Trade down 20% on prime container route


The Financial Times (UK)
By Robert Wright, Transport Correspondent
July 21 2009

Traffic volumes on the world’s busiest container ship route fell by a fifth in May against a backdrop of plummeting prices as the global recession leaves the industry facing its worst crisis in its 53 year history.

The figures for westbound Asia-Europe services, which compared volumes with the same month last year, were published on Tuesday by the European Liner Affairs Association a day after Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines revealed it suffered continued volume falls in June and a still sharper fall in earnings from each container.

Falling trade volumes and an oversupply of ships have sent container lines’ earnings per container shipped well below day-to-day operating costs. Several lines, including Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, are seeking fresh financing and there is speculation that one or more big container lines could fall into bankruptcy.

This year looks set to be the first in the 53-year history of container shipping to see a year-on-year fall in volumes. Volumes depend on consumer demand for the finished and semi-finished goods shipped in containers.

The ELAA figures – which the trade association compiles for all trades to and from Europe – showed westbound volumes from Asia to Europe down 20 per cent in May, compared with the same month a year ago. The figure is slightly better than the 22 per cent fall in the first quarter of 2009. But container lines are likely to be concerned by the length of the slump, which started in autumn last year and is eating into many operators’ cash reserves.

NOL’s figures, which covered all its operations rather than the individual routes covered by the ELAA figures, showed a volume fall of 14 per cent for the four weeks to June 26.

The volume fall was lower than the 24 per cent average for the year so far. However, the line’s average earnings per 40-foot container fell 29 per cent in the latest four-week period, sharply down on the 20 per cent average for the year so far.

The ELAA’s earnings figures, which cover only the first three months, showed prices per container between Europe and Asia were running at 49 per cent of the average figure for 2008.

One senior container shipping executive, who asked not to be named, said container shipping companies had “a long way to go” in raising prices before they were able to cover their costs. Hundreds of container ships are laid up worldwide as lines cut services in an effort to fill their remaining sailings.

NOL is seeking S$1.4bn ($970m) in fresh capital to strengthen its balance sheet, while Hapag-Lloyd on July 8 told its shareholders it needed €1.75bn ($2.5bn) in fresh capital. Chile’s CSAV is raising $710m as part of a rescue deal agreed by the owners of its ships.

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