Category Archives: Transport

Mega ships and diseconomies of scale

The mega ship the Ever Given was a familiar name in the news recently with it getting stuck in the Suez canal and thus preventing any marine traffic in both directions. The Ever Given is operated by the Taiwan-based firm Evergreen and is a so called mega ship and was carrying over 18,000 containers.

Mega (container) ships have been built in increasingly larger sizes to take advantage of economies of scale and reduce expense as part of using multiple forms of transport without actually handling of the freight itself. The big container ships can carry up to 23,964 twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU) whilst the smaller capacity ships have a maximum capacity of 1,000 TEU.

Herd Mentality and Prisoner’s Dilemma
This being said there is some dispute over the extent that the mega ships achieve economies of scale. A follow the leader mentality in ordering bigger ships have been since the mid 1990’s with firms following Maersk in ordering bigger capacity ships. In most cases it only takes two years for other carriers to catch-up to Maersk and in some cases they can hold more TEU. This has led to operators facing prisoner’s dilemma. Operators are trying to outdo their rivals by building larger ships which help increase its market share through their reduced costs but are fully aware that what actually is needed is capacity rationalisation. This strategy has not only fuelled the never-ending competition for large ships but also led to mistrust among operators, entangling them in the prisoner’s dilemma. The ideal scenario is for operators to refrain from acquiring mega ships and let supply and demand prevail.

Infrastructure costs to cope with mega ships
The graph below shows the savings and costs increases from increasing the capacity of mega ships. There is a saving with carrying more TEU’s but terminals will incur significant capital expenditure to handle larger vessels and terminal yards areas will need to increase by 33% to avoid congestion, even with no growth in volume. There are negative externalities to consider that arise from upsizing as dredging deeper channels and expanding yard area will have environmental effects.

Source: Diminishing economies of scale from megaships? Marine Money Japan Ship Finance Forum, Tokyo 12th May, 2016

A lack of containers adds to shipping costs and inflation.

Covid-19 has severely impacted the global trade for a number of reasons:

  • Container shortages as early as February 2020
  • Port congestion caused by increased checks at ports
  • Ship carriers cannot add more capacity as the entire global fleet is mobile.
  • Slow down in container emptying has led to a backlog of containers at many ports

Major Chinese ports like Qingdao, Lianyungang, Ningbo, and Shanghai are experiencing severe container shortages. This means that ships are leaving Chinese ports without a full load. Containers filled with consumer goods from Asia are usually unloaded, then filled with exports of other commodities. Products like meat, pulp and coffee, crops and lumber are then shipped in containers back to China. But, without the containers landing in these ports, there is nothing to fill for the home journey. As you’d expect, this is leaving exporters frustrated and very stressed, especially with seasonal crops needing to be shipped. See chart below for the increase in shipping costs from three major shipping companies – Maersk, Cosco and Triton.

SOURCE: Bloomberg

Baltic Dry Exchange – what is it?
The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), is issued daily by the London-based Baltic Exchange. It is reported around the world as a proxy for dry bulk shipping stocks as well as a general shipping market number cruncher. Every working day, a panel of international shipbrokers submits their assessment of the current freight cost on various routes to the Baltic Exchange. The routes are meant to be representative, i.e. large enough in volume to matter for the overall market. See chart below.

The challenges for the oil market with COVID-19

Another good video from the FT this time on the future of the oil industry. There is a movement towards more cleaner fuels by major companies in Europe but the same can’t be said about the US. Oil producing countries have been hit by lower prices but some like Saudi Arabia have sufficient reserves to fall back whilst others like Nigeria and Venezuela are financially exposed. Below is a graphic from the video looking at supply and demand – useful for an introductory lesson on the market.

Source: FT

Covid-19 and impact on the airline industry

The global airline industry has been one of those that has been hardest by Covid-19. In the US passenger volume is down 96 %, whilst globally losses have topped US$314bn worldwide. Based on booking patterns Air New Zealand will lose over NZ$5bn in revenue per year and a loss of 3.500 jobs. What makes it even worse is that the latest Oxford Economics forecast shows that the loss in global output could be double that of the GFC. This has implications on the speed of the recovery in air travel in the second half of 2020. The table shows that Asia-Pacific takes a big hit financially and is second behind Middle East/Africa (51%) with a 50% loss in RPK.

Source: IATA Economics

RPK = Revenue Passenger Kilometres is an airline industry metric that shows the number of kilometres traveled by paying passengers

IATA estimate that RPKs will decline by 48% in year-on year terms and passenger revenues will be US$314 billion lower this year compared to 2019- see table below. IATA note that a typical airline has cash to cover around two months of revenue loss.

Below is a short video from PBS Newshour with Paul Solman looking at the airline industry.

Baltic Dry Index – the forgotten indicator

A lot of attention has been paid to the drop in oil prices to $28 per barrel as of today which is indicative of the increase in supply from US shale producers and the fall in global demand especially from China. However there is another indicator that shows the global economy is in pause mode and that is the Baltic Dry Index which measures the cost of shipping raw materials – iron ore, coal, metal etc.

In mid January this year the index fell below 400 (see graph) for the first time since records began in1985. In June 2015 the index was comfortably above the 1000 mark and in 2010 approximately 4000, therefore transport costs are at a very low level.

Why are shipping costs at such low levels?

It comes down to simple supply and demand. On the supply side shipping companies have increased their dry bulk capacity as the cost of borrowing money is at very low levels. On the demand side it was assumed that global trade would keep expanding but according to a World Bank report global trade has slowed down sharply in recent years to around 3% and it predicted to slow further.

