Stuck in the Suez Canal: Lessons from the Logjam

by Olaf Merk

On 23 March, a mega container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal – and remained stuck for six days. Despite the digging, towing and dredging, the only thing that was unblocked was creativity in the form of Suez memes on the web. The mega-ship proved to be the vessel on which all possible human problems could be projected. Now that she is refloated, hilarity can ebb away and give way to reflections on the implications of this incident.

Let’s start with the principal actors: the Canal and the ship. The Suez Canal is one of the world’s maritime chokepoints. Around 12% of world trade passes through it, approximately fifty ships each day, mostly container ships and tankers. The Suez route is considerably shorter than its alternative, the Cape route. Nevertheless, shipping companies regularly snob the Suez Canal, especially in times of low oil prices and as a way to put pressure on the Suez Canal Authority to cut canal dues.

The other actor was the mega-ship: the “Ever Given” is 400 metres long and 60 metres wide, she can carry more than 20 000 containers. This is exactly the type of ship for which the Suez Canal was widened and deepened in 2016.

What happened?

How exactly did the giant vessel get stuck? Little certainty here so far, and much conjecture. The ship owner remained silent throughout the process, as did the ship operator. The ship manager blamed the wind and denied that there was power failure.  That it is a mega-ship that caused an important global trade route to shut down is no coincidence, and many experts have warned about the risks they create. These gigantic ships are more difficult to manoeuvre and get more easily stuck due to their deep draft. They are also heavier than smaller containership, so more complicated to refloat.

More clarity should come from the investigation of the accident. The flag state of the “Ever Given” has a reputation for dodging such responsibilities, but it is hard to imagine that it dare to do so now given the global attention. Thanks to a heroic effort by the salvage company and the canal authority the ship was freed after a week and traffic on the world’s busiest shortcut could resume. Zoom out, happy ending.

But not really. The backlog of hundreds of other ships waiting to transit through the Canal is creating enormous challenges in ports and throughout the whole supply chain. Some observers calculated the costs of the Suez Canal blockage to be between USD 6 to 10 billion per week. Just remember: the reliability of ship schedules has been in freefall since June 2020. Two out of three container ships are delayed; in the beginning of 2021 the average was five days. If a few days of Suez Canal blockage leads to billions of dollars economic costs, imagine the extent of the loss due to delayed vessels just prior to the incident.

The costs of no canal

The supply chain disruption that we will see in the coming weeks is the quintessence of the mega-ship: maximise the economies of scale on the ships, but leave it up to ports to clean up any mess that may result. Ports will now be put under pressure to catch up and find additional handling capacity when this was already stretched. They will need to keep some vessels waiting and get blamed for “port congestion” that is not their fault.

This is nothing new: various organisations have recently blamed port congestion for increased freight rates, although these already started to rise in May 2020, well before port activity was back to normal after the dip due to Covid-19. Do not expect carriers to pay for the situation that their mega-ships have caused. The Suez blockage has reduced effective ship capacity, so will likely lead to further increases in ocean freight rates. Customers and ports will pay the price instead, and maybe a few insurers.

A report on “The Impact of Mega-Ships“ the ITF published in 2015 described this dynamic, in which mega-ships create benefits and profits for their owners and operators, while the costs they incur – such as those for longer berths or truck congestion in port cities – are left for others to pay.

Deeper causes of disruption

At that time, the mega-ship strategy of carriers was, to some extent, self-defeating: as new mega-ships contributed to oversupply of ships, ocean freight rates were going to be low and profits limited. This has changed now. The intended effect of mega-ships was to force a market consolidation, which has happened. The unintended effect has been increased cooperation between the major carriers. The world’s top ten carriers are now interlinked in various alliances and consortia, providing carriers with the mechanisms to coordinate ship capacity. During the Covid-19 crisis, they used this power to their advantage by stabilising and pushing up freight rates

Thus, the current disruption of the maritime supply chain is not about a mega-ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and it not about lack of adequate infrastructure in ports – ultimately, it is about a lack of effective competition policy for global liner shipping. In Europe, regulators are now urging ports to free up capacity to deal with the after-effects of the Suez incident. There have not been reports that they also urged carriers to reinstate more capacity to Asia-Europe trade routes when trade picked up again in Q3 and Q4/2020, but carriers deployed 4% less capacity than over the same period in 2019.

The mega-ship incident in the Suez Canal has shown the vulnerabilities of the global maritime supply chain. Some stakeholders will no doubt push for a new expansion of the Suez Canal, more port infrastructure and the development of alternative maritime routes, for example the Arctic Sea routes. This would be misguided. The main vulnerability is the mega-ship and the world of integrated mega-carriers that it has created.

