Ocean-Cargo Boom Fuels $10 Billion Spree for New Container Ships

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Some of the world’s largest container-shipping lines are ordering new vessels amid surging demand for ocean-cargo services, giving a long-awaited boost to the outlook for shipyards in Asia.

The number of container ships on order rose by 23 to 201 last week, the biggest weekly gain in two years, according to IHS Markit data compiled by Bloomberg. ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd., an Israeli company that went public in late January, and Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine Corp. have announced recent purchases or chartering deals.

Ocean-Cargo Boom Fuels $10 Billion Spree for New Container Ships

Before the pandemic, new orders for the ships that carry about 80% of global goods trade struggled to recover from the 2016 bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping, then one of the top-10 players. That shock disrupted supply chains for weeks but also made it tougher to secure longer-term financing needed to purchase ships that can cost $150 million each and take two years to build.

The global health crisis reversed those fortunes, leading to a surge in online demand for goods that allowed the carriers to charge three to four times higher rates for freight across the Pacific than they could a year ago. The No. 1 company, Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, last week predicted global container demand will increase 3% to 5% this year.

“Clearly the recent rebound in demand and shipping rates has improved financial markets’ sentiment toward the sector,” said Chris Rogers, lead trade analyst for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Panjiva.

Shipping’s return to favor is also reflected in ZIM’s $217.5 million initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. After falling 23% on their first day of trading Jan. 28, the shares have rallied almost 75%.

According to Clarksons Research, a shipping analytics firm in London, the order book as a share of existing fleet capacity has rebounded from the lowest level in more than 30 years. Since early October, orders for new container ships have increased by 115, with new container capacity of more than 1.1 million 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. That’s raised the total capacity on order to about 2.7 million TEUs, or almost 12% of the existing fleet.

While that still represents a “relatively low order book” historically, “we expect it to edge up further in the coming months,” said Stephen Gordon, managing director at Clarksons.

The recent string of orders appears to be aimed at replacing some aging vessels, according to Rahul Kapoor, global head of maritime analytics and research at IHS Markit. He expects this trend to continue for about another year.

No Speculative Ordering

Shipping companies seem to be more disciplined about investing in new ships, and some look to be more focused on looking for new sources of revenue or shareholder value, Kapoor said. There have not been signs of speculative ordering, which has happened in the past when the industry improved, he said.

Shipping lines have ordered a total of 21 vessels from shipyards in South Korea -- Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering Co., Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. and Samsung Heavy Industries Co. -- since the start of this year. Some of these ships will be powered by liquefied natural gas to comply with new international pollution standards.

Chinese shipyards have also been the beneficiary, Gordon said.

“The shipping industry appears to have better access to the capital market lately and that’s enabling many to order new vessels,” said Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. “This year will likely be better for shipping lines in terms of earnings because they should be able to increase contract rates with their customers.”

“With further orders expected to be confirmed in the coming days and weeks, we would expect over $10 billion of container ship new-build contracts to be confirmed” from the fourth quarter of 2020 through first quarter of 2021, Gordon said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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