Cost for ship owners

Owners of the largest container ships (known as capsize vessels) reckon it costs $8,000 per day for running costs. However in today’s market, users of these ships only pay around $5,000 in fees which makes it uneconomical for ship owners to offer their service. With this is mind shipping bankruptcies are bound to feature this year and unless China produces a new growth spurt the Baltic Dry Index will keep heading south.

Baltic Dry Index – Jan 2009- Jan 2016

Baltic Dry Index

Elasticity of Demand for Air Travel

At the most basic level, demand for air travel is stimulated by economic activity and economic and social linkages between countries and cities. Travel is also stimulated by economic linkages (i.e. international trade) and social linkages (i.e. international migration). In general, there will be greater demand for travel between countries that have larger economies and populations. In addition, destination attractiveness is a key driver of demand for leisure travel.
There are many other factors that affect demand for air travel. When the economy grows, greater economic activity stimulates business travel and leisure travel increases as people’s income increases.

  • Demand is stimulated by lower prices, both airfares and the price of tourism expenditure (e.g. accommodation and food) ‘on the ground’ at a destination.
  • Demand for travel to any particular destination also depends on the price of travel to alternative destinations. Other factors that affect demand include distance, safety, and other one-off events such as health and terrorism scares.

The concept of elasticity is very useful for understanding demand drivers. Elasticity measures the responsiveness of demand for air travel to changes in some other variable such as prices or income. A price elasticity of -0.5, for example, means that a 10% increase in price leads to a 5% reduction in the level of demand for travel. Or an income elasticity of 1.2, for example, means that a 10% increase in income leads to a 12% increase in the level of demand for travel.

Many studies have attempted to estimate various demand elasticities for air travel. In terms of price and income elasticities, a meta-study by Gillen et al (2008) summarised 254 different estimates from 21 published studies and found an overall median price elasticity of -1.1, indicating that demand for air travel is relatively sensitive to price changes.

As would be expected, the results also indicate that travel for business purposes is less price sensitive than travel for leisure purposes with business short/medium hail elasticities between -0.8 and -0.6 and long haul elasticities between -0.5 and -0.2, compared to -1.5 to -0.9 for short/medium haul and -1.7 to -0.5 for long haul leisure travel. Gillen et al also report a median income elasticity of 1.4, suggesting that demand for air travel is relatively sensitive to changes in income. The table below represents the median for each market segment – Source: Air Travel Demand Elasticities: Concepts, Issues and Measurement.

PED Air TravelGiven that someone has decided to travel, their choice of airline and airport, when such a choice exists, depends on a number of micro-level factors including purpose of travel, ease of access to the airport, flight frequency, expected delays, and departure/arrival times (Ishii et al, 2009). Thus the demand faced by a particular airline depends on macroeconomic factors as well as other factors more directly under its control.

Source: The New Zealand Aviation Operational Environment: A Guide for the Tourism Sector 2010

Quirky Economic Indicator – length of a ladder

Listening to “From Our Own Correspondent” on the BBC World Service I came across an interesting piece by Kate Adie on Global Trade. With the downturn in global trade the international transport industry has been very much affected. Those that have been associated with the distribution of goods get an early indication of the slowdown in global growth. The obvious indicators are: idle cranes, queues of merchant ships dwindle etc. But what about the speed of cargo ships and the length of ladders to climb aboard?

When the world economy was “steaming” ahead the captain of a merchant ship said that they cruised at 20 knots but when the economic crisis of 2008 arrived we slowed to 16 knots. A harbour pilot summed up the state of world trade by the length of the ladders that he climbs on the sides of ships.

A long climb up the ladder signifies that the ship is high in the water and exports are correspondingly low.

A short climb up the ladder signifies that the ship is low in the water and exports are correspondingly high.

The seafarers say that they take air to China before they load up with goods for the US.

Petrol Tax in New Zealand

The New Zealand Parliamentary Library “Monthly Economic Review” published a feature on taxes and levies on petrol.

Taxes and levies on a litre of petrol in New Zealand account for approximately 43 percent of the overall price.

July 2014 – Retail price = 223.9 cents per litre

A forecast $1,702 million is expected to be raised through the excise duty on petroleum in the year ended June 2015. This includes:

– $936 million in petroleum excise duty on domestic production
– $766 million on petroleum imports.

The following diagram shows the taxes and levies on a litre of petrol (including GST).

Petrol Tax NZ

Holiday reading – “Deep Sea and Foreign Going”

Deep Sea bookDeep Sea and Foreign Going is an account of a 5 week trip from Felixstowe in the UK to Singpaore. Rose George explains how on a train journey that most items of clothing, electronics, food etc are brought to the UK by ship. The reason being that shipping has become so cheap that it makes sense to import items. She uses the example of cod – it is less costly for Scottish cod to be sent to China to be filleted and then exported back to UK restaurants than it is to pay the (small) salaries of Scottish filleters. Some interesting facts from the review of the book in the Guardian Weekly:

* Containers are the largest man-made moving objects on the planet;
* Triple-E class boats are around 400 metres in length and can carry 18,000 boxes;
* In 2011, 360 commercial ports in America took in international goods worth $1.73tn – 80 times the total value of all US trade in 1960;
* Even in the UK, whose sense of itself as a seafaring nation has long waned, the shipping industry employs nearly 635,000 people;
* Port authorities inspect less than 10% of boxes, making them of great interest to counterfeiters and drug barons.

How big can container ships get?

BBC business correspondent Alastair Fee boards a Chinese container ship off the coast of England and reports on the enormous size of it – holds 13,500 containers. And they are getter bigger. More than 40% of the UK’s sea trade comes into the Southampton Dock and to meet increasing demand from container ships a new 500 metre birth is being dredged. However trade goes the other way as in 2012 the demand for cars from the growing Chinese middle class saw over 20,000 BMW Minis make their way to Chinese ports.