Suppose your company invested billions of dollars in new equipment. And suppose now, very shortly after taking delivery, you’ve discovered that your investment was misguided. The machines you’ve bought are threatening to destroy your business. What would you do?
That, in essence, was the subject of a conference I spoke at in October at the Copenhagen Business School. Shipping is a very, very big business in Denmark, and of course Maersk Line, the world’s largest container shipping company, is headquartered on the Copenhagen waterfront. Maersk itself built the first of the megaships — ships that carry as much cargo as 8,000 or 10,000 trucks — back in 2006, when it launched what it called its E class (hence such clever ship names as Emma Maersk and Evelyn Maersk). There are now roughly 150 vessels this big or larger on the seas. More are on the way: the South Korean government just agreed to finance ships the size of 12,000 trucks. This is not something the world needs.
I’ve been spending some time of late studying how the megaships came to be, and I’m convinced that they are a colossal error. The ship lines that commissioned them, by and large, were transfixed by the idea of economies of scale: if you can actually fill one of these giant vessels, they can carry a single container for about 30 percent less than a ship half the size. But filling them has been a persistent challenge. Moreover, the people obsessed with achieving economies of scale at sea largely ignored the fact that these behemoths would create diseconomies of scale on land. With fewer ships calling but each ship discharging and loading many more boxes, ships spend more time in port, the ports are half-buried beneath mountains of containers, and service for the manufacturers and retailers who ship goods in containers has become much less reliable. These days, when a containership arrives in port, it’s behind schedule nearly half the time, and when the goods will reach their final destinations is anyone’s guess.
The ship lines have been praying that international trade will grow faster, as it did before 2009, and fill up all those half-empty ships. Some thoughtful people, including the experts who monitor shipping for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), think this will happen. My own view is that it’s highly unlikely. The world economy itself is likely to grow more slowly than it has in recent decades; China’s years of 10% annual growth are over. Adding to that, the gradual shift of manufacturing closer to end markets and the desire of manufacturers and retailers to minimize risks from malfunctioning supply chains will suppress demand for container shipping. Managers of ship lines, in my view, need to think very hard about where they’re going to make money, because they are probably not going to make much from operating ships.
Many of the people I met in Copenhagen, including the authors of a new McKinsey study envisioning the shipping industry of 2043, seemed to agree with my analysis. There was much discussion about the digital future. What that seems to mean is that ship lines might figure out how to use information technology to provide higher-value services to their customers. In other words, they might become logistics managers, coordinating the efficient flow of goods around the world for individual customers, rather than simply selling cheap transportation. It’s an alluring vision. Many start-up companies are now pursuing similar strategies, without the burden of owning all those money-losing ships. Ocean carriers have to figure out how to turn their underutilized floating assets into a competitive advantage even as they transform themselves into technology companies — and given the fairly bleak profit outlook for the shipping industry, some of them may not have much time to get it right.