo. 

A better approach to understanding port activity is to look at the boats that call on each port every year. That, paired with the time spent at port and the number of containers handled, gives us a better understanding of how important different points are to trade. Those with more port calls are, at the same time, the ports with the most activity. If, in turn, you wish to understand the impact of a given disruption on trade, it is crucial to also understand the number of ships that will be unable to dock at a given port.

If, for instance, a port known to handle 3,000 boat calls a year is disrupted, those 3,000 vessels will need to find a new place to dock. If, in turn, all the neighboring ports can only handle 2,0000 vessels a year on top of their current traffic flows, it might be impossible to divert the entirety of trade—much as it happened in Baltimore, after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge blocked all access to the city’s container port and forced shipping companies to re-route their traffic.

Luckily, the World Bank’s Container Port Performance Index (CPPI) serves as a proxy for such metrics by trying to rank all ports according to their overall efficiency when handling cargo and not just on the sheer volume of cargo. Namely, how well does the port handle TEUs instead of the sheer number being administered. This year, the top performing port was Yangshan in China, followed closely by Salalah in Oman (both keeping their position from previous years), while Tanger Mediterranean in Morocco and Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia both grew one spot in the ranking.

Top 10 Ports by Efficiency Ranked (2022 & 2023)

A bump chart showing the ranking of top ports by efficiency in 2022 and 2023
(Data from the World Bank)

Most important, however, is one of the metrics used by the World Bank and made publicly available through their report. Namely, the total number of boat calls per port. Since the World Bank takes into account the call numbers when making their index, we found an intuitive and positive relationship between the two: the higher the number of calls in a port, the more efficient they tended to be. You can think of this in terms of an investment. If you are building a large container port in a crucial trade route, odds are that trade point will be efficient.

Relationship of Calls at Port and Port Efficiency

A scatter plot showing the relationship between the efficiency of a port and the total number of port calls in a year.
(Data from the World Bank)

Looking just at the top 60 ports in the World Bank List, we began to notice some clear patterns in the locations of the most efficient, and, by the same token, the busiest ports. Amongst the top 60 ports in the CPPI,  72.9% were located in Asia, with Middle Eastern Ports in a distant second place handling more than 8% of all calls.

Total Number of Calls by Region (2023)

A pie chart showing the total number of port calls in 2023 by region of the world
(Data from the World Bank)

Since we’ve previously mapped the majority of ports in the world based on their congestion times, we were once again able to locate the top 60 ports in the CPPI in a geographical plane. In so doing, we noticed a mildly different pattern than the one we observed in terms of congestion. While most congested ports were concentrated on the Middle East and South China Sea, the bulk of port calls were located in the Eastern Coast of China and the Strait of Malacca.

Top 60 Most Efficient Ports Mapped by Total Port Calls (2023)

A world map showing the top 60 ports by efficiency according to the world bank with different sizes representing the total number of calls they received in 2023.
(Data from Auba Research and the World Bank)

With this in mind, we were able to categorize the sixty largest ports based on the level of congestion they are experiencing at the moment—and which we recently covered extensively ourselves. For Middle Eastern Ports currently subject to Houthi attacks, and ports along the Strait of Malacca, currently suffering from increased wait times, we gave the label of “Severely” disrupted. Ports in Europe with growing congestions due to a surge in vessel traffic and Chinese Ports expediting port activity ahead of new US sanctions, we categorized as “Mildly” disrupted. All other ports we categorized as suffering no disruptions at the moment.

In so doing, we found that 53.3% of the world’s most efficient ports are currently suffering either severe or mild congestion. This, in turn, implies that 62.3% of all vessel traffic in top ports will likely be subject to some form of delay this year—with 22.4% currently suffering from some form of traffic of this sort. That is nearly two thirds of total traffic amongst the ports. This equals to some 48,582 boat calls in the busiest ports. For reference, the total container fleet of the largest shipping companies holds just 6,965 vessels in charge of making those calls every year.

Total Calls at Port by Type of Current Disruption

A pie chart showing the total number of port calls in 2023 by level of disruption they are likely to suffer given current problems in supply chains.
(Data from the World Bank)

In sum, by looking at the efficiency of ports rather than their TEUs as a whole, we are better able to understand the impact of modern disruptions into global supply chains. In so doing, we found that over 48,000 boat calls might be subject to delays in the coming months given the current state of the supply chain industry. Now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to gain full visibility to such impacts and prevent their potential damages before it is too late.