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
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.
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 shipping industry is taking a big hit on two fronts as it tries to stay afloat. With the current global conditions the industry itself is in the middle of a major downturn as there is too much supply chasing too little demand. To make matters worse the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has introduced stricter environmental regulations to curb pollution – negative externalities. New regulations that ships have to adhere to:
1. Ships now have to burn cleaner and better grade fuel like diesel – ships used to burn cheap unrefined crude. This means a 50% increase in the cost of fuel
2. The IMO is making ship operators buy tradeable permits to emit CO2.
3. They are also introducing new standards for cleaner ballast water. It has been estimated that approximately 60,000 ships would need to be refitted and that would cost up to $1.7m each.
4. The EU are also proposing to introduce recycling levies on vessels calling at EU ports to pay for the safer scrapping of old ships
Is this fair? 90% of global trade is carried on shipping containers but they only emit 2.7% of the CO2 in the world. It seems that as a lobby group the shipping industry has been too fragmented and unable to influence policy like that of the airlines. See graph below for negative externalities.