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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

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Still two years to healthy balance sheets, says Swire chief

Posted to Far East Maritime (by on April 12, 2013

Just when you thought things had to start looking up soon, along comes John Swire & Sons boss James Hughes-Hallett to say that the shipping market is going to remain in its depressed state until 2015.

The Swire chairman's comments at Maritime Week in Singapore this week can hardly have come as a surprise, and the reason is that old culprit that has been sticking it to the container shipping industry for the last five years - overcapacity.
Too many ships that all have to be absorbed somehow. Hughes-Hallett said that would make any recovery gradual and in 2015 there was "a chance" that the shipping market would be stronger. That sort of confidence makes you want to invest everything you own in shipping.
The good news is that all those new ships flooding into service will be the latest generation fuel-efficient vessels, so when the recovery starts the bunker burden of shipping lines will be lighter. The bad news is that fuel will continue to go up, threatening to continue eroding shipping line profitability.
Fortunately for Swire, it has a bunch of offshore vessels and the rising price of oil was driving exploration, giving it "the perfect hedge", the Swire supremo said in the somewhat grandly titled "Maritime Lecture" that is a feature of Maritime Week every year in Singapore.
Rising fuel prices certainly won't do the container shipping business any favours, but weak volumes and low rates make it difficult to manage the balance sheet, especially when room has to be found for the excess capacity.
Drewry makes that point in a release this week, saying that absorbing the additional capacity at the trade route level will be the number one priority for carriers if they are to "have any chance of being profitable" this year.
Higher freight rates are a critical requirement in this search for profitability, but 2013 has not followed the positive start of 2012. Last year a host of GRIs stuck but the general rates increase to North Europe levied on the market in mid-March was successful for about a week, Drewry says. An increase of US$300 per FEU lost most of the gains before the week was through.
Emerging market trade with China is about the only area that is growing but the volumes are not yet large enough to offset the falling trade with developed markets in the US and Europe. Larger capacity ships are also cascading down into these trades, pushing down rates.
There is no just escaping the effects of container shipping's capacity overhang. Whatever costs that can be cut have long since been slashed, so managing the overcapacity is ultimately what will determine the health of the carriers.
There may be a sliver of silver lining in that the recovery of trade will be gradual and consistent. The industry won't see much profitability but the carriers will have time to dispose of their older vessels and bring new ships into service.