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

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