Changes in deployed container ship capacity on different trade lanes (YoY)

Source: ITF, MDS Transmodal

Olaf Merk is Project Manager for Ports and Shipping at the International Transport Forum

Rough waters for container shipping. Why Hanjin, the world’s seventh largest container line, went under

13100_teu_class_hanjin_sooho
End of the line

Olaf Merk, Ports and Shipping Project Manager, International Transport Forum. We are co-publishing with the OECD Insights blog.

Sad news. After months – even years – of pain and suffering, the South Korean container shipping company Hanjin finally sank and passed away. Not just any casualty, but the largest shipping bankruptcy in history: Hanjin was the world’s seventh biggest container line with a fleet of 90 ships. Was this an accident, an isolated case of bad luck, or is something more structural going on?

Like with any bereavement, there are the immediate arrangements to make. Terminal operators and maritime service providers were not paid for their services and need their money, so they have seized Hanjin ships in ports to have some sort of guarantee. Hanjin’s clients are eager to know that their goods will be delivered and not be stuck on ships. Competitors are circling around the deceased to pick up some of the ships that Hanjin leaves behind.

At the same time, people start to wonder how all this could have happened. Forensic analysts talk about the sluggish demand for container transport, hit by declining trade from China, the overcapacity in container shipping and the resulting low ocean freight rates that have made it very difficult to make profits in container shipping. All this sounds very logical, but also pretty abstract, and – more fundamentally – it obscures an uncomfortable truth: This was not an accident, but market forces at play – and it will happen again.

The story starts – in a way – in a corporate boardroom in Copenhagen in 2010. Then, the world’s largest container shipping company, Maersk Line, decided to order a set of new container ships that were larger than the world had ever seen, able to carry 18 000 standard containers. Putting more containers on a more fuel-efficient ship would save costs and thus give it a better position in a very competitive market.

For a weekly container service between Asia and Europe – the route on which the largest ships are deployed – ten to eleven ships are needed; a lot of capital that smaller companies would not be able to collect. As the order for the new mega-ships was placed while the global economic crisis was still unfolding, banks were unwilling to lend much to a risky business like shipping, especially the smaller ones with high risk profiles. Timing was excellent, with ship prices low due to overcapacity in shipbuilding yards. The new mega-ships were smartly marketed as “Triple E” ships, providing economies of scale, energy efficiency and environmental performance. They also provided a life-time opportunity for the market consolidation that big players hoped for.

Yet things worked out differently: Other firms reacted by ordering similar mega-ships and by organising themselves in alliances. They agreed to share slots on each other’s vessels, which means they can offer networks and connections that they would not be able to offer if they would go it alone. Alliances had existed before, but the Triple E-strategy involuntarily resulted in stronger alliances in which more carriers were involved. These consortia were also used to share newly acquired mega-ships, so individual carriers would only need to buy a few of these, instead of having to shoulder a whole set of ten ships. Consequently, many carriers were able to rapidly catch up and also order mega-ships, many more than expected. The alliances became such powerful mechanisms that even the largest companies found themselves forced to find alliance partners.

This gave a different twist to the play, but with a similar outcome. The combined mega-ship orders in a period of sluggish demand created a sensational amount of overcapacity: way more ships than were needed. This overcapacity resulted in lower freight rates, lower revenues and several years of losses, of which we have not started to see the end. Who has the longest breath and biggest pockets will survive; the others won’t and will suffer death by overcapacity, like Hanjin.

There will very likely be more Hanjins. Hardly any container shipping line is making profit nowadays and the perspectives are bleak. Sputtering trade growth and gigantic ship overcapacity will continue to depress ocean freight rates. Banks, creditors and governments might well get impatient with some of the liners and cut life lines again.

Economic theory champions the notion of “creative destruction”, in which inefficient firms are replaced by more efficient ones. So, even if it is hardly any comfort for employees that lose their jobs in the process, one could consider it a natural thing that weaker shipping firms disappear.

There is just one problem. If this process continues, it will soon lead to a very small group of powerful carriers dominating an already concentrated market, enabling them to put a lot of pressure on clients and ports. We are starting to see what the results of this are: less choice, less service and less connections for shippers, the clients of shipping lines. The ports that accepted the offer they could not refuse and invested in becoming mega ship-ready may find out that they placed their fate in the hands of a few big players who frequently change loyalties at fast as the wind.

Hanjin is gone; the problem is still very much there.

Useful links

The impact of mega-ships Olaf Merk on OECD Insights

The Hanjin case is a practical illustration of the complexity of sectors such as international shipping. The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

The Impact of Mega-Ships

by Olaf Merk

Ever bigger container ships inspire awe and fascination, and are one of the hottest topics in maritime transport. They are also a headache for ports and terminals – mainly because of their vast size.

mega-shipsA new publication by the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD assesses the impacts of these giant container ships. First of all, let’s get a hook on how big these ships really are. They are big! Mega-big! These are true giants, bigger than houses, bigger than apartment buildings and bigger than skyscrapers. They are bigger indeed than whole urban neighbourhoods. Now at up to 400 metres long, these ships are longer than Eiffel Tower (301 metres).

