UNCTAD: Commercial Fleet Marks Slowest Annual Growth in a Decade

The world’s commercial fleet grew less and got older in 2014 than in any other 12-month period in over a decade, with the effects of mergers in liner shipping becoming more prominent, the UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport 2015 reveals.

At the beginning of 2015, the fleet totalled 89,464 vessels, with overall 1.75 billion in deadweight tonnage, a 3.5% percent increase year-on-year, and the lowest annual
growth rate in over a decade.

Data on fleet deployment illustrate the process of concentration in liner shipping, which has seen the recent mergers of Compañía Sudamericana de Vapores and Hapag-Lloyd, and Compañía Chilena de Navegación Interoceánica and Hamburg Süd. While the container-carrying capacity per provider for each country tripled between 2004 and 2015, the average number of companies that provide services to each country’s ports decreased by 29 per cent.

Both trends illustrate two sides of the same coin: as ships get bigger and companies aim at achieving economies of scale, there remain fewer companies in individual markets.

The Review of Maritime Transport 2015 says that it will be a challenge for policymakers to support technological advances and cost savings, for example through economies of scale, yet at the same time ensure a sufficiently competitive environment so that cost savings are effectively passed on to the clients, that is, importers and exporters.

At the beginning of 2015, the report reveals, the top 10 liner shipping companies operated more than 61 per cent of the global container fleet, and the top 20 controlled 83 per cent of all container-carrying capacity. Together, the three largest companies have a share of almost 35 per cent of the world total.

All companies with vessels on the order book are investing in larger vessels, with the average vessel size being larger than the current average container-carrying capacity. This attempt to realize economies of scale increases the risk of oversupply, UNCTAD notes.

The average vessel size for all new vessels on order by the top 15 companies is above 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, which is double the current average size of vessels in the existing fleet of each company. Only very few companies outside the top 20 carriers have placed any new orders and these orders are for far smaller vessel sizes.

Rates of tonnage added to the global fleet continued to decline in absolute terms compared to previous years. The report notes, however, that the overall growth rate of tonnage remained above indicators such as that of global gross domestic product and trade growth, and slightly higher than that of the growth of seaborne trade (3.4 per cent in 2014).

The Review of Maritime Transport 2015 says that total tonnage delivered in 2014 was only slightly more than half the tonnage delivered in the peak year of the historically largest shipbuilding cycle in 2011. The report explains that because several years pass between the placement of an order for a new ship and its delivery, ships are often ordered when the market is perceived as strong, only to be delivered years later, when the market may have become weaker.

As the report explains, tonnage delivered in 2014 had been ordered in some cases as long ago as 2008. While this oversupply may not be good news for shipowners, UNCTAD argues that it is a positive development for the revival of global trade because there is no shortage of carrying capacity and the cost of trade continues to decline in the long term.

In addition, the report reveals that, for the first time since the peak of the shipbuilding cycle, the average age of the world fleet increased slightly in 2014. The delivery of fewer new ships, combined with reduced scrapping activity, means that newer tonnage no longer compensates for the natural aging of the fleet.

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