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Global Supply Chain News: Ocean Container Carriers Put on Capacity Brakes, Look for Government Bailouts to Survive

  Keeping Rates from Falling is Critical, but Many Say Government Aid also Needed to Keep Ships Afloat


May 28, 2020
SCDigest Editorial Staff

The tough times continue for ocean container carriers, with substantial voided sailings in a desperate move to maintain rates, while many look to government subsidies to literally keep them afloat.

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"Shipping is part of the economic lifeline of Taiwan and the government will do its utmost to help it weather the difficult times," Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung said.

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Shipping lines has cancelled or blanked scheduled sailings in record numbers in recent months, as shipping volumes collapsed due to the virus crisis. For example, May saw 51 out of 245 total sailings on Asia to North Europe and the US West Coast cancelled, while June was scheduled 223 sailings and now has 28 blanks already.

Despite that, the Wall Street Journal and others reported many megaships are sailing only half filled with containers.

As yet, there have been few blanked sailings announced thus far for Q3 - but that is likely to change soon, according to a report on the web site.

"July is now just five weeks out and that's typically when the first bookings for those sailings would be made, so I would expect carriers to announce blank sailings in the next two or three weeks," said SeaIntelligence Consulting founder Lars Jensen.

The paring back on sailings has in fact been working to keep rates relatively high versus the drop in demand. Spot rates net of fuel surcharges today are 25% higher on the Asia-North Europe trade than they were a year ago, and 40% higher on transpacific sailings.

"So the strategy is clear - remove as much capacity as it takes to prevent rates from sliding, Jensen added.

Meanwhile, financially stressed container lines are seeking a lifeline from their home governments.

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For example, French container line CMA CGM, the world's fourth largest liner company by capacity, last week received a €1.05 billion ($1.12 billion) syndicated loan from three banks, 70% of which is guaranteed by the French government.

Alfred Hartmann, president of the German shipowners association VDR, said times are dire for its members, which own and lease a sizable percentage of the world's container fleet. Charter rates for ships are down some 60% in the last couple of months.

Hartman told the Wall Street Journal he expects the situation to get worse this year and "this means that substantial segments of the German merchant fleet are foreseeably endangered in their existence" if they cannot access German government aid.

Financially struggling South Korea carrier HMM received $600 million in April from state entities that now own a combined 74% of the company.

Taiwan this week announced creation of a $1 billion credit facility to support the country's big container operators like Yang Ming and Evergreen Marine from the coronavirus fallout.

"Shipping is part of the economic lifeline of Taiwan and the government will do its utmost to help it weather the difficult times," Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung said.

Will all that be enough to keep container carriers on the water? It all depends on how quickly shipping demand recovers.

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