Archives for posts with tag: liner companies

There are a number of key differences between the ‘liner’ shipping business (largely served by containerships) and the world of ‘tramp’ shipping (much of tanker and bulker activity, for example). One of the most obvious is the ‘dual’ nature of the container shipping markets, with separate ‘freight’ and ‘charter’ markets connecting to keep the liner network going. But do they always move in harmony?

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Idle capacity has been a feature of the containership sector since the economic downturn in 2008-09. Prior to that, box freight rates tended to vary according to fairly macro factors, and liner companies appeared less inclined to resort to micro supply management to address imbalances. But in recent years, there have been clear phases of containership ‘idling’, each highly reflective of conditions in the sector.

The Worst Of Times

Global box trade dropped by 9% in 2009, and liner companies were left with little option but to idle significant levels of capacity to resurrect freight levels from rock bottom levels (Phase 1 on the graph). By the end of 2009, 1.5m TEU, or 11% of total fleet capacity stood idle. This did at least help push freight rates back up.

Not The Best Of Times

It did of course have a negative impact on the charter market, leaving owners, with an easy supply of laid up ships lurking in the background for charterers to access, unable to bid up rates. But, with some believing the world economy to be recovering quickly, substantial amounts of idle capacity were soon reactivated and by the end of September 2010, there was only 1.6% of the fleet idle (Phase 2). However, with freight levels having dropped again, further lay-up followed, and by end March 2012, the position had been reversed and 5.9% of the fleet was idle (Phase 3). Charter owner tonnage accounted for around 70% of the total by the summer of 2012, and most of the idle capacity was in classic charter market sizes, with only 3% above 5,000 TEU, putting pressure back on charter rates.

Better Times?

In the next phase, market conditions very slowly appeared to become more helpful, and idle capacity gradually fell, with the winter peak receding each year (Phase 4); idle capacity peaked at 6% of the fleet in early 2012, 5% in 2013 and 4% in 2014. But the charter owners’ share stayed high, keeping pressure on the charter market. It took until well into 2014 for rates to see much positive traction. By the end of 2014, idle capacity was finally more limited, at 1.3% of the fleet, reflective of the improved environment.

Time For A Change (Again)?

Today, despite severe freight rate pressure, idle capacity is still fairly limited at 2.5% of the fleet, but it is on the rise and the charter market is softening, ceding some of its gains. Larger ships had begun to account for a greater share of the idle pool (24% over 5,000 TEU in May) but recent weeks have seen a return to increased smaller ship idling.

So how will Phase 5 play out? There are a range of scenarios. Liner companies might continue to compete aggressively on the mainlanes with an apparent surplus of big ship capacity, and endure freight rate pain without idling too much more capacity. Or to protect freight rates they might start to idle a greater number of larger ships. Alternatively, they might once again pass down the pressure to the smaller ship arena, leaving more significant levels of capacity there to impact on the charter market. Much might depend on the flexibility of tonnage. Either way, once again, the development of idle boxship capacity will be a sign of the times. Have a nice day.


In today’s container shipping market, the presence of a group of ‘charter owners’ who account for a significant part of the fleet is an accepted part of the landscape. But this has not always been the case; it has taken a number of phases of investment to bolster the capacity of this important part of the boxship ownership spectrum, and in today’s environment it’s worth taking a closer look at the past.

An Equal Share

Container ‘liner’ operators deploy tonnage owned by themselves and also capacity provided by independent ‘charter owners’. In today’s fleet there are 5,126 boxships, and charter owners account for 2,722 of them, equivalent to 53% of the units and 48% of the TEU capacity. However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the early 90s the liner companies owned 75% or more of the capacity, and the charter market was embryonic.

Phases One & Two

A key driver of change was increased investment in boxships in Germany backed by the ‘KG’ finance system, allowing ship owners and managers to access private investment, offering investors a tax break in the form of accelerated depreciation in return. 285 charter owned ships in today’s fleet were built in 1996-98 (Phase 1), 139 (49%) of them owned by German companies. By 1999 charter owners accounted for 35% of global TEU. Though the benefits of the KG system were eventually limited to tonnage tax gains, the early 2000s saw renewed German investment. Of today’s charter-owner fleet, 700 units were built in 2000-05 (Phase 2), 424 (61%) owned by Germans. This took the charter owner share of TEU to 47% by 2006. Some Greek and Japanese owners had also become established but Germans led the way.

Fast Then Slow

Phase 3 followed. During the great ordering boom, German owners invested even more heavily, swept along by positive sentiment and earnings, as well as the availability of ‘easy’ finance. Of today’s charter owner fleet, 1,113 units were delivered 2006-10, 701 (63%) of them German owned. By 2011, 51% of global TEU was charter owned. But with the credit crunch in 2008, the KG system collapsed and charter owner ordering slowed.

Time For New Phases?

Of today’s charter owner fleet, just 402 units were built in 2011 or since (Phase 4), with only 178 of them German owned (44%). The charter owner share of TEU began to fall. Although others entered the charter owner arena, including Greeks, Chinese and ‘new’ shipping money, nothing as yet has quite replaced the volumes provided by the Germans. Charter owners account for 68% of capacity on order today, but the average number of charter owner ships built in the last 5 years is half the number built in the previous 10.

So, with steady demand growth a reasonable bet, and an apparent gap in the investment profile, market watchers await to see who might step forward. Despite operators focussing their firepower on very large ships, today’s orderbook stands at a relatively modest 18% of the fleet. For investors looking to become a fixture, might boxship charter ownership offer opportunities for new phases?


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.