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Intra-Asia: Getting a grip on the world’s biggest but least remunerative container trade

Intra-Asia: Getting a grip on the world’s biggest but least remunerative container trade

After nine years as CEO of MCC Transport, Maersk’s Singapore-based intra-Asia unit, departing Tom Wickmann can look back on the biggest, most complex and least remunerative trade major league shipping has to offer.

“It’s a charity,” he says. “We were sailing the ships for free on many corridors. There is no contribution left to pay for the ships after paying for the variable costs.

“The freight rate only barely covers costs of moving the container onto the ship and off the ship again,” said Mr Wickmann, who left Maersk last month after 27 years service.

“One of the scary parts about this is that the cost picture is as low as it has ever been. Chartering costs have never been lower and although the oil price has jumped a little, it is still very low from what we saw three, four years ago.

“So there is not much more we can do to sail our ship cheaper than what we are doing already. If we are not making money at present freight rates then what is going to happen if the oil price goes up or the THC [terminal handling charges] increases.” he said.

Not only is there little money to be made, what little there is hard to get because the trade is so fiercely competitive, and very complex, he said.

Talk about competition. Just take one of the many intra-Asia submarkets – Korea, north China and east China, Russia, Cambodia and Thailand, he said.

“There are 97 weekly services in this market and 29 carriers. So the competitive scenario landscape is also very different from the long-haul trades.

“There are not many alliances but there are a lot of slot swaps and VSAs [vessel sharing agreements] going on in intra-Asia. We are faced with infrastructure challenges, but the problem is not so much the ports in themselves, but with the lack or poor quality of the infrastructure behind them,” he said.

“It is not that the ports have to be ready for 18,000-TEU ships – the issue is that we are dealing with smaller ports and these smaller ports are growing – some quite fast.

“Those dealing with the Philippines know of the disaster when our ships were waiting two weeks just to get a berth. But this was not because of mis-performing terminals it was because of the infrastructure behind these ports that didn’t work.

“Myanmar had 11-day holiday and Myanmar is growing. So what happens when you stop working for 11 days? If you have ever been to the Port of Rangoon it is in the middle of the city and there is no decent infrastructure behind,” Mr Wickmann said.

“So very quickly, the ports were totally full and there we ended up waiting two weeks trying to get a berth.

“The worse place for us is Bangladesh where the ports are also swimming in containers which are still coming in and it is impossible to get a berth,” Mr Wickmann said.

Still intra-Asia speaks volumes. One in four containers that moves around the world is carried in the intra-Asia trade, which has more than 70 shipping lines and 10,000 port pair. One estimate holds that the intra-Asia trade as a throughput of 40 million TEU a year.

Intra-Asia is expected to grow just three to four per cent a year. What is less evident is that growth is uneven.

“All the growth is coming from China. There is no growth from any of the other countries in the intra-Asia market,” he said. “Taiwan and Japan have dropped by double digits on the intra-Asia trade, but China is such a dominant market that when China grows, the whole trade grows.”

Despite the weak growth, intra-Asia trade is still generally healthier than the major east-west trades, but that has spurred regional container lines to add services. It has also prompted major container lines to shore up their weaker volume in the major trades via intra-Asia services.

Hyundai Merchant Marine, which is bidding for the intra-Asia network of collapsed South Korean counterpart Hanjin Shipping, has said it will focus on the trade as it tries to return to profitability, and Thailand’s Regional Container Lines believes growth in Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states will start to bring supply and demand in the region into balance.

Hong Kong-based Orient Overseas Container Line has expanded its existing CHL service between China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Thailand gateway Laem Chabang, giving wider port coverage. Shanghai-based China United Lines recently began a new weekly service connecting Korea and China to Southeast Asia, and MCC Transport has improved Southeast Asia access to Cambodia while expanding Cambodia’s reach into North Asia.

Robert Sallons, managing director of CMA CGM’s intra-Asia specialist Cheng Lie Navigation Line, said intra-Asia consisted of hundreds of corridors where one or two carriers might have a big market share on some trades, and on other corridors many lines may only have a small market share.

But an area that has long been a concern in the regional Asian trade is infrastructure. Although trade is growing and the smaller ports are expanding berths and adding equipment, the infrastructure behind the ports is unable to handle the rising container volumes.

Increasing vessel frequency has become a way MCC mitigates port delays. “When a ship is delayed and has to omit a port, there is another ship coming just a couple of days later,” said Mr Wickmann.

“With Bangladesh, the ships are waiting three to six days. You can add a ship to your service, but that doesn’t increase your capacity because it is just sitting there, waiting. It has only one effect for a shipping line, and that is additional cost.

