Lines and Sinkers

While the worldwide economy is tottering, politicians and port officials continue to push for massive dredging projects in U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast “king ports”. The new Panama Canal, they insist, will draw huge container ships to those major ports only if those ports are dredged deep enough to accommodate those monstrous vessels. Otherwise, those vessels will bypass those shallow-draft ports and deliver their cargos elsewhere.

Yeah, right. Those leviathans, with no regard for the demand for those goods – or payment for same – are just looking to drop off their precious freebie cargos wherever they can. The depth of the water is all that matters – supply and demand (and payment) – count for nothing.

P.T. Barnum had it right, and so did Will Rogers. We’re a nation of gullible suckers. In spite of the fact that billions of dollars are being lost every year by carriers, and in spite of the fact that these losses are the result of an ever-lessening demand for overseas goods by an ever-increasing number of unemployed Americans, port officials are making concerted attempts to sell Americans on the hoax that “Dredging = Jobs”, and that dredging will allow carriers to inundate ports with tons and tons of uncalled-for goods from overseas.

None of it makes any sense at all. It’s a scam – a way of extracting money from taxpayers. But taxpayers “know only what they read in the papers”, as Will Rogers chided. Container lines are big time operations. In good years they see big time profits, and in bad years they see big time losses. In good years, employed consumers demand products from overseas manufacturers, and these goods are transported by container ships. In bad years, unemployed consumers demand fewer products, and fewer products are transported by those container ships.

Carriers are seeing big time losses because fewer goods need to be delivered to those erstwhile “king ports”. Here’s what big time losses look like:

According to Containerization International:

– “K Line sinks further into the red – K Line lost $ 542.4 million in the first nine months of its financial year. As a result, it has revised its forecast for the whole year (made at the end of October) from a loss of $ 412 million to a loss of $ 695 million.”

– “MOL sinks further into the red – Mitsui OSK Line joined the growing list of carriers to declare red figures last year. In the first nine months of its financial year its operating result collapsed to a loss of $ 236.4 million.”

And according to Schednet:

– “Hanjin posts $ 731 million loss in 2011 – Hanjin Shipping, South Korea’s biggest and the world’s ninth largest line, has posted its 2011 results with a net loss of $ 731 million.”

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Although Americans know next to nothing about the maritime industry, Alphaliner, a Paris-based container shipping analyst, provides a steady flow of up-to-date information to anyone interested. Like these recent observations, for example:

– Nov. 15, 2011 – “Alphaliner Says Merger of Japanese Carriers Makes Sense – Merging the container lines of Japan’s top three shipping companies would be a sound strategic and economic move, according to container shipping analyst Alphaliner. Spinning off the liner fleets of MOL, NYK and ‘K’ Line is an option in the face of mounting losses in the container sector, said MOL President Koichi Moto.”

– Nov. 30, 2011 – “Ocean Carriers Face Prolonged Slump, Alphaliner Says – Alphaliner expects most container shipping lines to lose more money in the fourth quarter than they did in the third quarter, as the industry suffers from weak demand and lower rates.”

– Dec. 5, 2011 – “Container Lines Need to ‘Cold’ Idle Ships, Analyst Says – Ocean carriers need to start fully decommissioning vessels, said a Securities Analyst. Alphaliner said there was less than 1 percent increase in idled vessels in mid-November, while the proportion of the total idled fleet was just 2.9 percent. Most of these vessels were ‘hot’ layups, meaning they still had a small crew on board and were ready to re-enter the market on short notice. A ‘cold’ layup involves dismissing the ship’s crew and shutting down the ship’s electronics.”

– Jan. 4, 2012 – “Japanese Lines Warn of Tough Year Ahead – Japan’s top three ocean carriers are girding for a difficult 2012 amid vessel overcapacity and sluggish European and U.S. economies, the presidents of MOL, NYK and ‘K’ Line said in their annual New Year’s messages. ‘Large-scale completion of new vessels is expected to continue this year, so we should prepare ourselves for a prolonged harsh business environment, and approach it with due care,’ MOL President Koichi Moto said.” Analysts, including Alphaliner, argue that the three container lines should be spun off from their parent companies and merged into one container line.”

– Jan. 10, 2012 – “Alphaliner Says Shipping Overcapacity to Accelerate – Ocean carriers face a growing capacity glut in 2012, as ship deliveries accelerate from last year while cargo demand weakens over the coming 12 months, Alphaliner forecast.”

– Jan. 31, 2012 – “Alphaliner Says Gains From Slow-Steaming Exhausted – Ocean carriers have reached the limit of slowing the speed of their ships to soak up surplus capacity and must now cull services and idle more vessels to re-balance the container market.”

– Jan. 31, 2012 – “Japanese Lines’ Container Losses Top $ 500 Million – Japanese carriers NYK, MOL and ‘K’ Lines’s posted combined losses of more than $ 500 million on container operations in the last quarter of 2011 and warned that group-wide losses for their current fiscal years will be larger than previously forecast.”

Dredging, anyone?