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News ID: 77255 |
Publish Date: 15:55 - 14 November 2017

European and Asian Carriers Square up to Each Other

THE number of truly global container lines continues to shrink, with some familiar names missing from the latest rankings.

European and Asian Carriers Square up to Each Other
According to MANA, But there are many more changes still to come, with the 2018 list of top carriers likely to look very different from the 2017 table, which, at first glance, does not seem all that different from the 2016 rankings.
The four largest lines in terms of fleet capacity remain the same — Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Co, CMA CGM and Cosco Shipping.
So this hardly looks like the great shake-up that has dominated the headlines for the past couple of years.
That is because much of the consolidation that is condensing container shipping into just a handful of industry heavyweights is still a work in progress. In the meantime, the industry has consolidated into three global vessel-sharing agreements — 2M, the Ocean Alliance and The Alliance — with the latter two inaugurating services in April.
Three into ONE
Probably the most ambitious merger now under way involves the three Japanese lines, MOL, NYK and K Line, which are being combined in to Ocean Network Express, a line that will rank number six in the world in terms of fleet capacity when it introduces services next April. For now, the three lines are continuing to operate separately, and are ranked 9th, 11th and 15th respectively in the latest listings produced by Alphaliner.
More change will involve OOCL, now number seven in the world, which is in the process of being acquired by Cosco Shipping in a move that will elevate the Chinese powerhouse into the world’s top three, at least in the short-term and depending on how newbuilding activity changes the order in years to come. Cosco Shipping, of course, is already the product of a merger between two Chinese state-owned carriers, Cosco and China Shipping.
Another line set to lose its independence is Hamburg Süd, which is likely to be formally taken over by Maersk before the end of the year, once regulatory clearances have been obtained. The Danish line has promised to retain the brand, but the takeover removes another prominent player from the top 10 that has already seen a number of names disappear from the premier league over the past few years.
In 2016, United Arab Shipping Co was the world’s 10th largest carrier. Now, it has gone, through its merger with Hapag-Lloyd, which had already swallowed up Chilean line CSAV.
Another line that still featured in the top 20 last year was Hanjin Shipping, which collapsed in August 2016 and has now gone from the scene entirely. 
New entrant
But a South Korean newcomer has emerged from that bankruptcy, SM Line, which makes its debut at number 29.
But what is clear from the fleet numbers is the huge gap now opening up between the top six and the rest of the industry, a gulf that looks set to widen further as the industry settles down into a handful of lines that are genuinely global, another tier of large regional players, and then feeder or shortsea operators.
The container shipping industry continues to be dominated by three European lines, all in family control, and setting the agenda in many ways.
Maersk, which remains the world’s largest containership operator with an owned and chartered fleet of more than 3.5m teu, compared with 3.2m teu a year earlier, and a still sizeable orderbook, is in the process of integrating its shipping, ports, and forwarding operations into a single transport and logistics business designed to maximise synergies between the three activities.
Scale will be boosted by the imminent takeover of north-south specialist Hamburg Süd, which also has strong presence in the reefer trades.
At the same time, AP Moller-Maersk is withdrawing from energy-related activities in order to allow top management to concentrate on one core business.
MSC, which has grown its container fleet organically rather than through corporate acquisitions, has stuck to that tried and tested formula, investing in tonnage instead of companies. The Geneva-based line owned by the Aponte family recently placed an order for 11 ships of 22,000 teu capacity in a move that should help it retain its position as the world number two, with a current fleet of close to 3.2m teu and an orderbook equivalent to 12% of its existing capacity. A year earlier, MSC’s fleet stood at 2.8m teu.
Third-ranked CMA CGM is benefiting considerably from its takeover of Singapore line APL that was finalised in mid-2016, and which has now returned to profit under its new ownership. The French line is also in the process of buying South American carrier Mercosul from Maersk, which had to dispose of it as a condition of its Hamburg Süd takeover, as well as purchasing a majority stake in Pacific Islands specialist Sofrana.
CMA CGM is also selling a majority interest in its Los Angeles terminal Global Gateway South, and was the first to order the new class of 22,000 teu ships, to be built in China.
The Saadé-controlled line has seen fleet capacity rise from 2.2m teu to 2.5m teu over the year, but there is a question mark over what happens next. Turkish investor Robert Yildirim still owns a 24% share of CMA CGM, but has said he wants to sell in order to fund ports investments.
At the same time, CMA CGM will lose its position as the biggest member of the Ocean Alliance, once Cosco Shipping has completed its $6.3bn takeover of Hong Kong’s OOCL.
New world order?
Many think it is now just a matter of time before Cosco Shipping starts to challenge for the top spot.
The fact that European lines dominate the industry is something of an anomaly now, considering that neither Denmark, where Maersk is headquartered, nor landlocked Switzerland, where MSC’s head office is located, are big export countries. And even CMA CGM’s home country France hardly compares with China in terms of cargo interests.
The acquisition of OOCL will give Cosco a huge leg-up in the industry, while there are constant whispers that family-owned PIL could be next in line for a takeover approach from China.
The outcome of this unprecedented round of consolidation is to elevate operators that have barely changed their fleet sizes or ambitions into the top 20 — those such as South Korean line KMTC and Hong Kong’s SITC. Others, too, will be promoted next year as the three Japanese lines disappear, to be replaced by ONE, and both OOCL and Hamburg Süd are removed from the list.
So that could mean carriers such as Turkey’s Arkas Line becoming a top 20 player.
But it is the battle at the top that will be the real showstopper. Will European lines be able to retain their dominance, or will Asian carriers from China, Japan, Taiwan and even South Korea, assert themselves as the masters of this new universe that is unfolding?
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