“The alternative that we are doing in Bangladesh is to increase our frequency. We now have four and sometimes five vessels, so even though one ship is waiting, there is another on the way,” he said. “That adds capacity.”

Economists say that intra-Asia’s troubles will diminish as urbanisation increases, which has historically been linked to rising affluence. They problem is that unlike other trades, the peoples of the intra-Asia market are among the poorest people in the world.

So while high volume intra-Asia trade can be characterised as poor2poor and the low volume transatlantic as rich2rich, the mid-level thriving and highly remunerative Asia-Europe and transpacific trades are poor2rich.
Getting intra-Asia from one stage to another seems inevitable, barring a global catastrophe. But even so it remains a matter of time. How much time will depend on how the universe unfolds.

在马士基航运旗下的总部位于新加坡、主营亚洲区内航运业务的全资子公司MCC运输(MCC Transport)担任了9年的行政总裁之后,即将离任的Tim Wickmann对这个全球最大、最复杂,但利润却是最低的航运市场,作了一番回顾。

“这简直像是在‘做慈善’”,Wickmann先生说道,“在许多亚洲区内航线上,我们基本上是在‘免费’提供航运服务。抵消了各类变动成本以后,我们的收入已经不足以偿付船只的操作和服务。”

“我们运费仅仅能够勉强覆盖集装箱船装货和卸货的成本”,Wickmann先生表示。在马士基工作了27年后,Wickmann先生早前在6月份宣布,将于今年8月1日正式离开马士基。

“而可怕的是,从整体上来看,亚洲区内航运的成本实际上并不高,而是一如既往的低。租船成本更是从来没有像现在这么低过,燃油价格虽然较之前稍微有所回升,不过与三、四年前的水平相比起来已经可称之为非常低廉。”

“因此,怎样在现行措施的基础上,把船只的运输成本再进一步压低,对此我们已经无计可施。如果在目前这种运价水平下,我们无法实现盈利,那么当燃油价格重回高位,或者码头操作费(THC)又再上调的情形下,我们会怎样?”,Wickmann先生说。

亚洲区内市场本来就赚不到什么钱,如果成本再上涨,原先所剩无几的利润将会被挤压得更稀少可怜,因为这个市场内的竞争实在太激烈了,并且市场的复杂程度也很高,他指出。

亚洲区内航运市场有众多子市场(submarket)。既然谈到竞争,就列举其中一个子市场——从俄罗斯、韩国、中国华北/华东,到柬埔寨和泰国的运输走廊为例子,Wickmann先生说道。

“在这个子市场中,总共就有29家船公司经营着97条周班航线。可见,与长途主干贸易航线相比,短途航线市场的竞争格局有着巨大的不同”,Wickman先生表示。

“在亚洲区内市场中,虽然船公司联盟并不多,可是彼此签订了舱位互换和船舶共享协议(vessel sharing agreement,VSA)的船公司却有很多。在这里,我们还面临着来自基础设施方面的挑战,然而,问题却不是出自于港口本身,而是连接港口的基础设施的缺乏和落后”,他指出。

“并不是说这些港口的设施非得要满足18,000个20尺柜这类超大型集装箱船的挂靠需求不可,重点是在于,亚洲区内的港口多数是些小型港口,而随着当地市场的发展,这些小港口的货运需求增加了,并且有些港口的需求还发展得相当快。”

“有挂靠过菲律宾港口的同行肯定对此深有体会。当你的船需要等上两个星期之久才能等到一个泊位时,这简直是一场灾难。不过,造成这种局面的原因并不是由于码头操作不当,而是连接港口的基础设施非常落后,无法起到有效的疏港作用。”

“又譬如,缅甸是个正在快速崛起的市场,但缅甸的新年假期长达11天。而当港口的运作停摆11天,这会带来怎样的后果?缅甸的仰光港(Port of Rangoon)是一个位于市中心的港口,可是只要你去过仰光港,你就会发现当地根本没有什么像样的基础设施”,Wickmann先生说道。

“因此,这些小港口很快就被大量的货物堆满,最后,我们足足等了两个星期才等来了一个泊位。”

“对于我们来说,‘最可怕的噩梦’莫过于孟加拉港。在当地,港口可以说是‘漂浮在集装箱的海洋里’,而与此同时大量的集装箱还在继续涌入,想等到一个泊位简直比登天还难”,Wickmann先生感叹。

