So Many Boats, So Little Cargo
The slowdown in Chinese exports and imports is affecting every corner of the shipping industry “People are calling us not to lay up one ship but 15 or 20”
When business slows and owners of ships and offshore oil rigs need a place to store their unneeded vessels, Saravanan Krishna suddenly becomes one of the industry’s most popular executives. Krishna is the operation director of International Shipcare, a Malaysian company that mothballs ships and rigs, and these days he’s busy taking calls from beleaguered operators with excess capacity. There are 102 vessels laid up at the company’s berths off the Malaysian island of Labuan, more than double the number a year ago. More are on the way. “There’s a huge demand,” he says. “People are calling us not to lay up one ship but 15 or 20.”
Shipbuilders, container lines, and port operators feasted on China’s rise and the global resources boom. Now they’re among the biggest victims of the country’s slowdown and the worldwide decline in demand for oil rigs and other gear amid the oil price plunge. China’s exports fell 1.8 percent in 2015, while its imports tumbled 13.2 percent. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the cost of shipping coal, iron ore, grain, and other non-oil commodities, has fallen 76 percent since August and is now at a record low. Shipping rates for Asiaoriginated routes have dropped, too, and traffic at some of the region’s major ports is falling. In Singapore, the world’s second-largest port, container traffic fell 8.7 percent in 2015, the first decline in six years. Volumes at the port of Hong Kong, the fourth-busiest, slid 9.5 percent last year. Beyond Asia, the giant port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands recorded a dip in containerized traffic for the year.
Globally, orders for new vessels dropped 40 percent in 2015, to $69 billion, according to Londonbased consulting firm Clarksons Research. The demolition rate for unwanted vessels jumped 15 percent. Just a few years ago, as the globglobal global economy i improved and oil prices rose,
many companies ordered more fuel-efficient ships. There were more than 1,200 orders for bulk carriers that transport iron ore, coal, and grain in 2013, compared with just 250 last year, according to Clarksons. Many of the ships ordered are now in operation, says Tim Huxley, chief executive officer of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings, a Hong Kong-based owner of bulk carriers and tankers. “You have a massive oversupply,” he says.
The damage is especially severe in China, the world’s leading producer of ships. New orders for Chinese shipbuilders fell by nearly half last year, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. In December, Zhoushan Wuzhou Ship Repairing & Building became the first state-owned shipbuilder to go bankrupt in a decade.
The yuan has dropped 6 percent since last August. While that should help exports, Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, a company controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing that runs some of China’s top container terminals, has yet to see an uptick in outbound business. According to Ivor Chow, chief financial officer of Hutchison, the devaluation is leading to a slowdown in traffic as customers wait to see how much lower the yuan will fall. “People are really hesitant to commit to orders at this point,” he said on a conference call with analysts on Feb. 2. The slowdown is hurting many Chinese ports. Sales at Shanghai International Port were 7.5 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) in the third quarter, down from 7.6 billion yuan the year before, and net profit was 1.4 billion yuan, a decline of 18 percent. The Shanghai Shipping Exchange’s containerized freight index has dropped 27 percent since the start of 2015. While container volume at Shanghai’s port, the world’s largest, grew 3.7 percent last year, that was down from 4.8 percent growth the previous year and was largely the result of taking market share away from high-cost rival Hong Kong, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst John Mathai.
The slide in oil prices is especially painful in Singapore, home to Keppel