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.
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 morning; 29/09 afternoon; 30/09 morning