What is HMM Thinking?
South Korean carrier Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) is back in the news with an impending order for as many as 14 Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCV) of 22,000 TEU and for its intriguing re-entrance into the Asia-Europe market as a vessel provider. Reports suggest a new standalone service called Asia Europe Express (AEX) using 10 Classic Panamax ships of 4,700 TEU will commence in April. The AEX ships would be the smallest deployed on the route that is usually reserved for ULCVs, with faster transit times to Europe (Alphaliner indicated calls at Rotterdam, Hamburg and Felixstowe) being used as the carrot to shippers.
The two developments appear to be connected. HMM has two years left to run on a slot-charter agreement signed in 2016 with 2M carriers Maersk Line and MSC and presumably sees the new ships either as a bargaining chip to continue that partnership as it will have more to bring to the table, or to leverage full membership of another carrier group, or in the worst case scenario to have sufficient means to operate independently, building on the custom generated by the AEX service.
More importantly, is this new order the sum of HMM’s ambitions or does it signal the start of a previously expressed expansion game plan? The answer to that will decide the company’s hard-to-predict future.
In the midst of a shareholder-mandated restructure in late 2016 the company announced a bold vision to control five percent of the world fleet by 2021. That target was made more difficult when it was forced to relinquish a number of charter vessels to Maersk and MSC as a condition for sharing space with them, with the 2M carriers needing to appease customers fearful of a repeat of the situation when cargoes booked with Hanjin Shipping’s service partners were left stranded when that Korean line went bankrupt.
If HMM still maintains that vision the first batch of new ULCVs will just be the start. From its current position – operating approximately 1.5 percent of the world fleet – it will need a total of 1.2 million TEU based on today’s active fleet and orderbook to reach its target. To do so will require an additional 830,000 TEU (or 38 x 22,000 TEU ULCVs); more than twice what it currently has on the seas.
Frankly, that seems like a pipe dream. Firstly, the company lacks the financial resources – despite improving the debt ratio, it just reported a net loss of $1.1 billion for 2017 – and will be dependent on funds from the state-owned Korea Maritime Corp to even secure the first order. There is a high likelihood the company will benefit from further government support as part of a wider policy to support the flagging shipbuilding industry, but not to the extent that would propel HMM into the big leagues.
Secondly, and most importantly in our view, to follow such a rapid expansion plan would be ruinous for the container industry, inevitably leading to a vicious bout of rate discounting that would deepen HMM’s losses and once again raise fears of a collapse . Such a scenario is incompatible with what should be HMM’s primary objective; to restore trust and confidence in its brand. Its reputation took a hit when Hanjin failed, when many realized it could just have easily been HMM instead but for the whim of the Korean government.
Confidence in the market has improved significantly since Hanjin’s demise, so much so that the logistics firm Kuehne + Nagel has cancelled its carrier bankruptcy insurance policy, but another prolonged run of liner deficits would send shivers down the backs of shippers and freight forwarders once again. For its part, HMM has managed to grow its business quickly as annual volumes increased by 30 percent in 2017, helped by the pick-up of former Hanjin customers. At the time of writing Drewry hadn’t seen a breakdown of the company’s full-year volumes by trade, but after nine months of 2017 the two main growth markets were Intra-Asia (up 81 percent) and the Transpacific (36 percent). The focus on the Intra-Asia trade, where freight rates are notoriously low, saw HMM’s worldwide unit revenues fall by 9 percent when all other major carriers were seeing gains.
HMM appears to have been given the benefit of the doubt by Korean manufacturers, who were possibly emotionally motivated by nationalistic loyalty when transferring cargoes from Hanjin to HMM. They helped HMM’s quarterly volume growth soar to 30 to 40 percent between the fourth quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2017, but with comparisons becoming like-for-like in the fourth quarter of 2017 the growth rate slipped to seven percent, giving a truer impression of the organic growth and rising trust in the company.
The company has done a good job of stabilizing itself since the turmoil of late 2016, but much like Korea itself, it finds itself at the cross roads, not knowing whether to stick or twist to remain a shipping superpower. In our opinion, HMM needs to shed any grand ambitions it has and realize the competition has moved too far ahead for it to catch-up. To vainly try would be to risk everything. The proposed new order on its own is not evidence that it is being reckless, but it might be a wise move to signal what the long-term plan is. It has two years to secure itself a home with a carrier alliance and existing members would likely be wary of inviting a potentially destabilizing and financially risky line into the fold. Moreover, growing too big would very likely preclude it from becoming a full member of the 2M, given that group is already close to permitted capacity thresholds allowed by competition authorities.
Even before any confirmation of the HMM newbuild order, the containership orderbook has sparked back to life thanks to deals signed by CMA CGM and MSC late last year and more recently by Evergreen and Yang Ming, the latter only at the board approval stage. Assuming the Yang Ming orders go through, new orders placed in the first two months of this year are already over 50 percent of what was booked in the entirety of 2017.
Looking at the current fleet and orderbook for the five largest ship classes, there are clues as to who else might want to add to the newbuild tally. CMA CGM has an obvious numerical disadvantage in the ULCV class in relation to it nearest competitors, especially as we know that Cosco is building a $2 billion war chest to fund more of those leviathans. Reactionary moves by the two leading carriers, Maersk and MSC, to maintain their lofty position cannot be discounted.
Hapag-Lloyd and the new Japanese ONE carrier group also have a deficit of ULCVs, but the noises emanating from their respective boardrooms suggest they will look at smaller classes, possibly the VLCV Maxi neopanamax class that can sail through the expanded Panama Canal.
HMM is too far behind the leading pack, which will likely stretch their lead further with more orders, to play catch up without destabilizing the market. It should focus its energies on restoring its profitability and reputation, dull as those ambitions may be.
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