Stormy Seas

Not many observers have mentioned the threatening skies above the maritime industry because they no doubt figured that if they ignored those black storm clouds they’d eventually go away. Well, they’re not going away, and they’re becoming more and more ominous every day.

The exhilarating rise in container volumes slowly came to a peak about two years ago, and just as slowly, the industry began to see a downturn in volumes. And that downturn wasn’t short-lived. You might even say that the downturn in TEU volumes became an accelerating plunge.

We’ve been recording the financial losses of major carriers for more than a year, and watching to see how long it would be before the industry pundits would get around to acknowledging the crisis. Except for an occasional reference to those losses, consultants, analysts and economists treated the entire matter as a business-as-usual, cyclical, sort of thing.

Today, however, two of the largest media outlets gave front page treatment to the maritime industry’s problems. Both the Business Times and The New York Times reported the deeper-than-forecast net loss for Maersk’s first nine months. The figure wasn’t a pretty one – $ 706 million – and an even uglier one – $ 1 billion – is anticipated for the company’s full-year 2009 operations.

“As expected,” said CEO Nils Smedegaard Andersen, “A.P. Moller-Maersk was still negatively affected by the challenging market conditions …

“Our expectation is that the container market and the tanker market, the shipping industry in general, will remain under pressure in 2010,” he said.

He was toe-dancing. Landon Thomas, Jr. spilled the beans about the industry’s financial troubles in the same NY Times issue. Eastwind Maritime, a New York-based medium-sized carrier went bankrupt earlier this year, he said, and although hardly anyone mentioned it back then, some analysts are now saying that Eastwind’s collapse could well be a harbinger of more carrier failures to come.

In Europe, Mr. Thomas notes, where banks hold over $ 350 billion of increasingly dubious shipping industry loans, the inability of Eastwind to handle its $ 300 million debt set off an anxiety attack on lending desks across the continent. Those struggling European banks were already plagued by a lagging economy, questionable signs of recovery and continuing losses in real estate, and the emergence of yet another faltering category of loans adds to fears that many countries are lagging in efforts to deal with the financial crisis.

The maritime industry losses give the banks much to worry about. Those with large maritime industry loans on the books – such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, HSH Nordbank and Commerzbank – could face drastic write-downs as shipowners are left to deal with plummeting charter rates resulting from a 25% drop in global trade. To make matters worse , a glut of previously ordered ships due for delivery in the coming years is expected to compound the banks’ problems.

The downturn in maritime trade began just as shippers with a “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” attitude began to order hundreds and hundreds of new – and larger – container ships from Asian shipbuilders. Construction of those ships are now in the final stages and delivery schedules indicate that the worst of the financial crisis is yet to be felt by the maritime industry.

“We estimate that there will be a 50 percent oversupply in container ships,” said one portfolio manager, “and in the next five or six months you will see more banks repossessing ships.”

Until now banks in Europe have stubbornly resisted taking write-downs for their shipping industry debts, and although they concede that the global cargo industry is in trouble, they still feel there is no need to write off shipping loans as long as shippers continue to pay the interest due on the loans. As competition for business drives cargo revenues well below operating costs, however, some analysts are saying that ship owners may be the next group of borrowers to see bankruptcy.

Eastwind built its fleet of 55 ships by relying on the generous terms of its eager bankers. As of June of 2008 the value of the average five-year-old vessel was about $ 88 million and the company seemed like a pretty good bet, but with the 45 percent plunge in freight rates for container ships, the values of the ships that secured the banks loans also dropped.

One of the banks found to its dismay that the value of the 12 Eastwind ships it now controlled was considerably lower than the amount it had loaned, and it is just this kind of negative equity situation that threatens banks as it begins to occur on a wider scale. And because shipping industry debts are concentrated in some of Europe’s weaker banks, these negative equity situations will eventually cause more problems than bankers are now willing to admit.

When the lenders refused to extend more credit the end came quickly for Eastwind, a private company without strong government or investor backing. Some of the company’s ships, in fact, were left stranded in open water, and in one case, the ship lacked funding to pay for fuel. Another of its ships lacked sufficient funding to provide food and water for its crew.

But Eastwind is just the tip of the iceberg. When the world’s largest carrier – Maersk – incurs an annual loss of $ 1 billion, and when the three major Japanese lines lose more than $ 900 million in just one semester, and when one of the world’s leading seaports – Hamburg – is forced to consider bankruptcy, it’s time to call a spade a spade.

No one at last week’s G20 meeting could come up with a solution for the world’s sad economic state because no one recognized – or acknowledged – the underlying cause of the pitiful decline. We’ve emphasized it in past commentaries and we’re morally obligated to say it again and again: unemployment in the U.S. is what has brought the world to its knees. American consumers, and the “buying power” generated by their weekly paychecks, are what have created and sustained the world’s economies, and as widespread unemployment drove American buyers from the marketplace, the world’s busiest factories rapidly ground to a halt. The supply ships – those giant container ship leviathans – are now no longer useful, and will never again be seen on the high seas.

Tommy Stramer (R.I.P.) correctly predicted that these behemoths would become “white elephants”.