Insolvency May Be Next Great Threat to Ocean Carriers

Continued sluggish demand, a growing mountain of debt and a radically changing global marketplace has the ocean container shipping industry reeling, say financial analysts.

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Continued sluggish demand, a growing mountain of debt and a radically changing global marketplace has the ocean container shipping industry reeling, say financial analysts.

According to a new AlixPartners study, many of the major international players face more distress and even possible bankruptcy.

Esben Christensen, director of the business advisory firm, told SCMR in an interview that listed companies have been troubled for the past three years.

“Our analysis suggests that the number of parties controlling containerized transportation on critical trades is shrinking through operational alliances and - potentially in the future - through carriers exiting the business,” he said.

Contributing mightily to this situation, says the study, is a so-so global economy that still hasn’t bounced back from the downturn following the worldwide financial crisis of 2008-09 the way other post-recession economies have in the past. However, the study points as well to several structural issues also buffeting the industry, including a drive to build, fill and route “mega-ships” – a drive that over the past decade has steadily increased leverage across the industry and has left it with an average EBITDA interest-coverage rate of just 4.9, less than half the rate it was in 2011 (10.8) and less than a third of what it was in 2010 (15.0).

The study notes, too, that while global fleet capacity in the industry has risen steadily in the past decade, to 16.9 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) for the 12-month period ending September 2013, up from 16.3 million TEU in 2012 and from 10.9 TEU in 2007, that capacity is a long way from being totally utilized, leading in part to more alliances in the industry. This, in turn, according to the study, is likely creating an environment of haves and have-nots where smaller carriers in particular may face some hard choices going forward.

On top of all that, the study asserts that other structural changes that will challenge companies this year include changing trade routes in some parts of the world, with cost increasingly trumping transit time, and a newfound pressure on the part of some of the stronger lines to squeeze, or even totally bypass, non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOCCs), giving those lines more advantage over the have-nots of the industry.

“The container shipping industry as a whole continues to face stiff challenges, and for many companies in the industry those challenges could be existential if not addressed,” said Lisa Donahue, managing director and global head of Turnaround & Restructuring Services at AlixPartners. “These challenges also have, and will continue to have, a big effect on shippers and investors as well.”

About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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