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  September 7th, 2016 | Written by

Hanjin Collapse: The Implications for Global Carriers

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  • Container carriers can't survive on ultra-low freight rates.
  • Hanjin bankruptcy warning: Carriers have breaking points.
  • Ocean container carriers can't always be rescued.

With Hanjin Shipping filing for court receivership recently, the assumption that major container lines will always find a way to survive has been debunked, according to the latest Container Insight Report released by maritime consultancy Drewry.

In 2009, when the container industry posted operating losses of nearly $20 billion and bankruptcy was said to be imminent for several lines, none went out of business. The zombie carriers survived by scaling down and receiving government support, among other things.

After surviving the worst industry crisis in history the belief grew that major carriers would always survive. While some smaller players have fallen away, none were in the same league as Hanjin Shipping. With a containership fleet of 100 ships and total capacity of 620,000 TEU, Hanjin ranked seventh in the world.

Hanjin’s move into bankruptcy shatters the conventional wisdom that major carriers are immune to failure and can stomach prolonged years of low rates and financial losses, according to Drewry. The

Drewry analysts believe that the container industry is hardly in poor health but Hanjin, along with compatriot Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), stood out as being in particularly bad shape.

HMM is reportedly acquiring Hanjin’s core assets in a merger bid. HMM itself only narrowly escaped bankruptcy just a few months ago.

Both Hanjin and HMM have scored poorly on Drewry’s Z-score of freight operators’ financial stress index for some time and as of the mid-way point of 2016 had readings well below 1.8, indicating a high risk of bankruptcy.

Since then, HMM has successfully negotiated a debt restructuring plan, including obtaining reduced charter rates from ship-owners that eventually saw its main creditor, the Korea Development Bank (KDB), become its largest shareholder. It will join 2M carriers Maersk Line and MSC in a new alliance next April.

The KDB is also Hanjin’s main creditor, but the bank did not accept Hanjin’s self-rescue as it did eventually HMM’s.

Vessel charterers refused to lower their rates to Hanjin, and a plan to sell new shares to Korean Air fell short of raising the sums expected by creditors.

The immediate collateral damage of Hanjin’s situation will be widespread, Drewry concluded. Ports and terminals that have recently accepted Hanjin ships and containers will lose a customer and might not get paid for work carried out. The same applies to container lessors, and charter shipowners, particularly Seaspan and Danaos, which were Hanjin’s biggest suppliers of non-owned ships.

Danaos, unlike Seaspan, supported Hanjin in its efforts to restructure its operations, and its CEO expressed disappointment that KDB failed to go along with the plan.

Shippers unaffected by Hanjin’s situation will feel a short-term shock as the reduction of capacity will inflate freight rates. Spot freight rates out of Asia surged the day after Hanjin’s announcement.

The carriers facing the biggest disruption are Hanjin’s partners in the CKYHE Alliance—Cosco, K Line, Yang Ming, and Evergreen—who operate several services in the east-west container trades and who share space on Hanjin vessels. Hanjin’s service partners will have already started efforts to arrange alternative shipments but there will be delays, especially for containers stuck on ships denied entry to ports, Drewry warned.

There are also longer-term implications for Hanjin’s alliance partners. “The CKYHE Alliance will have to fill in the gaps caused by Hanjin’s exit, which is likely to disrupt their network scheduling for some months,” the report said.

Hanjin was due to leave the CKYHE Alliance next year to join Hapag-Lloyd, K Line, MOL, NYK, and Yang Ming in THE Alliance. Hanjin’s exit immediately puts that group at a disadvantage.

“Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of Hanjin’s situation will be that all stakeholders will now finally understand that carriers cannot survive on a diet of ultra-low freight rates if they want to see healthy competition,” the report concluded. “The impending bankruptcy of Hanjin should serve as a warning that carriers do have breaking points and that they will not always be rescued.”