AFRAID OF SHADOWS?

AFRAID OF SHADOWS?

Last week I wrote about overcapacity in the container shipping industry, and argued that the concern about the new tonnage is a load of rubbish. This week, let's turn the spotlight on the carriers, and ask a few questions on the ultra-sensitive issue of new capacity, and the reluctance of carriers to share word of their newfound masses of steel with the rest of the world.

It has been mentioned in the past that some lines have acted irresponsibly by ordering large numbers of new ships without having the market share to support the new capacity. It has also been argued that some owners under certain tax-reduction incentives have ordered new ships on speculative basis, without concern for the marketplace.Personally, I'd like to meet anyone who would turn down a tax-reduction incentive -- shipowner or no shipowner.

Let's start at the top. Maersk Sealand has been in the news recently with alleged orders for new 7,200-TEU ships backing up their fleet of 6,000- and 6,600-TEU ships. According to some reports, these ships can carry 9,000 TEUs. The Maersk Sealand website claims there are five ships of 6,600 TEUs on order, and there is no mention of anything bigger. A couple of Maersk Sealand sources said they had never heard of the other orders. The website indicates that parent A.P. Moller has six 3,500-TEU ships. Press reports say these are 4,300-TEU vessels.

One thing that puzzles me here is why there is such a discrepancy between the capacity figures. I recall when the first 6,000-TEU ship, Regina Maersk, was built, it was widely claimed the ship could carry nearly 8,000 containers, but Maersk insisted the true number was 6,000. Maybe it's the very concern of overcapacity that is at the back of corporate minds in Copenhagen. Maybe they don't want to rock the market with suggestions that the big ships are really larger than what's been said by company officials.

But surely anyone can count containers. The weight of the cargo inside the container may govern, to a certain extent, how many boxes are loaded, but Maersk Sealand is one of the few companies that insists that its ships are not as big as others, including the press, say they are.

That strikes me as odd, but perhaps the 'big blue line' has a reason. If so, it's a mystery to me.

An example of scaring the industry with huge capacity injections that in reality are nothing at all -- not much anyway -- can be found in China Shipping Group.

The problem with China Shipping Group is that company officials say too much -- not that I mind -- but they do tend to voice ambitions that can easily rock the boat. Five years ago, China Shipping Group was unheard of outside intra-Asia trades. Three years ago, group President Li Kelin told his staff that he wanted China Shipping Container Lines to be 'in the top five within five years.' Twenty four hours later, the whole world knew. Now if that isn't enough to get the competition just a trifle concerned, then what is?

The press, including yours truly, had a field day, especially when the talk turned to new ships, big ships, and even bigger ships. I can recall phone calls from hardened liner people, claiming, 'they must be mad.'

Well they're not mad, just vocal and ambitious. China Shipping Group has around 20 large container ships on order either for ownership or long-term charter. In reality, this is the largest number for any one carrier.

But these are going onto a number of trade routes, including the Pacific, Asia-Europe, Mediterranean-U.S., and possibly the Atlantic, and Europe-South Africa. So in reality, the threat of any overcapacity here is very limited.

My question is, 'Where does the money come from to build these ships?' It's always intrigued me why shipping lines are so reluctant to disclose they are in the market for ship construction tenders. Sure, pricing issues are very sensitive, but shipping executives dive under their desks and hide when they are asked by journalists about shipbuilding programs.

Why are they afraid to admit, 'Yes, we are looking at ordering 10,000-TEU container ships'? No one is going to have a coronary at the thought of some huge 50-meter-wide hulk of steel plowing along with 10,000 containers onboard. Well, 8,000 in the case of Maersk Sealand.

There are 100 post-Panamax ships currently on order, and they are going into the Asia-Europe or trans-Pacific trades. The vessels are divided among some 15 carriers operating in at least six different alliances. It's not as bad as it seems.

Personally, I believe all the concern about overcapacity falls on the carriers themselves, but not from the way they may think. The companies create the concern because they are too sensitive to the whole issue of new ships, new capacity, big ships and bigger ships.

There is nothing worse than being afraid of your own shadow.

Paul Richardson can be reached at 011-44-208-942-1993 or xdd80@dial.pipex.com. Richardson is the editor of PR News Service, an e-mail news service covering container shipping.