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Published: 3 April 2014      

Liners' ills to continue

Analysts addressing the Intermodal Asia 2014 conference in Shanghai have concluded that overcapacity and continuing low freight rates will continue to plague the industry for at least the next two years.

Alan Murphy, COO of maritime research specialists, SeaIntel Maritime Analysis, was in no doubt as to who is to blame for the predicament. “The problem is not demand, indeed that has been pretty much OK at about 4% over the past 12 months. No, it is all about supply and this has driven freight rates through the floor,” he said.

Murphy continued: “The orders for ultra large container carriers has widened the supply/demand balance in recent years and whereas we see trade expanding by between 4% and 6% over the next two years, capacity will increase at least 5.5% in 2014 and 8.5% in 2015.”

Murphy warned: “In order for just the current and very overtonnaged situation to be maintained, I estimate that 25% of all vessels below 3,000 TEU would need to be scrapped.” Incredibly, that could be as many as 725 ships.

The analyst expected little relief from a slowdown in ordering and stressed that there was “no more saving grace from increasing sailing distances”. Principally this has seen ocean carriers, such as Maersk Line, cascading larger ships into Asia/US east coast services via the Suez Canal rather than the Panama Canal while starting new north-south and intra-regional links.

Dr Tina Qianwen Liu, China country manager for Drewry Shipping Consultants largely agreed with Murphy. In particular, she highlighted the highly stressed fiscal environment in which the industry operated, saying, “Carriers are burning cash and this cannot last forever as their finances are becoming increasingly fragile. What is needed in this industry is consolidation, but I see few signs of this taking place at the moment.”

Liu dismissed the larger alliances as providing the solution. “These are risk averse when it comes to mergers and acquisitions. The P3, the G6 and the CKYHE alliances are nothing more than operational groupings and, commercially they are independent which means competition will remain as intense as ever,” she said.

These analysts’ views suggest there is no short term or easy answer to liner shipping’s current ills and that it looks like being a shipper’s market for the foreseeable future

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