Back in 1951, in his ‘farewell’ speech, US General Douglas MacArthur famously noted that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. In the containership market today, the aged soldiers are to be found in the ‘old Panamax’ sector. Charter rates rest at rock-bottom rates and the fleet is in steady and perhaps terminal decline, with scrapping at record levels. Is the battle now lost?

Old Workhorses

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Panamaxes (as they were correctly known then) were the classic ‘workhorse’ of the containership fleet. Designed with dimensions to transit the (now old) locks at the Panama Canal, in their heyday they proved extremely popular with the number of units of 3,000 TEU and above able to pass through the canal peaking at 969 in 2012, boasting back in 1996 a 32% share of containership fleet capacity. At the peak of the charter market in 2005, the one year timecharter rate for a 4,400 TEU Panamax reached $50,000/day. Although designed with canal transit in mind, Panamaxes became deployed widely. At the start of 2016, 17% were deployed on the Transpacific (mainly through the canal to the USEC) but 17% were deployed elsewhere on the mainlanes and 28% on north-south trades.

Battling On

These old soldiers have battled away bravely. In the 2000s ‘wide beam’ ships, of similar box capacity but with shallower draft, came into prominence but the ‘old Panamaxes’ held their own. The last orders for vessels of over 3,000 TEU of ‘old Panamax’ dimensions were actually placed in 2012. Even with heavy scrapping in 2013, the ‘old Panamaxes’ received a spur when increased numbers began to be deployed on parts of the intra-regional trade network, with their share of deployment there rising to over 30% in 2014, supporting a relative pick-up in earnings, with the one year charter rate for a 4,400 TEU vessel bouncing back from rock-bottom levels to over $15,000/day by early summer 2015.

Beating A Retreat

However, this may have been the last hurrah for the ‘old Panamaxes’. In June 2016 the new locks at the Panama Canal opened, allowing much larger ships to transit on the key Asia-USEC trade. Over 150 ‘old Panamaxes’ were deployed on that trade back then and today the total is down to about 70. Slow growth on north-south trades isn’t helping either, denying an easy retreat from the battlefield. This has led to the onset of major scrapping, with 55 sold for demolition this year, and 217 since the start of 2012. Rates have crashed (to levels below those for smaller ships) and asset prices have also hit the depths with a 10 year old at $6m, basically down to scrap value.

Leaving The Battlefield?

So, although plenty of ‘old Panamaxes’ are out there battling on, things are only going one way at the moment. The fleet has fallen from 969 units in 2012 to 796 at the start of October. If vessel deployment opportunities globally increase, a ‘rising tide’ might even support some of these ships, but in general a decline now appears to have set in. Like old soldiers, they may not all die at once, but it does look like many more ‘old Panamaxes’ are still set to fade away. Have a nice day.