Good Riddance to ’09 but what lies beyond?Marine terminal operators were happy to say goodbye and good riddance to 2009. But the rebound in box numbers is still chancy with too many economic caveats in the forecast to be comfortable. Nevertheless, business has improved, and terminal operators are looking at expansion.
By George Lauriat, AJOTFor the world’s marine terminal operators, 2009 was the year that wasn’t; while 2010 is a year with business finally on the mend. But this is an economic recovery ripe with caveats.
For a majority of two decades global container throughout has grown by double-digits every year, but when the economic crisis took hold; container throughput growth plunged to 5% in 2008 (according to Drewry Shipping Consultants & IMF) and -6% in 2009. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) said that world trade fell by over 12% in 2009, the first decline since 1982.
On the two important head hauls the numbers were grim. On the Asia-to-Europe route, box traffic was off 8.5% (13.5m teus-11.5m teus) comparing 2008 to 2009. On the important Asia-to-North America trade lane, container throughput fell 9.1% (12.45m teus-11.45m teus). In China, the workshop to the world and the greatest single source of container moves, the throughput of containers decreased by 5.8%, approximately 121m teus.
Late in the fourth quarter of 2009 container traffic rallied. A dramatic improvement in international trade, perhaps due to inventory restocking by retailers, suddenly like a rogue wave overwhelmed a container industry that had laid up ships, ceased building containers, cut freight rates, reduced liner services and implemented slow steaming. It was a case of famine or feast for the ocean carriers.
For TOs, beyond the immediate euphoria of containers again flowing across the piers, the question was had the recession really bottomed out or was this box boom destined to be short lived?
’09 The Lost Year
Back in the summer of 2009, Neil Davidson, Director-Ports for Drewry’s, made a keen observation of the difference to the container industry between the new “great recession” and previous economic downturns. He noted that in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1994, container throughput at the world’s ports was up 8%. During the US recession of 2001, box throughput grew 5%. The new “great recession” was the exception to the rule, and global box traffic fell precipitously with mature markets such as the US and Europe taking the biggest hits.
Walter Kemmsies, Chief Economist for Moffatt & Nichol, in a presentation at the AAPA pointed out, “the economy is recovering but supply-side recessions are tougher than demand-side recessions. World economy is still struggling with the aftermath of the developed economies’ credit crunch.”
Nearly all TOs posted poor financial and throughput figures for 2009. It takes only a cursory view of some of the top global TOs to illustrate the point. For example, China Merchants Holdings International (CMHI), a Group with a heavy portfolio of Chinese terminals, posted its only year-on-year decline. Container throughput handled by the CMHI’s terminals totaled 43.87m teus in the year, a year-on-year decrease of over 13%. Cosco Pacific (the terminal arm of the Cosco Group) like CMHI has a portfolio laden with mainland Chinese box terminals. In 2009, the throughput at Cosco Pacific’s terminals fell 5.1% to 43.55m teus compared to 2008. Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Port Holdings (HPH), widely considered the world’s largest TO, also took a hit in 2009. HPH’s throughput fell 9.66% from 2008 to 2009 (67.6m teus-65.3 m teus). Singapore-based PSA International was off 9%, (63.2m teus-57m teus) while Dubai-based DP World was off 9.3% (46.8 m teus-43.4 m teus).
In some respects, the hows and whys of the dwindling box numbers didn’t matter, as TOs were forced to curtail expansion plans and tighten their belts to simply prepare themselves to wait out the economic turmoil.
Thomas Eckelmann, Chairman of the