「Survival of the fittest in the 2008 ocean carrier jungle」
California’s Port of Long Beach - one of the key US ‘barometer’ ports - has reported a 13.8% drop in import container throughput for January 2008.On top of the steady decline of imports in Q4, 2007, the figures from Long Beach would seem to confirm the widely forecast predication of a significant downturn in the US economy.
However, many ocean carriers have already factored in a US downtown in their 2008 business plans by either terminating or pruning back their US services.The analysts’ jury is still out on the 2008 prospects for the lucrative key to ocean carriers’ business plans, the Asia – North Europe and Asia - Mediterranean tradelanes. The remarkable growth of 18% and 22% respectively, achieved in 2007 can surely not be repeated in a climate of sub-prime woes?
But the FEFC – albeit working its notice period – predicates ‘the same again’ in 2008. The soon to be defunct conference maintains that it has been proved right before dismissing the ‘doom-mongers’ who predict an ocean carrier Armageddon.In Europe the UK’s retail sales were slightly better than expected in January 2008, but its economy is so closely aligned to the US that, having caught the US sub-prime virus and credit crunch aftermath, it is unlikely to avoid a period of enforced belt tightening and consumer nervousness that will impinge upon demand.
But the 15 Euro currency countries from the 27 strong EU membership, plus the emerging countries from the old eastern block and other states linked to the strong Euro, may not necessarily suffer in the same way.FEFC statistics for January will be available shortly, but one month’s figures will not provide that many long-term indicators.
Indeed, February statistics may also be distorted due to the Chinese New Year holidays and the severe snow storm disruptions in China in the build up to the lunar festival.It is likely to be the end of Q1 2008 before budgets can be properly tested against actual performance; but even if the figures are depressed, ocean carriers are more resilient and adaptable to change in 2008 than hitherto.
The world’s number one ocean carrier, Maersk Line, is still taking its self-prescribed medicine and many ocean carriers seem willing to enter into slot-charter agreements with arch rivals to protect their bottom line.
Moreover, the decision in 2007 by ocean carriers to cut service speeds on many routes to reduce bunker costs, represents a significant step forward in responsible ship management.Co-operation between ocean carriers outside of normal alliances and radical cost-cutting measures prove that ego’s, brandings and service speeds are no longer important when compared to balance sheet performance!
Further consolidation of ocean carriers is still possible, evidenced by the apparent ongoing ‘discussions’ between Singapore-based NOL and German ocean carrier, Hapag Lloyd’s parent TUI.If the merged services can complement one another then it may make sense but as has been painfully learnt by A P Moller-Maersk: one+one does not always equal two in an acquisition of like.
Moreover, there is also a history of ocean carrier mergers leading to a period of heavy rate cutting, as the newly amalgamated organisation fights to maintain its combined market share; ultimately benefiting nobody!