By Mike Wackett (TheLoadStar) - To quote Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" This seems to aptly sum up the two halves of 2015 for container lines, which began the year with optimism but are ending it again looking into a loss-making abyss.
Bullish ocean carriers started the year eyeing improved profitability from better network optimisation of the new east-west vessel sharing alliances, as well as a reduction in unit costs by deploying newbuild 18,000 teu-plus ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs).
A better-than-expected peak season in 2014, which rippled through to the beginning of 2015, provided carriers with a good base for annual contract negotiations - a situation made rosier by the continued fall in fuel prices.
Indeed, earlier fears that new regulations requiring ships to burn more expensive low-sulphur bunkers in the new SECA regions would hit the bottom line proved unfounded as oil prices tumbled.
Early January saw pomp and ceremony in full flow as the UK container port of Felixstowe welcomed the maiden call in Europe of the 19,100 teu CSCL Globe. It became the world’s biggest containership for a few weeks only, until usurped by the arrival of the 19,224 teu MSC Oscar later in the month.
It was an accolade carriers were eager to have, to garner publicity in an increasingly competitive industry. In fact the normally media-shy MSC took full advantage of every PR opportunity given by the arrival of its ULCV in North Europe, marking a major strategy change for the privately owned firm.
Meanwhile, protracted labour contract negotiations on the US west coast resulted in a considerable backlog of ships and cargo and spurred diversions to ports on the east coast to keep supply chains moving. Some canny carriers were able to mitigate the extra costs from delays by offering alternative sailings from Asia to the US east coast – at higher freight rates.
The west coast difficulties also proved to be a silver lining for long-suffering panamax containership owners, whose previously discarded ships were suddenly in demand for more sailings to the west coast and extra east coast voyages via the Panama Canal.
Meanwhile, the members of the four east-west alliances - 2M, G6, CKYHE and O3 - were still engaged in a race to operate the biggest ships on the Asia-North Europe market. Increasing numbers of the 8,000-10,000 teu 'work-horse' vessels of the trade were displaced by the 'new normal' 13,000-18,000 teu behemoths as an armada of ULCVs sailed from Asian shipyards.
However, while the theory remains that bigger ships lower unit costs and should, therefore, offer a higher margin for carriers, in practice this only works if the vessels enjoy sufficient utilisation.
Thus it became in a race-to-the-bottom scramble for containers to fill these new ships. More so if the carrier was celebrating the maiden voyage of a new ULCV - its decks had to be full at all costs!
The haste in which the new alliances , and the replacement of big ships with even bigger ships, contrived to significantly increase the capacity on offer on the Asia-Europe trades, which alone would have put down pressure on freight rates. But add the Russian economic crisis and a general reluctance by European consumers to open their purses, and by early summer it was obvious that carriers were sailing at full steam into a perfect storm.
The relationship of spot market cargo to ocean carriers had until now been one of an unpalatable alternative - to be accessed only as a last resort if there were blips in regular contract customer requirements, or as top-up cargo.
However, there was a seismic shift in carrier strategy as the struggle to fill ships became acute in the summer, reversing the balance from a previous estimated 75-25 ratio, in favour of contract cargo to spot, to a 50-50 level. In fact, one carrier told The Loadstar in July that almost its entire allocation on a particular voyage from Asia to North Europe had been sourced from the spot market.
Shippers that had signed annual contracts now began demanding meetings with carriers to renegotiate the terms, pointing to the fact that spot rates were considerably below contract rates and that they were being offered much cheaper rates by other carriers - often from within the same alliance.
Unsurprisingly both contract and spot freight rates headed south at a rapid pace, with monthly GRIs by carriers being largely ignored in the market.
Nonetheless, most carriers managed to hold onto enough revenue and were able to cut costs at the same time to record a profitable first-half result. They expected the deteriorating returns to be turned during the peak season.
Unfortunately for the container lines plying the Asia-Europe routes the 2015 peak season proved a very damp squib. The writing was on the wall pretty quickly: unless capacity was withdrawn the only way was down for freight rates that approached record lows.
The downhill velocity of carrier fortunes in the third quarter was dramatic: Maersk Line reported that its net profit had crashed by a massive 61% during the period, to $264m versus $685m the year before. The Danish carrier was obliged, not only to issue a profit warning, but to announce a number of emergency measures, including the reduction of more than 4,000 staff worldwide - over 15% of its land-based workforce.
Furthermore, the cascading of bigger ships onto other trades which didn't need the extra capacity had a negative impact, ruining many previously profitable routes for carriers and further denting average rates.
Increasingly, monthly GRIs were ignored by shippers, and sometimes even by the very carriers that had proposed them. Ridiculous as it may now seem, some carriers announced a cumulative total of over $12,000 per teu of GRIs over the course of 2015!
With chronic rate erosion and GRIs failing to stick, carriers announced increasing numbers of blanked sailings and temporary service suspensions. But it was too little and too late, and more recently larger ships have succumbed to being idled, including one of Maersk Line's Triple-Es.
The parlous state of the container liner industry in the second half has resulted in the merger plans of the two Chinese state-owned container lines and the proposed acquisition of APL by CMA CGM. However, if, after these restructures are completed, the same number of ships is deployed on services then it is difficult to see how prospects will be any better for carriers in the new year.
Nevertheless, containers will still need to be moved around the world in 2016, and for the fittest and most judicious carriers it is a question of toughing it out until recovery comes.
It goes without saying that it is in the interests of carriers and shippers, as well as all stakeholders in the industry that 2016 does not see a repeat of the extreme volatility we have seen this year.
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