Tag Archives: containerization

Burdened by Bigness

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.

Thin Ice

The news that Maersk, the container shipping giant, is sailing a containership from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg along the northern coast of Russia has drawn new attention to the consequences of climate change in the Arctic. While the warming of northern climes is sadly real, it is unlikely to bring about a major change in container shipping.

For ship owners and their customers, the attractions of the Northern Sea route are obvious. By sailing north rather than south from Shanghai, Busan, or Yokohama, a ship bound for Europe can shave several thousand kilometers off the trip, saving a couple weeks of travel time, a great deal of fuel, and the need to pay a steep toll to pass through the Suez Canal. A small number of commercial ships have traveled this route over the past couple years, carrying commodities, heavy equipment, and other cargoes. Some ports in northern Europe have begun to dream of becoming centers for exporting to Asia.

The Northern Sea route may well develop into a useful artery for bulk ships and other vessels on one-off voyages, but it seems quite unlikely to become a highway for containerships. First and foremost, ship lines employ their containerships in what is called “liner service,” meaning that they offer scheduled port calls at regular intervals. Between Asia and Europe, a carrier might create a “string,” a route calling at eight or ten ports from, say, Busan to Antwerp and back again, with enough identical vessels assigned to the string that it can guarantee an Antwerp-bound ship calling at Dubai every Tuesday and a Busan-bound ship dropping by Algeciras on Thursdays. The Northern Sea route is poorly suited to this sort of arrangement because, for the foreseeable future, it is likely to be navigable only a few months each year. If a ship line serves the route between June and September, what will it do with those ships the rest of the year? This is no small question: vessels are the most expensive part of running a container shipping operation, and ship lines that can’t keep their vessels operating near capacity tend not to survive.

A second challenge to the success of the Northern Sea route is that its most protected, least ice-prone areas, close to the Russian coast, have shallow water. This means that shipping companies would have to use vessels that are about a fifth the size of the biggest containerships in use between Europe and Asia today. The cost of providing a “slot” for a single container is much higher aboard a small ship than aboard a big one, so ship lines won’t be eager to employ such small vessels on lengthy routes. They could use larger ships by sailing farther from the coast, but that route is blocked by ice for a greater portion of the year and is more likely to require the use of icebreakers.

A third challenge is that there are no great population centers en route. Ship lines select the ports in each string carefully, estimating the average number of containers they will take on here and put off there, in an effort to keep their vessels as full as possible. There may not be enough cargo from Antwerp to Busan to justify running a ship that makes no stops in between.

As a recent study by economists at the Copenhagen Business School points out, my hypothetical trip between Busan and Antwerp covers 7,248 nautical miles via the Northern Sea route, 33 percent less than a voyage between the same points through the Suez Canal. In theory, there is money to be saved, even after extra costs for having icebreaker and emergency equipment on standby. But given the practicalities of container shipping, it’s going to be difficult for the Northern Sea route to live up to the headlines.

The Language of Globalization

I speak German, or at least I used to. I believe — I hope — that the decline of my fluency isn’t a sign of advancing senility. Rather, I think, it’s an artifact of globalization.

This has been on my mind since my recent appearance in a series of excellent programs about containerization broadcast by Austrian Radio. The host, Anna Masoner, speaks English better than I do; I offered to be interviewed in German, but she interviewed me in English and then arranged for a voiceover translation. Once I listened to the programs, I was very glad she had done it that way.

It’s not just that my German is more or less German German, a far cry from the language spoken in Austria. The more serious problem with my speech is that I use German words that native speakers have ditched for English alternatives. As a result, I feel a bit like a character out of Shakespeare walking onto a twenty-first-century stage. My language is fine. It’s just that people don’t talk that way any more.

It seems that every business in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria now has a Marketing Abteilung; words like “Vermarktung” and “Vertrieb” seem to have fallen into disuse. I know of one company that advertises its interest in making “Investments in Wirtschaft und Logistik,” and another that deals with investors through its “Investor Relations Abteilung.” If a firm wants to start selling abroad, it opens up an Import-Export Geschäft; “Einfuhr-Ausfuhr” apparently is no longer used. When employees want to talk about how the business is doing, they have “ein Meeting.” Younger people might be more inclined to have a “Meetup.” Whether that Meetup is masculine, feminine, or neuter I have not the slightest idea.

