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Ocean carriers continued with their casino strategy in 2014, going all-in at the poker table in their never-ending quest to deploy the biggest box ships and thus gain unit cost advantages over their peers.

Unfortunately for the balance sheets of most of the high-rolling carriers, their gambling spectacularly backfired as freight rates fell faster than the decline in unit costs.

Meanwhile, general rate increases amounting to thousands of dollars, implemented to reverse the revenue erosion, were conceded back to shippers within weeks in rate wars that sporadically erupted across the main tradelanes, leaving GRIs the subject of much ridicule.

The main exception to the rule, however, was the winning hand shown by Maersk Line: a streamlined business model – developed in previous years when the Danish carrier had lagged the industry in struggling to turn a profit – which will see the world’s biggest container line bank net in excess of $2bn for the year.

However, even Maersk realised it needed help to fill its 18,000teu ultra-large behemoths, and this proved to be the driver for an unexpected courtship and proposed vessel-sharing alliance with arch rivals MSC and CMA CGM.

Dubbed the P3, and having cleared regulatory hurdles in the US and Europe, the alliance fell at the last, stymied by Chinese competition authorities who viewed the tight operational tonnage centre plan as akin to a merger.

Maersk and MSC lost no time after receiving the knockback in leaving CMA CGM at the altar and pullied together a diluted version of the P3 – the 2M. And in due course, the watered-down VSA managed to overcome shipper body reservations and skirt regulatory objections.

Meanwhile, the jilted CMA CGM hastily jumped into bed with emerging powers UASC and CSCL to form the more romantically sounding Ocean Three, which will be launched in a similar mid-January timeline to that of the 2M.

And the final piece of the east-west tradelane carrier alliance jigsaw was completed when the CKYH alliance added some extra firepower with the inclusion to the fold of Taiwan’s Evergreen.

Elsewhere, there was more carrier consolidation: CSAV’s container business being merged into Hapag-Lloyd, and Hamburg Sud acquiring CCNI, while also agreeing a global slot exchange agreement with UASC.

The formation of four mega-alliances resulted in a ‘new normal’ ULCV being deployed in the Asia-Europe tradelane of a minimum of 13,000teu up to 18,000teu and beyond.

As a consequence, the hitherto 8,000-10,000teu Asia-Europe workhorse vessels were redundant: no longer economic and therefore cascaded into other trades.

But the random off-schedule introduction of the ULCS into North European ports caused major pinch points at the two biggest hubs of Rotterdam and Hamburg, aggravated by analyst-beating year-on-year import growth of 8%.

And elsewhere, the enforced redeployment into trades which not only did not need bigger ships, but were also unprepared to cope with bigger container exchanges, contributed to congestion at ports on the US west coast, Latin America and West Africa.

But a silver lining for carriers emerged in the final quarter of the year to compensate for eroding revenue, in the form of a 45% reduction in bunker prices following a collapse in world oil prices.

Fuel had represented as much as 60% of a vessel’s operating costs, so the savings for carriers will be significant, despite their claims that shippers will benefit more from a reduction in bunker surcharges.

However, although the short-term benefits from a substantial fall in fuel prices are obvious, it remains to be seen what the longer-term implications for oil-producing economies will impact globalisation.

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