The shipping industry in 1939 and today
The freight rates as well as the quality of services provided have always been at the centre of our reports on the shipping industry.Conditions in the sector have undergone massive change in the course of the last 75 years, however. Whilst the market entry of two shipping lines caused some disquiet in 1939, the key word today is consolidation.
How times change. In 1939 an incursion by outsiders prompted the headlines in the newly-founded International Transport Journal ITJ, whose first ever issue appeared on 15 July that year. Outsiders, that is shipping lines that poach on trade lanes in which a conference operates, without themselves being members of that alliance. Our correspondents reported on «quite a stir that has been triggered by these happenings». Talk centred on an impending «rates war». A fortnight after these reports were published the Second World War, with its far more dramatic events, started dominating the headlines. That put these worries in a completely different perspective.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. In the liner shipping industry, the removal of the EU’s block exemption from the general prohibition of cartels by the European Commission’s competition directorate in 2008 was a particularly far-reaching act. Since then price agreements and capacity regulations have been a thing of the past. So have stable and profitable rates in many trades. The introduction of the Shanghai Containerised (Export) Freight Index (SCFI) in 2009 has ensured distinctly greater freight rate transparency on the route from the Far East, however.
In 1939 we wrote about «shippers as the beneficiaries» of sinking freight rates, which made «profitable business impossible for everyone involved.» Today the situation is similar – but it may become very different in the near future. First Maersk Line, CMA CGM and MSC announced that they would manage joint operations in their new P3 Network on the main trade routes from the second quarter of 2014 onwards.
The members of the G6 Alliance, that is APL, Hapag-Lloyd, HMM, MOL, NYK and OOCL, followed suit and declared that they also had plans to extend their collaboration in the trade between Asia and Europe and between Asia and the east coast of the USA. Both alliances want to implement higher rates in the long term. Neither has received the go-ahead from various cartel authorities so far (see page 11).
Nevertheless, shippers already have to chose from ever less maritime transport service providers today, which often has an impact on the quality of the services provided. Whilst containerships are getting ever bigger, the number of lines is declining. We definitely cannot discern any talk about «outsiders» these days. According to Unctad, shippers were able to chose from 22 service providers, an average, in every country in 2004. In 2013 the figure had come down to 16.
There will probably be a lot of movement towards consolidation this year. One thing is just the same today as we wrote in 1939, though, namely that «praise and damnation have always been the trade journal’s lot.»