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JOC 19/2/14 - Container Ship Fleet Growth Slowing, But Overcapacity Persists

The global container ship fleet this year is expected to grow at the slowest rate in a decade, but large and small shipping lines continue to order more new ships than the forecast growth of global container cargo can fill over the next two years, especially on the Asia-Europe trade.

 

This is why so many carriers are combining in mega-alliances, such as the P3 Network among Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Co. and CMA CGM, or the possible CKYH-E, with more expected to come.

 

Alphaliner is forecasting that deliveries of new ships will add 9.6 percent of capacity to the existing fleet this year, but there will be a record amount of scrapping and deferral of deliveries, which will reduce the net growth to 5.5 percent.

 

This would be the lowest annual increase in the container ship fleet since 1999, as carriers scrap Panamax ships that don't provide the economies of scale or stingy fuel consumption offered by the new, ultra-large container vessels that they are ordering now.

 

Although global demand is expected to increase by 4.4 percent this year, that would still not be enough to fill the net 5.5 percent increase in container fleet capacity, Alphaliner said in its weekly newsletter.

 

With freight rates on most of the east-west trade lanes barely enough to cover operating costs, shipping lines of all sizes are ordering ULCVs, because the only way they can hope to turn a profit or cut their losses is by seeking the reduced operating costs these ships provide.

 

Drewry projects the capacity of the fleet of 10,000-TEU or larger ULCVs will increase by 31.4 percent this year, and by 30 percent in 2015.

 

"Even though some of the deliveries will be delayed, it is hard to see where the cargo to fill the remainder will come from, bearing in mind that the vessels are mostly designed for the Asia-Europe trade lane where westbound cargo growth last year was less than 4 percent," Drewry said in its latest Container Insight.

Demand grew by only 2 percent on the trade between Asia and northern Europe, where average vessel size exceeds 10,000 TEUs.

 

With sizeable growth in the ULCV fleet anticipated, freight rates are expected to remain under pressure on the Asia-Europe trade this year and next, Drewry said.

 

If carriers can't fill their new ultra-large container ships with Asia-Europe cargo, they are likely to deploy them on other trade lanes, but if they do, they will lose the economies of scale, "as ULCVS are only profitable when well utilized," Drewry said.

 

Some of the larger shipping lines may be able to delay delivery of unneeded ship orders this year, but smaller lines that have placed orders for ULCVs may not have the clout to do so.

 

If they cannot delay their orders, the share of the ULCV fleet over 10,000 TEUs deployed by smaller carriers will grow from 45 percent in 2013 to 57 percent by the end of 2016.

 

As a result, smaller carriers are expected to join in new alliances or join with existing alliances in a more formal way. "Existing alliances must also be considering further expansion of their global network to soak up extra capacity over the next two years," Drewry said.