Container Shipping: A Mega Problem Looming

container ship

Published Aug 30, 2017 7:04 AM by The Maritime Executive

New alliances, structural change and positive economic trends have transformed the container shipping market over the past year, driving growth and pushing business performance figures from deep red into black. However, despite long-term rates that are, in some cases, up 120 percent year on year, the future remains uncertain due to a looming shadow on the horizon, according to market intelligence company Xeneta.

2016 saw the collapse of Hanjin and the top 20 market players posting combined net losses of $5 billion, but 2017 is shaping up to be a bumper year, says Xeneta CEO Patrik Berglund.

“Maersk’s recent 2017 second quarter financial report provides an interesting snapshot of the industry,” he says. “Higher freight rates propelled revenues upwards by 8.4 percent to almost $10 billion for the quarter. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Hapag-Lloyd will triple its earnings this year.

Rates have jumped since their historical lows last year. For the Chinese main port to Northern Europe route last May, the three-month rolling average for long-term rates for a 40-foot container stood at $655. This May it was $1,438, and now it is $1,618. “Meanwhile we see U.S. containerized ports are busier than ever, handling a projected 1.75 million TEU this month (Global Port Tracker) alone, the most on record. This comes despite the uncertainty caused by President Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and his withdrawal from initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. U.S. container imports actually seem to be growing.”

Strong consumer demand, the restructuring of industry alliances – 90 percent of all container ship traffic is now accounted for by three major alliances (THE Alliance, OCEAN and 2M) – and Hanjin’s demise all help push up utilization and rates, Berglund says, but there remains uncertainty. The industry may be unwittingly planning to sabotage its own success.

“We remain optimistic with regards to the remainder of 2017, but the longer term becomes more complex,” he argues, pointing to the increase in mega-ship capacity.

“A staggering 78 new mega-ships are due to come online for the Asia-Europe trades over the next two years, pushing capacity up by over 23 percent,” Berglund says. “Mega-ships make obvious sense in terms of economy of scale and optimizing transport costs, but when you have this much of a capacity injection it requires a huge demand increase… and, well, where will that come from?

“Mega-ships of 18,000 TEUs need to command utilization rates of at least 91 percent to achieve cost savings. Even in the high volume Asia-Europe trades that is difficult and may necessitate lower than average rates for some volume, which, inevitably, will hit overall rate development.

“Each of the key alliance partners is playing catch up with one another, trying to reap the mega-ship benefits. In doing so they’re going to flood the market with new capacity and risk reversing current positive trends. This is a potential mega-problem in waiting.”

Berglund says that all stakeholders in the container shipping supply chain need to pay close attention to the market to stay ahead of developments and get the best rates for their assets, services and cargoes.

“This sector, just like the global political scene, can be highly unpredictable ” Berglund says, “and the only way to counter that is by accessing the very best inside intelligence.”

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.