Tag Archives: ports

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.

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.

If It Can’t Go On Forever, It Will Stop

The American economist Herb Stein, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times before his death in 1999, is famed for the aphorism, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” I found myself thinking of him often a few weeks ago during my first trip to Dubai.

Dubai has the feel of a boomtown. The airport, of course, is one of the world’s largest — and yet not large enough, for a second airport, to be even larger, is under development a few miles away. The container port, also among the world’s largest, has just opened its third terminal, and plans for terminals four, five, six, and seven are on the drawing board. Forests of skyscrapers would leave Manhattan in the shade. Dubai Mall, reachable by riding no fewer than seven automated sidewalks from a station on Dubai’s automated metro, boasts Bloomingdale’s, Galleries Lafayette, Marks & Spencer, a two-story walk-through aquarium, an ice rink, a dozen stores selling high-end wristwatches and two dozen selling diamonds, and even a bagel shop.

And the boom is isn’t over. Construction cranes are visible in every direction. An entirely new freight railroad linking the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is under construction. When one of my interviews fell through and I decided to go to the beach, I found that much of the beach was closed for refurbishment. I mean that literally: the municipal government fenced off not just a few hundred yards, but five or six miles, effectively rebuilding the emirate’s entire beachfront in one go.

It’s all extraordinarily impressive. And it’s successful because Dubai has positioned itself as a place that works in the midst of a lot of countries — South Asia on one side, Africa on the other — that don’t work so well. If India were ever to have smoothly functioning infrastructure and Tanzania to develop an honest and efficient customs service, Dubai might be a much less busy place.

Dubai is also a relentlessly optimistic place, at least at the official level. Doubts and doubters are not encouraged. Yet one can’t help but wonder whether a shakeout is coming in the oasis business. A few miles to the northeast, Dubai’s sister emirate, Sharjah, has its own international airport, its own container port, its own dreams of expansion. A few miles to the southwest, Abu Dhabi has much the same. All of this is happening at a time when the growth of international container trade is slowing and the price of oil spiraling down. Since many of the big investments are being undertaken by entities that don’t publish reliable financial statements, it’s hard to know which parts of Dubai’s investment boom are paying off. But Herb Stein’s words offer a useful caution: the boom can’t go on forever, and at some point it will stop.

Maybe We Have Too Much Infrastructure

Not far from where I used to live, in New Jersey, a light rail line rumbles between Newark Penn Station and the much smaller Broad Street Station, on the other side of downtown. This line, about a mile long, opened in 2006, and it cost more than $200 million to build. It was projected to serve 13,300 riders a day by 2015. Actual ridership, though, is just a few hundred. You won’t have trouble finding a seat.

The Broad Street extension is an example of a problem people don’t much like to talk about: misguided infrastructure spending. We constantly hear complaints about inadequate infrastructure, from the archaic main terminal at LaGuardia to the all-day traffic jams at Chicago Circle, and armies of consultants roam the world helping justify yet more projects. The truth, though, is that a great deal of our existing infrastructure is poorly used, and taxpayers often are on the hook for new projects that don’t produce the expected returns.

This isn’t just an American problem. Last week, I was in Europe, where there has been massive investment in container ports to handle the extremely large vessels now coming on line. These ships carry the equivalent of 9,000 truck-size containers, and to accommodate them ports are deepening their channels, lengthening their wharves, expanding their storage areas, and installing bigger cranes. Every port wants the mega-ships to call. The ship lines that own these vessels, though, don’t want to stop in every port; they want their ships to spend as little time in port as possible. Moreover, as these giant ships replace smaller vessels, most ports will see fewer containerships, not more. The bottom line: Europe’s ports now have far more container-handling capacity than required. That overcapacity increases the ship lines’ ability to play one port off against another to force port charges down, making it even harder for port operators to recover the cost of their investments and increasing the likelihood that taxpayers will be forced to pay up.

Container ports are not the only place where there’s excess infrastructure. In the United States, several relatively new toll roads are attracting far less traffic than projected. Pittsburgh airport demolished one of its concourses after passenger numbers plummeted, and the near-empty terminals at Kansas City airport can be spooky. Japan’s high-speed trains are wonderful–but while some carry extremely heavy traffic, others appear to be rather underutilized. There seems to be a surplus of convention centers almost everywhere, and the world is full of stadiums that receive only occasional use.

So while there may be many places where today’s infrastructure is inadequate, claims of an infrastructure crisis deserve careful scrutiny. Often enough, users of infrastructure, such as transportation companies or sports teams, want governments to bear the risk of building facilities that the private sector may, or may not, choose to use. Governments have a hard time saying no to such demands: what politician wants to face accusations that his or her inaction caused a business to leave town? But building too much infrastructure may well leave tomorrow’s taxpayers facing the bill for today’s mistakes.