English, of course, is the language of globalization, so I can understand all this anglicized German when I hear it or read it. But it’s not so easy to speak it correctly if you don’t spend a great deal of time in German-speaking Europe, soaking up the latest linguistic advances. In effect, globalization has devalued my language skills. I’m glad that when ich wurde interviewt by Ms. Masoner, we spoke English.

Information and Competition

It seems that competition regulators at the European Union are looking into whether “Big Data” is a potential threat to competition. The concern, apparently, is that a company may be able to use a trove of proprietary data about consumers in ways that foreclose competition — and that the assets changing hands in a merger could include enough data to give the merged firm an insurmountable advantage over would-be competitors.

There’s no doubt that control over data can affect competition. But it’s not so obvious how to ensure that consumers benefit.

Consider the logistics business. Every containership line publishes a schedule with the rate for moving one container from, say, Shanghai to Los Angeles. In practice, though, almost all ocean freight moves under confidential contracts between shippers and carriers. These contracts may be filled with contingencies providing for bonuses and penalties if the parties exceed or fail to meet their respective commitments. A large retailer, manufacturer, or freight forwarder has many such contracts in force at any one time, and it is always negotiating new ones. This means that big shippers have lots of up-to-date information about current shipping rates.

Now, imagine a small shipper, a modest retail chain rather than a Walmart or a Carrefour. Because of its size, this firm has only a handful of contracts with ship lines, and it may go months without negotiating a new one. It therefore lacks the current rate information its bigger competitors possess, so it will have a tougher time bargaining for the best rates. It may use a freight forwarder to get better rates, but then must pay the forwarder for its trouble. Either way, the smaller company’s information deficit will force it to pay more to move its goods than its larger competitors do.

This information disadvantage is one reason smaller retailers and manufacturers have been having such a difficult time. Their supply chains are comparatively costly to operate, on a per-container basis, and their higher costs make it hard for them to match their competitors’ prices. I suspect this is one reason we’ve been seeing increased concentration in so many industries. The big benefit from their control of big data about shipping costs; the small are harmed by their lack of information.

Is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is: it could be made mandatory to publicly disclose information about shipping costs. We actually tried such a policy in the United States in the early days of railroad deregulation. What happened? Railroads were reluctant to offer discounts to individual shippers when they knew that publicity would lead other shippers to demand similar discounts. Little freight moved under contract and rates remained relatively high. Only after confidential agreements were permitted did railroads’ freight rates fall and their service improve.

I think there’s a lesson here. Control of information can be anti-competitive, no question. But public disclosure of information can be anti-competitive as well, potentially raising costs for consumers. The EU will face a challenge getting the balance right.


Uncomfortable Questions About Our Ports

Sometimes people ask questions to which they really don’t want the answers–especially when the answers might be inconvenient. A new government report that purports to look at how U.S. container ports are performing is a good example.

Container shipping, as I document in my book The Box, was an American invention. Newark and Houston were the first ports anywhere in the world to have terminals designed specifically to handle containers, and container terminals were developed in ports such as Oakland and Baltimore years before containerships reached Europe and Asia. But U.S. ports have long been laggards when it comes to efficiency. The world’s most productive ports, by most measures, are all in Asia.  No U.S. container port comes close.

In 2015, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to prepare an annual report on port capacity and throughput and to “collect port performance measures.” Unfortunately, the department’s first annual report on port performance, released in mid-January, carefully avoids saying anything about container ports’ performance. It charts the number of acres covered by each port’s container terminals, the number of cranes, the number of linear feet of berth, and the number of containers passing through. But nothing in the report allows a reader to judge whether, say, the Port of New York and New Jersey is as efficient as the Port of Savannah. The average number of container moves per hour for each vessel call; the number of containers handled per acre of terminal area; the average time an incoming container spends in the storage yard before being removed for delivery; the number of dock workers per million containers; the number of containers actually handled as a percentage of theoretical capacity: all of these statistics would shed light on ports’ performance. None of them appears in the report.