This size increase has been exponential; ships doubled in volume in 20 years between 1975 and 1995, and then almost doubled again in the following decade, doubling yet again between 2005 and 2015. And it ain’t over yet! Plans are afoot to continue increase size to 21 100 TEU* by 2017. (TEU: twenty foot equivalent unit – a small transport container – is a standard volumetric transport measurement)

 

When is big too big?

Although economies of scale allow vessel costs per volume transported to decrease with bigger ships, the on-land costs of handling those volumes increase. Together, these two costs determine the total costs for the transport chain. At a certain point increasing ship size becomes sub-optimal as cost savings become marginal. While a doubling of container ship size reduces costs by a third (vessel costs per TEU), making sea transport cheaper, the savings decrease with increased size.

To find out where we are on the cost curve, we tried a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of ordering 19 000 TEU ships, shipping companies had ordered 14 000 TEU ships giving the same total fleet capacity. In that scenario, land-side costs would have been approximately $50 lower per transported container. This might seem little, but it is actually substantial when compared to freight rates for transporting a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam – now at less than $400 and the thousands of containers ships can carry. Hence, as ship sizes continue to increase we find ourselves heading towards overall increasing costs.

 

Do we really need this capacity?

Our research casts serious doubts over whether this capacity can in fact be filled. We found a disconnect between what is going on in the boardrooms of shipping lines and the real world. The growth of containerised seaborne trade is no longer in line with the growth of the world container fleet. And shipping companies have created alliances (only four in total worldwide) which dominate container shipping. So the little guys can get to the big toys, but this has also leads to overcapacity.

There are also several supply chain costs and risks related to mega-ships. There are adaptations needed to infrastructure and equipment: the ships are longer, wider and deeper which has consequences for cranes, quays, access channels and all that. Mega-ships stay on average 20% longer in ports – quite an achievement for most ports as this requires massive efforts to accommodate these longer-stay guests. The higher risks associated with mega-ships are linked to difficulties in insuring and salvaging in case of accidents. Furthermore, mega-ships mean that more cargo is concentrated on a single ship, leading to lower service frequencies and lower supply chain resilience – all your eggs in one basket.

Mega-ships have redefined the meaning of the word “peak”. Massive truck movements, train movements and yard occupancy are all related to the arrival of a mega-ship. There is a requirement to manage this huge capacity on arrival which may lead to more port congestion.

 

Where are we heading?

We looked at three scenarios: one in line with market demand growth projections, two others above these growth projections, one with 50, another with 100 ships with a 24 000 TEU capacity (and a length of 430 metres), which currently do not exist or have not been ordered – but that could be operational by 2020. The results are pretty scary. We could see 24 000 TEU ships in Europe – both in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. All other regions would be impacted as ships what used to be the biggest ships serving Europe are reassigned to other routes. So we might see 19,000 ships in North America, 14,000 ships in South America and Africa in a few years. Whatever the scenario, mega-ships will be the new normal in Northern Europe very soon. In just a few years 19 000 TEU ships will be seen every day in major ports. One thing is sure – this will lead us to a decade of port gridlock if nothing is done.

 

What needs to be done?

Mega-ships are a fact of life, so there should be policy support to use them effectively: for innovation, for more labour flexibility, optimisation of existing infrastructure (spreading use over day and night), releasing peaks (e.g. by “dry ports” – inland transshipment centres), and upsizing of hinterland transport units (larger trains, trucks and barges).

On a more fundamental level, decision-making by ports and countries should be more balanced. Many public policies stimulate mega-ship use, but public benefits are limited whereas public costs can be high. This should change, first by aligning incentives to public interests. For example, not to have port tariffs that cross-subsidise mega-ships, to clarify state aid rules for ports, increase their financial transparency and possibly link state aid for shipping companies to commitments to share in certain costs (e.g. dredging).

Another way would be to increase collaboration at regional level, between countries, ports and regulators. This might include coordination of port development and investment, possibly port mergers and more national or supra-national planning and focus. For example, the number of core ports in EU trans-Europe transport network (TEN-T) corridor networks could be reduced.

Finally, there should be a clear discussion on what the future direction should be. A forum for liners, terminals, ports and other transport actors should be facilitated to discuss about the desirable container ship size in the future. The International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD is there and willing to facilitate such a discussion.

 

About the author
Olaf Merk is the ports and shipping expert of the International Transport Forum (ITF). The International Transport Forum at the OECD is an intergovernmental organisation with 57 member countries. It acts as a policy think tank and organises an Annual Summit of transport ministers. The ITF is the only global body with a mandate for all transport modes.

Useful links

ITF work on maritime transport

ITF Homepage