不过,亚洲区内航运市场是以庞大的货运量为绝对优势的。全球所运输的集装箱之中,每四个就有一个是在亚洲区内市场。在该市场经营航线的船公司超过70家,启运港和卸货港配对(port pair)超过10,000对。有估算显示,亚洲区内贸易航线每年的货运量高达400万个20尺柜。

此外,亚洲区内航运市场预计每年还将以3%至4%的速度持续增长。然而,在亮眼的增速背后,掩盖着的是增长失衡的事实。

“所有的增长都是来自于中国。除了中国以外,亚洲区内的其他国家根本没有录得任何增长”,Wickmann先生指出。“台湾和日本的亚洲区内贸易货运量,萎缩幅度更是达到了两位数之高。但是,中国市场是如此庞大,其支配地位也是如此强大,因此只要中国一增长,整个亚洲区内市场都会被连带着上升。”

尽管增长很疲弱,亚洲区内航运市场的总体健康程度,也还是要比世界东西行方向主干航线市场要好。可是,仅仅是这点微弱的优势,就已经刺激了在当地经营业务的船公司大举开通新航线。此外,对于大型船公司来说,单是这点疲软的增幅,就足以使他们连接亚洲区内航线网络的主干航线上的低迷货量,得到提振。

现代商船(Hyundai Merchant Marine,HMM)已经接手了破产的韩国同行韩进海运(Hanjin Shipping)的亚洲区内航线网络。该公司表示,未来将会把焦点放在亚洲区内市场上,并尝试恢复盈利能力。泰国的宏海箱运(Regional Container Lines,RCL)则认为,随着东盟(ASEAN)成员国数目的增加,未来亚洲区内市场的供求关系将会进一步走向平衡。

总部在香港的东方海外(Orient Overseas Container Line,OOCL),已经通过增加挂靠港的方式,扩展了其现有的连接中国和越南胡志明港以及泰国门户港林查班(Laem Chabang)的CHL航线。总部在上海的中联航运(China United Lines),最近则新开通了一条连接韩国、中国和东南亚的周班航线。而MCC运输则增加了东南亚地区航线在柬埔寨港口的挂靠,此外也增加了柬埔寨至亚洲北部地区的航线。

达飞海运旗下主营亚洲区内航运的正利航业(Cheng Lie Navigation Line),其董事总经理Robert Sallons表示,亚洲区内市场包含着数百条运输走廊,在一些航线上,也许单单是一两家船公司就占了一大半的市场份额,而在另一些航线上,或许许多家船公司加起来,才占到很小一部分的市场份额。

此外,亚洲区内贸易的一个长期备受关注的焦点,就是基础设施。尽管贸易运输需求在持续增加,而亚洲地区的小港口也在不断努力地扩建泊位、增加设施,可是这些港口背后的基础设施却没能跟上脚步,无法满足日益增长的集装箱处理需求。

增加航线班次已经成为了MCC运输减轻船只滞港问题影响的一个办法。“当一艘船被迫滞留港口而延误了行程,来不及挂靠而需要跳过随后的某个港口,另外一艘船将会在数天之内赶到”,Wickmann先生解释道。

“在孟加拉港,船只进港需要等上三至六天的时间。你可以为该航线仅额外多投入一艘船,不过这并不意味着航线的运力增加了,因为这艘船还是会在别的港口遇上滞留等待、动弹不得的情形,而这艘新增的船对于船公司所起到的唯一作用,就是增加额外的成本。”

“我们在孟加拉港所采取的应对措施就是大量增加班次。现在我们有四个班次,有时甚至会增加到五个,这样,即使有某艘船滞留港口,其余的船只还是能够继续前往下一个挂靠港”,Wickmann先生解释道,“这样才能够达到增加运力的目的。”

经济学家则表示,随着城市化的进程进一步深入,亚洲区内市场各国的富裕程度将会相应提高,而当地的基础设施困境也将有望得到缓解。亚洲区内市场所面临的问题,与其他市场所面临的不同,因为该地区的人口是全球最贫困的人群之一。

综上所述,世界各个航运市场的特点可以归纳为如下:亚洲区内航线尽管货运量大,但却是“穷人到穷人”之间的运输。反之,大西洋航线固然货运量小,但却是“富人到富人”之间的运输。而位于两者中间、发展蓬勃的同时利润率也较高的亚洲至欧洲航线,以及太平洋航线,则是“穷人到富人”之间的运输。
亚洲区内市场的发展兴旺是大势所趋,而这也能够在未来避免一场全球性的经济大灾难的发生。但是,该市场的发展是一个关乎时间的问题。而到底需时多久,则取决于整个世界的局势在未来会如何展开。

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