Why might that be? Let me hazard a guess. True performance measures might reveal that many U.S. container ports have built far more capacity than they need, that poor management and union rules cause some ports to take far longer to handle a large ship than other ports, and that some ports use workers and storage space much less efficiently than others. They might also show that most U.S. container terminals make far less use of automation than the best-run terminals in other countries. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who might not want such measures of port performance to be highlighted. If they were, the public might start asking uncomfortable questions

What Happens After the Container Shipping Crisis?

Until 1978, dozens of airlines flew the U.S. skies. Then, with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, competition increased and profits became scarce. Decades of consolidation followed, as Allegheny, Eastern, Frontier, Ozark, Pan Am, and many other venerable names were merged out of existence or went bust. When the turbulence finally subsided, four giant carriers—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—controlled 70 percent of U.S. domestic passenger traffic and, through agreements with foreign carriers to share services, dominated international routes as well. Such measures have enabled the airline industry to rake in profits as never before.

Something similar is now going on in the world of container shipping. Excess capacity and slow-growing demand are forcing down the price of shipping, driving companies deeply into the red and bringing a wave of bankruptcies, mergers, and joint ventures. The August bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping, the world’s seventh-largest container carrier, and the announcement, in September, of the restructuring of A.P. Moeller-Maersk, by far the world’s largest, are signs of a consolidation process that still has far to go. And although the industry is likely to remain troubled in the short term, in the long term, today’s troubles will lead to less competition among those carriers adept enough to survive. That in turn will mean higher rates for shippers, increasing the cost of moving goods around the world.

I’ve recently written an article laying out why I think this will occur. You can find the full text over at ForeignAffairs.com.

Strawberries in Winter

In our globalized world, many people hold firmly to the belief that local is better. That conviction is particularly strong when it comes to food. In Washington, where I live, farmers markets are crowded with shoppers (including myself) who are prepared to pay outrageous prices for a basket of apples or a pound of cheese if it originated at a nearby farm. We convince ourselves that what we eat is fresher, purer, or more environmentally virtuous because it was grown or manufactured on a family farm close by.

I recently had the chance to participate in an unusual radio program, produced by the BBC, that takes a look at the booming international trade in food. Called The Food Chain, the program asks why long-distance shipments of food are growing so quickly. Part of the answer, it will not surprise you to hear, is that low transport costs and high reliability make it feasible to import goods that would not be traded if freight rates were higher, a story I tell in my book The Box. But an even more important cause of increased trade in food, I suspect, is changed consumer preferences. We expect to eat the foods of our choice when we want to eat them, and if that means importing strawberries from Mexico or Chile when local berries are out of season, so be it.
Those of a certain age can remember when life was otherwise. In the town where I grew up, in the U.S. Midwest, having fish for dinner meant popping a box of frozen fish sticks in the oven. Fresh fish was something our supermarket simply did not carry, because it had no means of bringing it in. Now, the town boasts several sushi bars. Thank modern logistics, including refrigerated containers and air freight, for providing diners with an option that previously did not exist.

One current line of attack on such variety in our food supply is that long-distance shipments of food are “unsustainable.” By this, the critics usually are taking aim at the large amounts of greenhouse gases supposedly produced while transporting food internationally. Part of my contribution to the BBC program was to point out that “local” is not at all the same as “sustainable.” International trade in food often involves huge economies of scale, which means food produced on another continent may be transported far more efficiently than food produced nearby. Moving 40-foot containers of fruit great distances in a large containership can result in much lower emissions per ton than carrying smaller quantities a hundred miles in a diesel truck.
The BBC has taken an unusually sophisticated look at the food trade. I hope you’ll have a chance to listen.

Supply Chain Insurance

As of this writing, 47 people have been killed and many more injured by the earthquakes that have struck the Japanese island of Kyushu since April 14. These tragic events have had economic ramifications as well, offering a reminder that business risks can be hard for outsiders to evaluate.

