It’s almost exactly a year since the crisis in the shipping industry made global news with the collapse of Hanjin Shipping.
Hanjin’s failure was caused by a unique set of circumstances that saw new vessels flooding the market while cargo demand stalled, driving down the prices shipping lines could charge to transport goods.
However, those cut-throat practices seem to have ended and there are signs the storm is abating, with shipping rates edging up recently as troubles work their way through the system. Last week came the strongest signal yet that shipping isn’t the basket case many had thought.
AP Moller-Maersk, owner of the world’s biggest shipping lines with 600 vessels, said it was doubling down on the sector by ending its status as a global conglomerate. The Danish group announced the sale of its oil unit to France’s Total for $7.5bn (£5.9bn), leaving it to focus solely on the maritime operations it is best known for.
It’s a change of tack for Maersk. Early last year, his predecessor Nils Anderson had delivered a much gloomier view describing the market as worse than the downturn unleashed by the financial crisis.
“The oil price is as low as its lowest point in 2008-09 and doesn’t look like going up soon. Freight rates are lower,” said Anderson.
So what has suddenly given Maersk such confidence? For a start, the fundamentals of the industry are strong, according to Andi Case, chief executive of FTSE 250 shipbroker Clarkson.
“Demand grows as population grows,” said Case, adding that between 85pc and 95pc of goods travel by sea.
“In 1990, 0.8 tons of goods per person were transported by sea. That figure is now 1.5 tons and the global population is only rising.”
In other words, as populations grow and become richer, people want more products, and in an increasingly globalised world these goods are transported by sea, mainly in the ubiquitous 20ft standard shipping containers – known as TEUs.
Jonathan Roach, a container shipping analyst at shipbroker Braemar, agrees: “The rule used to be demand for containers rose at about 2.5 times global GDP growth – but that went out the window a few years ago.”
At the peak of demand in 2007, 2,905 ships over 20,000 tons were ordered, about three times the average of the previous decade. Clarkson’s Clarksea Index – a measure that gives a broad snapshot of earnings for ships – was averaging in the low 30s at the same point, having hovered in the mid-teens until a few years prior.
Then the financial crisis struck, ushering in a sharp downturn in trade. Ship orders dropped to 1,874 in 2008, then just 580 the following year, while earnings, according to Clarksea, fell to low double digits – a level where they have pretty much stayed since.
However, ship orders – while not as strong – remained high, meaning a massive oversupply of vessels looking for cargo to transport. The situation was exacerbated by the long lead times of shipbuilding, meaning new vessels were being launched while the situation was worsening. Meanwhile, low scrap metal prices meant owners of older ships were reluctant to send them for demolition.
It’s only in the past 18 months that ship supply has finally got back into line with demand – 217 new ships were ordered in 2016 and so far this year the level is 267 – and the industry is beginning to think that the worst just might be over.
“There’s been no large container ship orders since 2015 and owners are showing restraint,” says Roach, adding that shipping lines simply haven’t needed new vessels. This fall in orders has also contributed to a number of bankruptcies in shipbuilders who had in some cases been left holding cancelled vessels.
“Container rates are finally beginning to rise and this year has been better than last,” adds Roach. “But then you look back at last year and realise it was just terrible with no growth at all.”
The situation may be getting better but Clarkson’s Case says it’s a long way until normality is restored.
“The saturation of the market is now turning into a more normal oversupply,” Case said, pointing to shipyards failing as a signal that the mass of new ships entering the market might just be ending.
A few years ago there were 20 big shipping lines. Now there are 12. Maersk’s Skou himself believes the number could fall to just half a dozen in 10 years’ time.
It’s not yet time to hang out the bunting though, according to Jeremy Penn, chairman of London International Shipping Week, the event being held next month which celebrates and promotes the UK’s leading position in the maritime trade sector.
“It’s hard to predict the movement of the shipping market but we have seen a great reduction in the order book and that’s the crucial thing,” said the former chief executive of London’s Baltic Exchange – a global centre for maritime trade and clearing house for shipping contracts.
“It’s the overhang of orders that drives the market down.” “There are reasons to be positive but that is a long way from saying ‘yippee, it’s all over’. It’s been a tough period of time since the collapse in 2008,” he said.
“But if you can get back to a position where you are ahead of operating expenses for your ship most of the time and making reasonable returns, then that’s an OK position to be in. Finally, that’s happening more frequently.”