Last week’s Analysis highlighted the rejection of the ‘P3’ container shipping alliance plans by the Chinese authorities, and how it might relate to the movement of trade by national fleets or otherwise. This week the focus is shifted to examine how liner shipping, ‘P3’ or no ‘P3’, fits within the pattern of consolidation in the key volume shipping sectors.

How Does It Stack Up?

In reality shipping is a relatively fragmented business. Over 88,000 vessels constitute the world fleet across almost 24,000 shipowners, with an average of less than 4 ships per owner. Limiting the analysis to 10,000 dwt and above, the average is still less than 7 ships. When talk of the ‘P3’ first hit the container shipping news, concerns were raised about the potential level of consolidation in shipping. Does that really stack up?

In Bulk, But Not Consolidated

As the graph shows, there has been consolidation of ownership, but over the last 20 years it has actually been fairly gradual. Today the Top 20 tanker owners account for 30% of the tanker fleet compared to 26% in 1994. In the bulker sector the Top 20 owners account for 22% today compared to 15% twenty years ago. In general, larger entities such as industrials have increased their share of the bulk fleets. Both sectors saw a fair amount of consolidation between 1994 and 2004, before a drop in the share accounted for by the Top 20 owners since then. The downturn post-2008 looks to have led to some fragmentation as the distressed position many traditional owners found themselves in created opportunities for new entrants (and new money).

Ticking The Boxes?

Containership ownership, meanwhile, has always been dominated by large, fairly corporate, ‘liner’ companies and some substantial charter owner interests. With ‘strings’ of containerships needed to operate scheduled services, ownership has been consolidated amongst fewer entities, and in 1994 and 2014 the Top 20 owners accounted for just under 60% of overall capacity, a much higher share than in the bulk sectors.

Concentrated Liners

However, liner operation (rather than boxship ownership) is where volume shipping is most highly consolidated. Large liner companies have historically been afforded some protection, first by the conference system and then by the approval of a network of alliances, reflecting the capital intensive nature of running box shipping services and the associated infrastructure. Today the Top 20 lines operate 77% of container capable capacity globally, up from 66% in 2004 and 37% in 1994. This is clearly a highly consolidated part of shipping, ‘P3’ or no ‘P3’ (itself a proposed alliance, not a merger of operators).

Overall, shipping remains quite fragmented despite some gradual consolidation. However, liner shipping, with its heavy operational demands, is generally much more concentrated. It’s certainly not quite Coca-Cola and Pepsi, but even without the ‘P3’ alliance this is where volume shipping is by some distance already at its most consolidated. Have a nice day.

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