The supply of ships and their capacity is completely out of whack with demand, and the industry is no longer under the delusion that it can grow its way out of trouble.
LOS ANGELES — For the last five years, top shipping companies pushed forward with fat investments in more and bigger vessels, even as signs of trouble piled up.
The goal was to shore up profits by doing business on a larger scale as global trade bounced back after the recession. But the new business never came. Freight rates dropped and shippers’ revenues plunged.
Today, the supply of ships and their capacity is completely out of whack with demand. China’s economy has slowed and consumer goods flooding the U.S. have saturated the market to the point where there’s no more room for growth, analysts say.
And the industry is no longer under the delusion it can grow its way out of trouble. That became clear with the Aug. 31 bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping, the world’s seventh-largest shipper, which temporarily marooned $14 billion of goods as ships were denied access to ports from Shanghai to Los Angeles.
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“That cozy assumption that carriers can’t be killed off has been eroded. We know they have breaking points now,” said Simon Heaney, an analyst at London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants.
Hanjin began unloading ships at San Pedro Bay near Los Angeles last week, after a court in New Jersey gave the company protection from U.S. creditors, and a South Korean court approved the release of $10 million to process the cargo.
But the debacle is a sign that the economic failures that have been roiling shipping for years may be reaching a crisis point.
Shippers prepared for a bonanza that never materialized, and now they are paying the high cost of sending partly empty vessels around the world.
Global trade never fully recovered from the downturn, and is now growing at below 3 percent per year, a far cry from the 6 percent average from 1990-2008, according to the World Trade Organization.
The world’s fleet of container ships is likely to grow 2 percent faster than the demand for them in 2016, the credit-rating firm Moody’s Investors Service reported in June. Moody’s said the supply-demand mismatch would continue at least through next June.
The industry is expected to lose $5 billion this year, according to Drewry.
The problem has been magnified by the launch of several megaships, which carry twice as much cargo as the ones that came to U.S. shores five years ago. These vessels can stretch for five city blocks, and accommodate more than 18,000 20-foot containers.
“It’s as if the airlines went out and bought 20 percent more aircraft than they had customers to buy tickets, and then wondered what happened,” said Paul Bingham, a trade economist with the Economic Development Research Group in Boston. “It was unsustainable.”
In April, the cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Hong Kong to Los Angeles fell to $623, the lowest rate in five years, according to Drewry.
In other words, you could have packed your bed, sofa, shelves, dining-room table, chest of drawers and all your clothes in a 40-foot container and shipped it across the Pacific Ocean at half the price you’d pay to put it all in a truck and send it to New York.
Shipping giants have begun to contain the damage by pulling vessels out of service — or by destroying them.
In August, 4.5 percent of the total container-ship capacity had been sitting idle for at least two weeks, Drewry said. And 124 ships have already been demolished this year, up from 85 in 2015, according to Braemar ACM Shipbroking in London.
Hanjin is trying to sell the majority of its current fleet and offload all its 61 chartered ships as part of a rehabilitation proposal, The Wall Street Journal reported recently.