Ocean container carriers earned an estimated $14 billion in 2010, the most profitable year in the industry's history, almost cancelling the aggregate operating loss of $15 billion in 2009.
The total operating profits of 19 of the top 25 carriers surveyed by container market analyst Alphaliner reached $11.4 billion last year compared to a $13.2 billion loss in 2009.
Alphaliner estimates that the six remaining carriers in the top 25 which do not publish their financial performance -- MSC, Hamburg-Sud, PIL, UASC, HDS Lines and TS Lines -- as well as other smaller lines made more than $2.5 billion.
OOCL and Wan Hai had the biggest operating margins in container shipping over the past two years, according to Alphaliner.
The performance of the Hong Kong and Taiwanese carriers "further reinforces the view that size does not necessarily translate to better operating margins in this industry," the container market analyst said.
Container carriers' margins recovered strongly in 2010 to a positive 7 percent from a negative 16 percent in 2009.
Malaysia's MISC Berhad was the only carrier to lose money in 2010.
Alphaliner said the financial turnaround is likely to be short-lived as operating margins have "crashed" in the first quarter of 2011 -- especially on the Asia-Europe trade.
Earnings in 2011 are likely to remain "significantly" below the 2010 performance, according to Alphaliner.
-- Contact Bruce Barnard at email@example.com.