Not too long ago, I had a chat with a high-ranking executive at a major container shipping line. The subject was new ships. “Those guys on the operating side always talk about how the bigger ships have lower costs,” he said, shaking his head. “They don’t see the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture is that the container shipping industry’s enthusiasm for size has brought it nothing but headaches. Changes in trade patterns, still in their early stages, are likely to make the problems worse. And yet most of the major ship lines can’t help themselves. In October, Mediterranean Shipping Company, the Switzerland-based company that is the world’s second-biggest container carrier, said it would acquire five megaships, each able to carry 23,000 20-foot containers — equal to 11,500 truckloads. Evergreen Marine, a Taiwanese line, just ordered six ships of the same size. Hyundai Merchant Marine has a dozen ships of that size on order, with deliveries to begin next year. CMA CGM of France, the fourth-largest container line, has several on the way. All of these vessels, it is worth noting, are larger than any containership now in commercial service.
The attraction of megaships is clear enough: if it is filled to capacity, a ship able to carry 23,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units — TEUs, as they’re called — has much lower operating costs per container than a tiddler carrying, say, 15,000 TEUs. But that is a very big “if.” With international trade growing slowly, there’s a lot of unused capacity on voyages from Asia to Europe, and on the reverse voyage from Europe to Asia empty containers, which travel at very low rates, are often the main cargo. The ships are too big to call at many ports and to fit through the recently enlarged Panama Canal, so they don’t serve North America. While a fully loaded megaship is highly efficient at sea, it can cause chaos in port by discharging or loading thousands of containers at a time, delaying customers’ deliveries and erasing many of the putative benefits of large vessels.
Recent economic trends pose an additional challenge. The world’s ten largest container ports all are located in Asia, seven of them in China. This is important for containership economics, because only a very large port is likely to amass enough outbound cargo to justify frequent calls by very large ships. But due to rising wages in China, trade sanctions in the United States, and businesses’ increased attention to risk, manufacturing of many widely traded goods — clothing, footwear, consumer electronics, toys — is shifting from China to such countries as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and even Ethiopia. This shift is visible in the fact that Chinese ports such as Hong Kong, Qingdao, Xiamen, and Dalian, all of them larger than any port in North America, have seen traffic flatten out or decline. Few of the new manufacturing hotbeds, though, export enough to Europe to justify a 23,000-TEU ship dropping by.
A few people in the shipping industry appear to recognize the insanity of the race for size. The chief financial officer of Maersk, the largest container line, said in November that “there are no intentions now to invest in any large vessels.” Cosco, the state-owned Chinese ship line, seems to have retreated from rumored plans to order 25,000-TEU vessels. No doubt, operating such vessels would bring prestige. But when it comes to making a profit, they’re too damn big.