Thursday, November 15, 2018

The impact of alliances on container shipping and ports

[Short excerpt from my submission to the European Commission in the context of its public consultation on the evaluation of the consortia block exemption regulation].

Please cite this document as:

Haralambides, H.E. (2019) "Gigantism in Container Shipping, Ports and Global Logistics: A time-lapse into the future". Maritime Economics & Logistics, (21):1, pp 1-63, February 2019].

I have often remarked that gigantism in container shipping has been induced by both port competition and shipping alliances. Indeed, without the possibility to use each other’s ships, no carrier by himself alone would be able to achieve a capacity utilization high enough to justify the use of present day mega-ships, while at the same time offering the frequency that shippers require.

But carriers have gone a step too far: At the time of writing, three alliances[1] carry 80% of global trade. Such consolidation, in an industry that is already highly concentrated, is bound to finally attract the scrutiny of the regulator who, with the final consumer in mind, is likely to encourage more competition rather than further consolidation. If this happens, i.e., if container shipping becomes more open and competitive in the future, and if alliance agreements regarding vessel sharing, investment planning, etc. are scrutinized more closely for their compatibility with competition law, as I expect, the joint filling of the ship will become more difficult and ship sizes shall by necessity decrease, together with an increase in the number of ports of call. Low prices would then be achieved through more competition rather than big ship sizes. This is the more so when it is doubtful if the economies of scale in shipping are passed on to the final consumer, as required by the consortia block exception from the provisions of competition law in Europe.

A voice from the past: the ‘second scenario’[2]
There are a number of macro-trends that, in addition to the above, might advocate for smaller ships and more port calls; particularly the latter. In a nutshell: (a) Transshipment costs and if they can help it shippers prefer to have their goods as close to them as possible; (b) Consolidation and distribution use land infrastructure without paying full costs for the private use of a public good; (c) The external costs of hub-and-spoking (congestion; pollution; accidents) may at times be as high as 2% of European GDP.

I thus argue that transshipment, warehousing and distribution don’t come cheap, as our enthusiasm with logistics often assumes. It is good to keep this in mind and thus make sure that the costs (internal and external) of logistics operations are paid in full, including the costs of using public infrastructure. The latter, because (to a large extent) infrastructure is no longer a public good and thus the user-pays principle should in principle apply.

[1] 2M: (MSC, Maersk, HMM); Ocean Alliance: (CMA-CGM, Cosco Group, OOCL and Evergreen); and THE Alliance: (Hapag Lloyd, NYK, Yang Ming, MOL, K-Line).
[2] Haralambides, H.E. (2000) ‘A second scenario on the future of the hub-and-spoke system in liner shipping’. Latin Ports and Shipping 2000 Conference, Lloyd’s List, 14-16 November 2000, Miami, FL., USA.

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