AARHUS, Denmark/OSLO (Reuters) - Many of the giant cranes that tower over the port of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-biggest city, are standing idle these days.
They can load a million containers a year, but they are now operating at half capacity as Europe’s economic meltdown erodes demand for items such as electronics, dragging a struggling global shipping industry deeper into the abyss.
“People buy less of the unnecessary stuff; they are now satisfied with one television set instead of three, and that is typically all the things imported from China that are being reduced,” says Johan Uggla, the terminal’s managing director and a grandson of 98-year-old shipping magnate Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller.
Shipping firms, banking on rapid trade growth, went on a binge, ordering new vessels in 2007 and 2008, many of which are being delivered this year. They face severe overcapacity just as demand, particularly on the once lucrative routes between Europe and Asia, falls through the floor.
So what is in store for 2012?
“In one word: bloodletting,” says private equity investor Andreas Beroutsos, a founder of One Point Capital Management.
“Some bankruptcies, shrinking, consolidation, very limited new orders, cancellation of large parts of the order book and cyclically elevated scrapping,” he added.
Soaring fuel costs, Europe’s crisis and the lack of bank financing are likely to worsen a four-year-long shipping crisis and extend it well into 2013.
Container and bulk shipping companies, which transport everything from grain to coal to consumer goods, have already burned through much of their cash.
PT Berlian Laju Tanker, Indonesia’s largest oil and gas shipping group, this week defaulted on its $2 billion debt, while the auditors of Danish bulk and tanker firm Torm A/S expressed doubts on Thursday about its ability to remain a going concern through 2012.
Even the biggest are not immune.
Norway’s Frontline recently gave up its status as the world’s largest tanker firm as the crisis forced it to shed 20 percent of its fleet and most of its orders for new vessels.
Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s biggest container liner, predicted another loss-making year for the segment after closing 2011 in the red.
The U.S. recovery, while welcome, does little to help, because container firms rely heavily on Asia-Europe trade and tanker firms rely on trade into Europe, operators said.
The Aarhus cranes, which can lift containers as high as 60 meters, this week serviced the 400-metre Eugen Maersk - unloading Asian-made consumer goods and loading Danish farm products for a trip to China through the Suez Canal.
“It’s a great benefit to Denmark to have a ship calling directly from the Far East,” said Peter Hag, head of operations at the container terminal, standing on the red-painted deck of the Eugen Maersk with 10 layers of containers stacked below deck and seven to nine layers above deck.
“This is the new market - China,” said Hag. “Even if we sell all the pork we have in Denmark, we’ll still be feeding only a small percentage of the Chinese.”
But European container imports from Asia fell by over 9 percent in the fourth quarter, and box rates plunged 25 percent over the year as the euro zone heads for an almost certain recession.
“We are a good example of what Europe is experiencing,” Uggla said at his office overlooking the quay. “We survived (2011). We are profitable but not what our shareholders expect.”
Meanwhile, soaring bunker prices, which account for up to 70 percent of shipping costs, are making smaller vessels obsolete, often well before their normal lifespan.
Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines recently decided to scrap five tankers, with the youngest of them built in 1998, an unusually young vessel on the scrap yard.
The only good news for bulk and container firms is that banks are desperately trying to avoid seizing assets.
“Companies should go bankrupt, but they won‘t. They’ll be the living dead, who pay no dividend and just vegetate,” said Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an analyst at Arctic Securities in Oslo.
“Banks will try to accommodate shipowners for as long as possible to avoid owning vessels because when a bank is selling, it’s a fire sale and already low prices plunge further.”
The value of a five-year-old very large crude carrier, or VLCC, fell 32 percent last year, and the price of a five year-old capesize, among the largest bulk carriers, fell 28 percent, Morgan Stanley estimated.
With asset prices still falling and losses mounting, banks are running out of options.
“Some shipowners are already finding that their banks are losing patience, and they are being forced to sell ships at losses, in the bottom quartile of the market cycle,” said Nigel Prentis, head of research, consulting and advisory with HSBC Shipping Services Ltd.
“As bulk carriers, tankers and containers are currently in a synchronised slump, it is hard to make the case for further procrastination,” he added.
Despite cancellations and the scrapping of younger and younger vessels, new ships continue to flood the market.
Net capacity growth in 2012 could be 7 percent for container ships, 12 percent for dry bulk and 6 percent for tankers, all well above the growth in demand, Morgan Stanley predicted.
These new ships are both the cause of the crisis and a possible survival route.
They can save as much as $5,000 per day in fuel costs, a huge advantage after bunker prices rose 35 percent in 2011 and hit a record in February.
“There are very few (newbuild) ships on the water you can buy, so the natural progression if you want to expand the company, is to go for newbuilds,” said Jens Martin Jensen, the Chief Executive of Frontline Management.
“Of course, there is a concern if everybody has the same idea,” he added.
If a firm has any cash left, the temptation is clear.
Norwegian-born shipping magnate John “Big Wolf” Fredriksen has already used some of his $10 billion plus fortune to buy Frontline’s newbuild tankers and freed up another $1 billion on Thursday to buy troubled shipping assets.
A new VLCC costs over 40 percent less than in 2008, while prices for the biggest container ships have fallen around 30 percent.
Shipyards are desperate after firms deferred or cancelled nearly a third of their tanker and dry bulk vessel deliveries in 2011, and shipping executives and analysts estimate that the rate could be a third again in 2012.
Danske Bank predicted a prolonged process as the biggest companies - the most likely survivors - redeploy idled capacity every time margins rise into positive territory.
“This scenario could be prolonged by some of the largest and most financially solid carriers wanting to force consolidation, by keeping freight rates lower for longer,” it said.
Some consolidation has already started. Malaysia’s Swee Joo Bhd went into bankruptcy last year, with Shin Yang Shipping Corporation Bhd picking up its container vessels and chemical tankers relatively cheap.
Meanwhile six container shipping firms from Singapore, Japan and Korea joined in a partnership to create one of the largest vessel networks with 90 ships and improve efficiency.
Stavseth at Arctic Securities predicted that big firms with links to Asian export-import financing agencies or strong ties with Nordic lenders are best placed, because they have some of the most committed financing available. Nordic banks are also among the strongest in the sector.
“2011 was bad; 2012 will be worse. This year might be the bottom - testing how low you go without a meltdown,” he said.
Additional reporting by Randy Fabi in Singapore, Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur and Jonathan Saul in London, Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jane Baird