Tuesday, August 11, 2009

shipping in the downturn


The Economist | FROM the sheltered waters of Subic Bay in the Philippines to Falmouth on the south coast of England, a vast, swelling armada lies idle. In Asia’s deep-sea havens 750 vessels—container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, car carriers and others—are laid up. A further 280 are sheltering in European waters. According to Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, nearly 10% of the world’s merchant ships are swaying gently at anchor because of a collapse in global trade.

Since the recession bit hard last autumn a lot of attention has been paid to the plunge in the Baltic Dry Index, a composite measure of the cost of shipping bulk cargoes such as iron ore and coal. It fell by over 90% between June and October last year, although it has since recovered slightly and is hovering at just above a quarter of its peak. World trade in general remains in its worst slump for generations, although it too is no longer falling. Two of the biggest shipping banks (RBS and HBOS) are in state-backed rehab. The parlous state of the world economy could mean more shipping companies following Eastwind Maritime, which went bankrupt in June. On July 28th Hapag-Lloyd, Germany’s largest container-shipping company, secured a €330m ($468m) bail-out from its shareholders while it seeks up to €1.75 billion to keep it from sinking altogether.

Worse, there is a huge supply of new ships on order and due off the slipways over the next four years. For bulk carriers alone, the backlog is equivalent to more than two-thirds of existing capacity. Philippe Louis-Dreyfus, departing president of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations, has called for an industrywide scrappage scheme to shrink the surplus. Warning of a “bloodbath”, he said in June that shipping capacity would exceed the needs of the market by between 50% and 70% in the near future.

Nothing like this has been seen since the early 1970s, when lots of super-sized oil tankers, known as VLCCs (very large crude carriers), were built in expectation of huge growth in oil consumption just before the first oil shock. The result was a persistent surplus and no more orders for VLCCs for a decade. By the late 1990s the number of ships completed was running at around 1,300 a year. But from 2004 production picked up. Ships have also been getting larger (see chart). By last year annual completions were up by nearly 60% compared with a decade ago and the ships were 30% bigger. No wonder Lloyd’s List, an industry journal, is full of news of ship seizures and bankruptcies.