Container sector under fire

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

11 April 2017


As the EU approves the merger of Maersk Line and Hamburg Sud, albeit with some strings attached, the relationship between shippers and carriers is souring further as space on eastbound services from Europe is becoming hard to find. The EU clearance of the merger is conditional upon the withdrawal of HSDG from five consortia on trade routes connecting (i) Northern Europe and Central America/Caribbean, (ii) Northern Europe and West Coast South America, (iii) Northern Europe and Middle East, (iv) the Mediterranean and West Coast South America and (v) the Mediterranean and East Coast South America. On these routes, the merged entity would have faced insufficient competition after the transaction. Some might argue that withdrawal of vessels, unless compensated for by the addition of a new service reduces competition in any case. This is what is seen by some as the current friction between European shippers and alliances serving Asia. A lack of space supposedly caused by vessels repositioning into the new alliance structure on the route has seen some shippers facing both a hike in rates and long delays of up to two months in gaining slots on board ships. In a press release last week, the European Shippers’ Council asked two rhetorical questions; “Is the present situation a natural result of the market adjusting to capacity changes in the maritime sector, or is it an artificially created scenario by certain shipping lines, to increase their profitability? How long will it last?” There has long been an imbalance between West and Eastbound sailings on the lines, but it is difficult to believe that Eastbound trade has improved so much as to make finding space so difficult as has been the case in recent months. When ships were much smaller than they are today, a sudden spike may have been difficult to absorb but with the mega ships in use today any increase should have been easily accommodated. If rates continue to rise and competition decreases as looks likely, it may well be time for some entrepreneur to take advantage and set up a new leaner service. If so they had better be quick as the latest Drewry Container Forecaster suggests rates for time charter rates for all ship sizes have doubled since the start of the year. In February, Panamaxes were being chartered at barely above $4,000 per day, but by mid-March $8,000 was more the going rate. Also, 8,000 teu ships that were chartered at $8,000-$9,000 per day are now going for rates in the high teens. However, as the report also highlights, the charter periods are quite short at around six months. That could mean that carriers are desperate to fill short term capacity loss or it could be that the owners believe the market has more life in it and want to keep options open.