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Ocean carriers generally managed to navigate the supply-disrupted first three months of the year quite well, but the demand-disrupted next quarters are likely to tip the industry into significant financial loss, according to a senior analyst.
Based on the Q1 financial results of 11 carriers, and taking an average for the lines that do not report their financials, New York-based consultancy Blue Alpha Capital estimates the collective bottom line for the first quarter was a modest loss of $4m – much improved on the $434m for the same period last year.
However, Blue Alpha Capital founder and author of the analysis John McCown said results in the first quarter were “less consistent among carriers”, with six of the 11 companies reporting improved results on the previous year, while five posted worse.
He noted that K Line, with a loss of $149 from its 30% equity stake in ONE, and HMM, with a negative result of $55m, were the worst performers in the quarter.
At the other end of the scale were Maersk, with a profit of $202m (based on an estimated percentage for its container division from group profits), CMA CGM, with a net profit of $48m, Cosco with a $41m surplus and a $27m positive for Hapag-Lloyd.
“The container industry showed a first-quarter loss even before the full impact of the worldwide demand shock, which will flow through financial statements for the balance of the year,” warned Mr McCown.
“That negative catalyst is layered on top of China tariffs, which are still at 91% of peak levels. Those tariffs were already destined to drive a double-digit percentage reduction in volume on the Far East to North America trade,” he said.
Mr McCown added that there was “little question” that global trade would see an “unprecedented decline in container volumes in 2020”.
Indeed, carriers have now appeared to accept this scenario: for example, CMA CGM indicated in its Q1 results that it is anticipating a 15% decline in liftings for Q2 after a 5% drop off in the first quarter.
Moreover, the 2M and THE alliances have already announced the cancellation of some 75 sailings between Asia and Europe, through to October – traditionally the end of the peak season – suggesting there is no hope of a v-shaped recovery from the pandemic.
Ocean carriers successfully mitigated the impact of the supply disruption of the coronavirus outbreak in China during the latter part of Q1 by an aggressive blanking strategy, involving the withdrawal of some 36% of Asia to Europe sailings and 28% of transpacific headhaul loaders during February.
However, Mr McCowen is unconvinced that carriers can continue to protect freight rates from slumping as a consequence of the sharp contraction in volume.
“While the second quarter will likely be the worse, with year-over-year volume declines of up to 30% in some lanes, the quarters in the second half of 2020 will also be ugly,” he said.
“My present mid-point estimate for the container shipping industry’s 2020 bottom line is a loss of $10.6bn. My best case is a loss of $5.4bn, while my worst case is a loss of $15.9bn,” said Mr McCown.
Worryingly for the liners, he predicts 2020 will see “the industry’s poorest financial performance ever”, and that the stress on the balance sheets of carriers will “lead to major reorganisations”.