February 21, 2024

For about two months, a barrage of missile and drone attacks in the Red Sea by Houthi militants has posed a difficult choice to shippers using the Suez Canal: risk an airborne strike and pay sharply higher insurance rates, or forgo the canal and take the longer route around Africa, snarling schedules and entailing higher fuel charges.

The attacks — at a choke point that handles 12 percent of global trade, including nearly one-third of the world’s container ship traffic — have already forced some shutdowns at European auto plants and raised fears of a surge in consumer prices.

For shipping companies, costs have already increased. A composite measure of global shipping costs, the Drewry World Container Index, has more than doubled since late last year. The rise is partly tied to a shortage of empty shipping containers, caused by the up to two weeks of additional time for trips going around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

And using the Red Sea now requires expensive war risk insurance. It’s a specialty that a group of brokers and underwriters centered in London offer.

“We are not fair weather underwriters,” said Munro Anderson, head of operations at Vessel Protect, a marine war risk insurance firm. “We are there for our clients when things are at the most difficult,” he added.

War risk coverage is often required for vessels going into areas designated as high risk by a group of insurers called the Joint War Committee, which consists of underwriters at Lloyds and other organizations. War risk is “an area of business where generally if the underwriting community get it right, they make money out of it,” said Marcus Baker, global head of marine, cargo and logistics at Marsh, an insurance broker in London.

But the cost to insure container ships or tankers transiting the Bab al-Mandeb strait off Yemen en route to the Suez has jumped in recent weeks.

Marine war risk premiums have soared around fiftyfold since before the war, to as high as 1 percent of the value of the ship, although about 0.7 percent appears to be more common. For a ship carrying goods worth $100 million, that means an extra $700,000 for the few days necessary to go through the Red Sea area.

Mr. Baker said war risk rates for the Red Sea were less exorbitant than those for shipping in the Black Sea from Ukraine, which can range up to 3 percent. One reason for the differential: The environment is considered more hostile because Russia is a more dangerous attacker than the Houthis. So far, insurers say, the Houthi attacks, while intimidating, have produced relatively little damage.

Some underwriters are also insisting that clients have language in their contracts guaranteeing that they have no connection to Israel, whose military campaign in Gaza is the reason the Houthis give for their attacks, or to the United States and Britain, which have launched air and missile strikes on the Yemen-based group. In an effort to ward off against attacks, a growing number of ships have broadcast messages like “No Contact Israel,” according to TankerTrackers, a monitoring service.

So far the U.S.-led multinational naval task force to protect commercial ships in both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden has not helped lower insurance costs, brokers say, though rates may be leveling off. Israel has offered to compensate shipowners for any damage sustained in Israeli waters.

But at the moment, most of the giant vessels that bring stacks of containers to Western ports from China are taking the Africa route, which could require an extra two weeks with higher fuel costs. Over a recent 30-day period, 517 container ships steered clear of the Red Sea by going around the Cape of Good Hope, while 212 continued through the Suez Canal, said Jonathan Roach, who tracks container shipping for Braemar, a London ship broker. In November, he said, the ratio was roughly the reverse.

Tankers that carry oil and liquefied natural gas around the world are also increasingly avoiding the Suez Canal. Even L.N.G. tankers from Qatar, a major supplier of gas to Europe whose vessels had been considered shielded from Houthi attacks because the emirate had hosted Hamas leaders, are now going around Africa, said Laura Page, an analyst at Kpler, which tracks shipping.

Over time, more tankers may choose the longer route. “There will be a point at which the pain and the cost to go into the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal outweighs simple economics of going around the Cape,” Lois Zabrocky, chief executive of International Seaways, which owns and operates oil and chemical tankers, said at an investor event last week. “And this is a constantly evolving situation.”

Still, energy prices have been subdued, reflecting weakened demand and rising production in the United States and elsewhere, with Brent crude below its level on Oct. 7, the day Hamas attacked Israel. Even as tanker freight rates have risen by about 25 percent since the Red Sea disruptions began, according to Goldman Sachs, European natural gas prices have remained muted, probably because of large amounts of fuel in storage and alternative supplies from the United States.

CMA CGM, a Marseille-based company that is one of the world’s largest container shippers, is sending some vessels through the Suez Canal, at times escorted by the French Navy. Analysts say the ships still moving through Suez tend to be older and smaller vessels that would involve lower losses if they were hit.

It’s unclear if escalating shipping costs will be reflected in consumer prices, especially in Europe, where economies are barely growing. Weak consumer demand means businesses will face pressure to absorb extra shipping costs in their profit margins “instead of passing price rises to the consumer,” analysts at Morgan Stanley said this week.

One factor easing the current crisis is a surfeit of ships and cargo containers. After the severe shipping log jams of 2022, logistics companies ordered large numbers of ships and containers that are now helping to ease a global crunch in the movement of goods.

Longer shipping routes resulting from avoiding the Red Sea are actually helping the market absorb what would have been a substantial oversupply of vessels, at least temporarily heading off the pressure for companies to scrap excess ships, Mr. Roach of Braemar said. “Perhaps it’s not such a bad time for this situation to happen,” he said.

Despite that ample supply of ships and containers, the Red Sea hostilities have caused freight costs to spike. Mr. Roach said it would probably take another three to four months or more of Red Sea disruption for prices to equal their 2022 peak.

Christian Roeloffs, chief executive of Container xChange, a company in Hamburg, Germany, that operates a market for shipping containers, said prices for the boxes were spiking because the sudden lengthening of shipping journeys had caught the industry with inventories of the boxes in the wrong places.

Importers rushing to stock up on orders from Chinese factories before they close for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday are also leading to a scramble for containers, he said.

“Even though, in theory, the capacity is there, it cannot be deployed so quickly,” Mr. Roeloffs said. He predicted China’s holiday period next month would give shippers time to recover. “We will really see a normalization,” he said.

Jenny Gross contributed reporting.