The complicated industrial supply chains that are routine today began to develop in the 1970s, in good part because the spread of container shipping drove down the cost of transporting parts and components from one place to another. As I discuss in The Box, low transport costs made it practical for big manufacturers to decentralize: instead of running vast factories that churned out all sorts of inputs and assembled them into finished goods, they could farm out much of the work to specialized factories far away. Large retailers have done much the same. These long supply chains were seen as having two main advantages. Companies were able to draw on low-wage labor in developing countries, and they could gain economies of scale because a supplier might make just one or two components in enormous volume instead of lots of different things in small quantities. The result was lower costs—or so it seemed.

Invariably, though, the beancounters who made these calculations were afflicted with a dangerous myopia. Supply chains can lower costs, but they can also create risks that aren’t always visible. Some of these risks are reputational: if a supplier is accused of being a bad actor by polluting the water or by running an unsafe workplace, consumers may blame the better-known company that contracted out the work. There may be legal risks if the supplier’s shoddy work results in unsafe goods. And then there is the risk of supply-chain interruption. Interruptions aren’t high-frequency events: in a well-organized supply chain, most goods get where they’re supposed to be almost all the time. But when goods aren’t delivered due to weather, labor unrest, electricity cutoffs, or earthquakes, the cost can suddenly become extremely high.

The Kyushu earthquakes have halted plants that supply critical parts for many other consumer goods. But from what is known so far, the costs of this interruption may be less than might have been expected. The reason is that, with little publicity, companies like Toyota, Sony, and Honda seem to have reduced their potential losses by making sure that Kyushu is not their only source of critical inputs. While some of their plants will be shuttered, in some cases for several weeks, many of the key components produced in the earthquake-hit region are also made elsewhere. Those supply chain links will continue to function normally.

After the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in 2011, factories around the world shut down for lack of components made only in the devastated region. Major industrial companies appear to have drawn lessons from that experience. Some of them have protected themselves against earthquake-related disruptions by developing redundant supply chains, so that an event such as the Kyushu earthquake won’t cripple their operations. This undoubtedly reduces efficiency and raises the firms’ normal operating costs. But supply-chain redundancy is not a frivolous expense. Like most insurance, it seems wasteful only until you need it.

