Threat of hard landing hangs over soaring shipping industry


In simply three years, the container transport trade may have made as a lot cash as your entire earlier six many years.

Propelled by hovering demand following the pandemic, transport teams have loved a degree of profitability that few within the notoriously risky sector might have dreamt of.

Container transport teams from Mediterranean Delivery Firm and AP Møller Maersk to CMA CGM and Hapag-Lloyd have skilled a “as soon as in a lifetime” market boom.

“Incomes the cash they’ve carried out up to now two years is intoxicating,” mentioned Simon Heaney, a senior supervisor at Drewry, the transport analysis group. Drewry forecasts the trade’s earnings for 2021-23 will equal the quantity it created from the Fifties when container ships have been born till 2020.

“It’s one thing you see as soon as in a lifetime, perhaps not even that,” mentioned Rolf Habben Jansen, chief govt of Hapag-Lloyd, the German provider that’s the trade’s fifth-largest by capability.

However the container transport cycle seems to have peaked.

Port congestion worldwide remains to be excessive, which has pressured up costs and helped earnings, with ports corresponding to Felixstowe within the UK hit by strikes. But freight charges have fallen by a couple of third and profitability is ready to say no subsequent yr, analysts consider.

On prime of that, fears abound of each sky-high inflation and potential recessions in lots of western nations.

So how will an trade used to boom-bust cycles react and cope? Have container transport corporations used the great instances effectively sufficient to arrange for squallier circumstances?

Container transport corporations are the prime brokers of globalisation, transporting items from sneakers to meals throughout the oceans, notably from producers in Asia to customers in Europe and the US.

After the primary wave of Covid-19 in 2020, container transport teams and client items corporations alike have been shocked on the sharp rebound in spending, notably on-line.

Drewry estimates that your entire trade made an working revenue of simply $7bn in 2019, and $26bn in 2020. However in 2021, as corporations paid ever greater charges to get the products they wanted, working earnings jumped to $210bn and are forecast to succeed in $270bn this yr.

Felixstowe container port
Felixstowe container port, which has been hit by strikes © Toby Melville/Reuters

“I definitely hope we won’t see a pandemic of this nature once more, definitely in my lifetime. It’s been a dramatic period. We’re trying ahead to a extra normalised world. We consider we have now used this era to construct a a lot better enterprise,” mentioned Søren Skou, Maersk’s chief govt.

Carriers have used the bumper earnings to restore their steadiness sheets, lots of which have been nonetheless stricken after the 2008-09 world monetary disaster introduced an finish to excessive ranges of development.

Heaney mentioned that in 2020 many carriers nonetheless had steadiness sheets that Drewry labeled as “crimson” whereas now almost all have been “inexperienced”, indicating that they have been wholesome.

Line chart of Shanghai Containerized Freight index showing Freight shipping rates

Lots of the larger teams, corresponding to the massive three of MSC, Maersk, and CMA CGM, have used their hovering earnings to maneuver extra into logistics, hoping to construct an inexpensive counterweight to their extra risky transport companies.

Maersk has made quite a few land-based acquisitions, culminating in December’s $3.6bn buy of Li & Fung’s contract logistics enterprise in Asia.

Revenues at its logistics enterprise have greater than doubled up to now two years, though they continue to be a couple of fifth of the extent of its container enterprise.

Shareholders have additionally benefited from the growth, with distinctive dividends and buybacks from a number of the listed teams. “Shareholders have helped us by means of 10 years of disaster, placing cash in, and now they get rewarded for that,” mentioned Jansen.

Most crucially, nonetheless, the efficiency of transport teams in a downturn is perhaps undermined by their use of file earnings to purchase extra ships.

Vessels usually take two to 3 years to be delivered, which means many will arrive in what are anticipated to be very totally different financial circumstances, a typical curse of the trade.

Line chart of Prices rebased showing Hapag-Lloyd has outperformed its rival and the wider market

The capability of ships on order in contrast with the present capability at sea has risen from a low of 8 per cent in 2020 to twenty-eight per cent, in response to knowledge specialist Alphaliner.

“I feel carriers will remorse how they’ve added capability this yr,” mentioned Heaney. “If a recession comes and demand for containers drops off a lot faster than we’re anticipating, then it should pace up restoration for ports and the discharge of capability. There are many new builds arriving. There’s a danger of large-scale overcapacity subsequent yr.”

Jansen mentioned he “hoped” container transport corporations can be extra rational on this downturn than earlier ones however conceded he didn’t know for certain. “This trade has all the time been cyclical. I don’t assume that may change,” he added.

One distinction from earlier downturns is that the trade is extra consolidated with the largest gamers having extra scale and being a part of networks with different carriers that enable them to tweak capability collectively.

Jansen mentioned Hapag-Lloyd misplaced $7mn a day in revenues at the beginning of the pandemic, concentrating the thoughts.

“You see the hits you get if one thing goes fallacious are larger, so it perhaps makes you extra conservative. The sheer magnitude of those numbers makes us most likely act a bit faster,” he added.

In Copenhagen, Skou is especially involved about Europe the place client confidence is low, warfare remains to be raging in Ukraine, and imports have fallen again to pre-pandemic ranges.

Rolf Habben Jansen
Rolf Habben Jansen, chief govt of German container group Hapag-Lloyd, which has loved a surge in earnings and outperformed rival corporations © Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Nonetheless, the Maersk chief govt is comparatively assured as he expects the power supply chain congestion to begin to ease on the finish of this yr.

“I don’t see a tough touchdown for Maersk. If demand drops quite a bit, we must modify the capability . . . I understand how we’re going to behave in a slowdown scenario,” he mentioned. “What issues for world container transport is just not what number of ships exist however how a lot capability is deployed in comparison with the demand on the market.”

He pointed to increasingly more prospects signing long-term contracts, locking in excessive freight charges, in addition to its push into logistics serving to to “substitute” a number of the earnings it’s more likely to lose in transport.

Carriers even have instruments at their disposal to cut back capability by means of scrapping or idling vessels, pushing again deliveries of latest ships, or cancelling sailings.

Scrapping ships fell to zero up to now few years as carriers pressed all vessels into service, however with new environmental requirements coming into power there may be more likely to be extra.

Nonetheless, there are few certainties, particularly in an trade with a practice of performing irrationally. Heaney mentioned analysts at Drewry have been break up on whether or not this time can be totally different.

“I’m pessimistic that carriers have modified their behaviour fully,” he mentioned, earlier than including: “They’re higher geared up than beforehand. The chances are higher than they’ve been.”

For now, trade and analysts alike are forecasting a gradual normalisation.

Earnings subsequent yr are more likely to be decrease however nonetheless effectively above the pre-pandemic degree. Provide chain woes present a assist whilst freight charges and volumes fall.

However the hazard is {that a} sudden financial slowdown within the developed world results in a pointy reversal that unblocks provide chains and ports faster than anticipated, which might be dangerous for earnings because the forces that led to sky excessive costs might unwind shortly.

Heaney mentioned: “It’s the start of the top [of the boom]. However it’s not going to be an in a single day factor. There are not any ensures in the meanwhile.”

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