Archives for posts with tag: fleet capacity

In many instances the shipping industry is all about growth, with trade volumes expanding along with the world economy and fleet capacity growing too. However, that’s not exclusively the case. Today, trade volumes in some commodities are stalling, and there are some parts of the fleet that are on the wane. What might a look at some of those shrinking sectors tell us?

Frozen Out?

There are a number of reasons that can drive fleets into decline. The first is technological substitution by another sector. The reefer fleet is a good example. Total reefer fleet capacity has been in decline since the mid-1990s as containerized transportation has encroached onto the territory once held by conventional reefers. In 2012 reefer capacity in cubic feet declined by 12%, and last year by 0.6%.

Upsized?

Upsizing is another driver that can cause capacity in certain sectors to decline. As larger vessels offer greater real (or perceived) economies of scale, smaller vessel sectors can get left behind. This has been most noticeable in the containership sector. The sub-1,000 TEU boxship sector, once home to the classic ‘feeders’, has been in decline in TEU capacity terms since 2009, with growth in the boxship sector as a whole focussed on much larger vessels.

All Change?

Another driver of decline in a fleet segment can be a specific development in infrastructure. The Panamax containership fleet is an example of this. Although there are 838 Panamaxes still on the water, Panamax fleet capacity, which once accounted for more than 30% of the containership fleet, has been in decline since 2013, and there are no units on order. The planned expansion of the Panama Canal has made the Panamaxes yesterday’s vessels, and when the new locks eventually open (currently slated for later this year) the prospects for decline look even more certain. 11 Panamaxes have been sold for recycling already in 2016.

Cycling Through?

Market cycles can also explain shrinking fleets, although in this case the trends may not necessarily be lasting. In the Ro-Ro sector, with markets softer, total lane metre capacity was in decline for most of 2010-14. When markets are weak there is often limited vessel replacement with earnings insufficient to tempt owners at prevailing newbuild prices. Eventually the cycle turns, and earnings improve, incentivising owners to order new tonnage leading to fleet growth once again.

What Goes Down, Must Go Up?

Happily, however, each of these drivers also explain fleet expansion, generally with other sectors benefiting from the same trends in technology, upsizing or infrastructure. World fleet growth has slowed but remains positive, although even here it’s worth noting the patterns; growth has been more focussed on tonnage than ship numbers. Nevertheless, the global fleet is a broad church, and not everything is growing all of the time. The interesting news, however, is that if there’s growth overall, and one part is in decline, then another part must be growing even more quickly! Have a nice day.

SIW

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SIW1112Liner shipping companies are responsible for operating the world’s 5,087-strong containership fleet. They own 52% of the capacity and charter in the rest from independent owners. In principle they then turn a profit on this by transporting containers around the world for cargo shippers.

Up And Down

Recent experience suggests that this can be a difficult business. Freight rates have become very volatile, creating unpredictable earnings. The graph shows a monthly weighted average index of spot freight rates on the peak legs of the two largest mainlane trades, the Far East-Europe and the Transpacific. Long-term historical data is hard to come by but it is possible to estimate an index based on the data available at the time, including CCFI and SCFI indices. Last year the two trades accounted for 28m TEU of cargo, 17% of global box trade and a large slice of income for many major liner companies, for whom volumes carried on both a contract and spot basis are impacted by the rate environment in general.

Shipping in general is a cyclical business, but what is striking is the change in spot rate volatility pre and post credit crunch. The period between 1995 and 2007 saw two big dips and two clear peaks. In the much shorter period since the crash there has been huge volatility and already two clear peaks and three market troughs. That’s more cycles in the the last six years than in the previous twelve, not to mention the fact that the monthly index has moved within a band of $1,148 compared to $593 before 2008.

It Went Crunch

Pre-downturn freight seemed to follow longer cycles. Running capacity was linked to the size of the fleet and when demand was healthy (e.g. when Chinese exports boomed) liners benefitted and when it was weaker (e.g. the end of the dotcom bubble) or they had delivered too much capacity, then lower rates ensued.

Getting Very Bumpy

But in 2009 box trade declined by 9% whilst boxship fleet capacity grew by 6%, creating an almighty surplus and an imperative for lines to manage capacity to support rates, with sitting things through no longer an option. Initially idling slow steaming and redeployment of surplus capacity pushed rates back up, but by 2011 reactivated ca-pacity pushed rates way back down again. Since then volatility has reigned supreme and attempts to rein in capacity have been fighting a tide of supply pushing rates down, all the time with fuel costs at elevated levels. In 2012-13 the index peaked at $1,576, $1,341 and $1,257 before trending back down each time.

So container freight has become spiky, and liner companies could do without the volatility. Whilst overcapacity remains (4% of the boxship fleet is still idle), maybe the message is to ignore the ups and downs and get on with business. Those who have focused on operating vessels efficiently and cutting costs look to be doing the best. If you’re stuck on the roller-coaster, hold on tight and keep your eyes open. Have a nice day.