The Panama Canal’s Next Century

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the Panama Canal. Work on a major expansion is in full swing. If all goes well, deeper channels and a third set of locks, wider, longer, and deeper than the two constructed in the early 1900s, will enable larger ships to cross the isthmus by the end of 2016. As I saw on a recent visit, the $6 billion or so being spent on canal construction and the billions more going to build a new metro system are fueling an economic boom. Yet as Panamanians celebrate the canal’s centennial, concerns about the future are not far below the surface. The canal’s next century may be a challenging one.
To start with, it’s no sure bet that enough ships will use the enlarged canal to cover the cost of construction. The expansion was conceived at a time when world trade was growing about 7 percent per year, as it had done since the aftermath of World War II. But the growth of trade has slowed considerably since economic crisis arrived in 2008, meaning that there will be far fewer ships passing through the expanded canal than its promoters envisioned. In addition, a growing number of manufacturers are concluding that Mexico is a better location from which to serve the North American market than Asia. While many ships carrying Japanese-made cars to the U.S. East Coast transit the Panama Canal, Japanese models produced in Mexico will move to U.S. and Canadian dealers by road or rail.
Then there is the matter of competition. For many decades, the Panama Canal had no competition. Starting in the 1970s, large volumes of cargo bound for the East Coast began moving through West Coast ports, and the water/rail route became a direct competitor to the canal’s all-water route. More recently, some ocean carriers have been moving cargo between Asia and the U.S. East Coast via the Suez Canal, which can accommodate larger vessels than the Panama Canal. According to some estimates, more than one-third of the container traffic between Asia and the East Coast now moves through Suez rather than Panama, a shift encouraged by steep increases in Panama Canal tolls. And now there is serious discussion of a Chinese-backed canal through Nicaragua. While it seems unlikely that such a canal could be completed by 2019, as its promoters promise, a Nicaraguan canal could siphon off Panama’s traffic at some point in the next decade.
How will Panama respond? One possibility would be to cut tolls. The Panama Canal Authority has yet to disclose how much vessels will have to pay to transit the enlarged canal, but comparatively low rates could draw carriers back from the Suez route and also make life hard for the sponsors of the costly Nicaragua project. Trouble is, lower tolls could squeeze the Panamanian government, which receives a large share of the Canal Authority’s profits.
Another option would be to give ship lines inducements to use the canal. The canal is now 100 percent owned by the government, and selling shares to ship operators seems to be out of the question for political reasons. Nor are there discussions about offering bargains to carriers that would sign contracts guaranteeing to use the canal; the Canal Authority has never done this. But the Canal Authority is toying with the idea of offering volume discounts, so that carriers moving large amounts of cargo through the canal would enjoy lower tolls per unit of cargo. This concept involves some complications. For example, many carriers participate in alliances in which they book blocks of space on other carriers’ ships in addition to running their own vessels, and it would have to be decided which cargo would count in determining the volume discount. But volume discounts might be a way to tie some ship operators more closely to Panama and to discourage them from using a competitive routing.
It is the third response, though, that seems most promising. Manufacturers are making increasing use of Panama not just as a transit location, but as a place to do final manufacturing of products destined for multiple markets in the Caribbean and Latin America. Shoes from Vietnam and drugs made in Mexico are offloaded in the port of Colon, at the Atlantic end of the canal, and the products inside are then customized for individual markets within the region. This can mean anything from adding price tags in Venezuelan bolivars or inserting warranty documents compliant with Costa Rican law to making physical modifications. In many cases, the cargo is repacked on pallets for individual retail outlets. The pallets headed to each country are then stowed in separate container, so that when the container arrives in-country, the local distribution center needs only to load the pallets aboard delivery trucks. This kind of value-added work creates jobs in Panama. But it also gives shippers reason to insist that their cargo move through the Panama Canal, assuring that the expensive new facilities will see a steady flow of freight.

The Case for Giving It Away

Elon Musk, the head of Tesla Motors, announced today that his company will not sue others who use Tesla’s technology. Rather than continuing to protect its inventions, Tesla is giving them away.

This isn’t as daft as it sounds. In fact, I wrote about a similar situation in my book on containerization, The Box. One of the factors that limited the growth of container shipping, in the 1950s and early 1960s, is that there was no standard way to move containers. Some had slots at the bottom, so they could be lifted by forklifts. Others had eyes on the top, to be picked up by hooks dangling from a crane. Most had steel fittings at the corners, so that a crane could lower a steel frame, called a spreader, that could grab the container at all four corners and lift it. But the corner fittings and spreaders were patented, and no two companies’ designs were alike. What this meant was that a crane capable of handling a Grace Line container couldn’t lift a container belonging to Sea-Land Service or United States Lines.

Everyone connected with the container shipping recognized that a standard design was essential if the industry was to grow. But each company thought its design should become the standard. Finally, in 1963, Malcom McLean, who had started the modern container shipping industry in 1956 with the ship line that became Sea-Land, agreed that his company would allow anyone to use its patents for the corner fitting and the twist-lock, a nifty little device that connects the corner fittings of two containers with the turn of a handle. The Sea-Land corner fitting became the basis for a worldwide standard. Once any crane in any port could lift any container, the container shipping industry burgeoned. Sea-Land became far bigger and more profitable by giving away its technology than it would have been had it kept its innovations to itself.

This seems to be what Mr. Musk has in mind. Tesla, its stratospheric market capitalization notwithstanding, is a small manufacturer of what is very much a niche product. The company’s long-run prospects are limited unless electric cars go mainstream, but this won’t happen unless they become far cheaper than they are today.  Cost saving is likely to require standardization of many components in electric vehicles. By giving away Tesla’s technology, Mr. Musk may be encouraging suppliers to develop components that can be sold to many electric vehicle assemblers, creating economies of scale. If that happens, costs and prices should fall, boosting sales of electric cars and accelerating the installation of charging stations. Down the road, Tesla could have an important role in a far larger industry, with profits to match.