Monday, September 14, 2009

'The ghost fleet of the recession'

That's the headline of an article in the Daily Mail. An extract:

Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of Asia, is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers - all should be steaming fully laden between China, Britain, Europe and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.

They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia's rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour.

It is so far off the beaten track that nobody ever really comes close, which is why these ships are here. The world's ship owners and government economists would prefer you not to see this symbol of the depths of the plague still crippling the world's economies.

So they have been quietly retired to this equatorial backwater, to be maintained only by a handful of bored sailors.

Ships anchored off Singapore (click the image for a much larger view)

... the chilliest financial winds anywhere in the City of London are to be found blowing through its 400-plus shipping brokers.

Between them, they manage about half of the world's chartering business. The bonuses are long gone. The last to feel the tail of the economic whiplash, they - and their insurers and lawyers - await a wave of redundancies and business failures in the next six months. Commerce is contracting, fleets rust away - yet new ship-builds ordered years ago are still coming on stream.

Just 12 months ago these financiers and brokers were enjoying fat bonuses as they traded cargo space. But nobody wants the space any more, and those that still need to ship goods across the world are demanding vast reductions in price.

Do not tell these men and women about green shoots of recovery. As Briton Tim Huxley, one of Asia's leading ship brokers, says, if the world is really pulling itself out of recession, then all these idle ships should be back on the move.

'This is the time of year when everyone is doing all the Christmas stuff,' he points out.

'A couple of years ago those ships would have been steaming back and forth, going at full speed. But now you've got something like 12 per cent of the world's container ships doing nothing.'

. . .

These empty ships should be carrying Christmas over to the West. All retailers will have already ordered their stock for the festive season long ago. With more than 92 per cent of all goods coming into the UK by sea, much of it should be on its way here if it is going to make it to the shelves before Christmas.

But retailers are running on very low stock levels, not only because they expect consumer spending to be down, but also because they simply do not have the same levels of credit that they had in the past and so are unable to keep big stockpiles.

. . .

Keith Wallis, East Asia editor of Lloyd's List, says, 'There was an ordering frenzy on all types of vessel, particularly container ships, because of the booming trade between Asia and Europe and the United States. It was fuelled in particular by consumer demand in the UK, Europe and North America, as well as the demand for raw materials from China.'

Orders for most existing ships to be delivered within the next six to nine months would be honoured, he predicted, and the ships would go into service at the expense of older vessels in the fleet, which would be scrapped or end up anchored off places like southern Malaysia.

But, says Wallis, 'some ship owners won't be able to pay their final instalments when the vessels are completed. Normally, they pay ten per cent down when they order the ship and there are three or four stages of payment. But 50 to 60 per cent is paid on delivery.'

South Korean shipyard Hanjin Heavy Industries last week said it had been forced to put up for sale three container ships ordered at a cost of £60 million ($100 million) by the Iranian state shipping line after the Iranians said they could not pay the bill.

'The prospects for shipyards are bleak, particularly for the South Koreans, where they have a high proportion of foreign orders. Whole communities in places like Mokpo and Ulsan are involved in shipbuilding and there is a lot of sub-contracting to local companies,' Wallis says.

'So far the shipyards are continuing to work, but the problems will start to emerge next year and certainly in 2011, because that is when the current orders will have been delivered. There have hardly been any new orders in the past year. In 2011, the shipyards will simply run out of ships to build.'

Christopher Palsson, a senior consultant at London-based Lloyd's Register-Fairplay Research, believes the situation will worsen before it gets better.

'Some ships will be sold for demolition but the net balance will be even further pressure on the freight rates and the market itself. A lot of ship owners and operators are going to find themselves in a very difficult situation.'

There's much more at the link. It tends to bear out what I've been saying about the state of the economy - to put it mildly! Karl Denninger also commented on this article today, with similar conclusions.

It's not only Singapore that's seeing ships laid up for lack of demand. There are several Danish container ships in a Scottish loch, and other quiet backwaters around the world have their share of the 'ghost fleet' at anchor.

Folks, forget what the feel-good talking heads are telling you on television. The reality of the world's economy - and our own - is to be found in these ships, swinging idly at anchor, because no-one's buying the goods they used to carry. Only when this 'ghost fleet' gets back into operation will we know that the economy has turned around. Until then . . . watch your back.



Noons said...

It's frightening what's going on and watch the utter irresponsibility of some governments in claiming "the worst is over".
Far from it.
What we saw last year was nothing compared to what's coming.

And the bigger problem is the social unrest all this idleness will cause in all these countries: their economies and their stability were closely linked to what was going on.
Trust me: no one wants to see a coupla billion asians in social unrest...

Billll said...

You can find the same phenomenon on railroad sidings across the country where unused freight cars are being turned in to art galleries for graffiti artists.

I suppose if you know where to look, you could also find parking lots full of semi-trailers.

Turing word: dogisemi
Definition: Slow-moving truck, no?

Old NFO said...

Wait until Christmas when there is NOTHING on the shelves... THEN it will hit home. I'm already 1/2 done with my shopping and have had 4-5 items that I wanted but could not get in AUGUST!!!

Dougyfish said...

While I'm not discounting anything you're saying about the economy I will say that I've been to Singapore several times and the waters around ti always look like that. Even as far back as my first trip in 1999. When I first saw it I thought that a giant had spilled their leggos in the ocean. So while it's visually stunning the picture is not necessarily statistically significant in and of itself.