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With global demand expected to contract by some 10% this year, due to the impact of the pandemic, blanked sailings are likely to be increasingly common feature among liner networks.
As a consequence, ocean carriers are reviewing their capacity growth plans and, in addition to doubling down on off-hiring surplus chartered tonnage, they are also shunning the newbuild option.
With so much surplus capacity on the water, the big non-operating owners are much less likely to speculate on future demand from their liner customers and will restrict fleet growth to opportunist distress purchases.
Hitherto, the global container fleet had seen robust year-on-year growth of about 75% in the past decade, reaching almost 23m teu at the end of 2019. However, according to VesselsValue, there was a dramatic fall in shipbuilding activity in the first half of the year.
For example, the valuation agency data recorded just 13 orders for new containerships in the first six months, compared with 63 in the first half of last year and 102 in the same period of 2018.
Maersk’s orderbook consists of only 15 ships, for 34,252 teu, while rivals Hapag-Lloyd and ONE both have empty orderbooks.
In January, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Hapag-Lloyd’s CEO Rolf Habben Jansen told a Hamburg press conference: “We will have to start replacing ships in our fleet from 2022/2023,” suggesting the carrier would join the ranks of its competitors in ordering 23,000 teu ULCVs.
Unsurprisingly, given Covid-19, the German carrier has now rowed back on its ULCV aspirations.
And of the ships still on order, there is likely to be a “lot of slippage” in delivery dates, said VesselsValue, as owners look to defer receiving ships that they can no longer deploy. Newbuild orders normally include a clause to enable some delay to delivery.
Among the few new orders, Chinese shipyards have secured the majority at the expense of South Korean and Japanese ship builders. The South Korean shipbuilding industry was already in crisis before the advent of the pandemic, forcing Hyundai Heavy Industries and compatriot Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering to seek a merger, which is currently under regulatory review.
And consolidation in the ailing Japanese shipbuilding industry has been in progress for five years, while the downturn has even resulted in the subsidised Chinese industry merging its two biggest shipyards.
Meanwhile, an industry source told The Loadstar, carriers were having to “expertly juggle their tonnage” as they struggled to match supply with weaker demand.
“Every day the fleet managers are being pressured to ensure they are not operating more capacity on a route than is necessary, and the swapping and phasing in and out of tonnage is causing them a massive headache,” he said.
“I’m not sure that some of these extra costs, such as restows, cargo being discharged at the wrong port and ballasting ships, are hitting the accounts promptly and there will, I’m sure, be a lot of late invoices to the disbursement accounts,” he said.