Competition clouds start to gather
This year has not been a happy one for the container sector as falling freights, overcapacity and lack of trade growth have all taken their toll. Leaving aside the effect on all operators’ balance sheets, so far the only real casualty has been Hanjin. For the rest, mergers and acquisitions and restructuring of the alliances have provided some small amount of respite. The most recent developments in this sphere has been the coming together of Japan’s leading box operators into a single entity and a potential government assistance for Taiwan’s two players. Most analysts agree that fewer newbuilding arrivals and some hard pruning of the existing fleet will eventually pay dividends with 2018 being tipped as the most likely time for an upturn in fortunes. However, things may not pan out as planned for the operators as discontent from customers is growing and so is their willingness to ensure that action is taken. The inability of operators to make freight increases stick over the last two years or more might be taken by some to show that shippers and receivers have been given a fairly easy ride over the period. But representatives of exporters and importers from around the world have joined forces to advance and protect their members’ interests in the face of what they call “unprecedented change in the global container shipping industry”. The European Shippers’ Council (ESC) has joined the Global Shippers’ Forum (GSF) to promote the findings of new research and analysis commissioned by GSF into the impacts of new alliances being formed by operators and the growing use of so-called mega-ships. The fear that the contraction of the shipping market into a very small number of tightly knit alliances, and the use of much larger vessels will reduce their choice of carrier and the quality of the services delivered as carriers operating within such arrangements cannot compete amongst themselves with regard to the agreed capacity, sailing frequency, transit times, ports of call and service level. It is just a few years since the EU permitted liners to continue to enjoy a block exemption from competition regulation but that runs out at the end of 2017 and it is almost certain that ESC and its lobby partner CLECAT representing EU freight forwarders and logistics organisations will be pushing to ensure that no further dispensations are given. Whether the EU will be sympathetic to shippers concerns in the next round of negotiations remains to be seen but with EU involvement in the various alliances being limited to just Maersk, CMA CGM and Hapag Lloyd plus perhaps Switzerland-based MSC, it may well be that the EU will decide that the interests of European cargo interests outweigh the increasing influence of foreign line operators. There are more EU based owners involved of course because many of the ships being operated on time charter by the small number of line operators are owned of flagged in EU-member states even if their owners have no involvement in the freight setting or alliance arrangements. Reversing the merger trend by EU dictat might be difficult given the paucity of EU-based operators but there is perhaps the possibility that if no action is taken by the EU then some of the larger NVOCCs in CLECAT could conceivably expand into line operation in direct competition to established players. There are after all plenty of vessels available for charter that would suit their needs. Some of the existing owners might welcome such a move since their argument is that survival of any players is dependent on increased freights and that the best way to illustrate that is to let someone else try to do better than they have.