Port of Long Beach Chief Sees More Pain for Shipping Lines

Tim Rue/Bloomberg News

Global container shipping lines face one or two more years of pain as the industry consolidates amid overcapacity and weaker demand, according to the Port of Long Beach’s CEO.

Cheap credit and low fuel prices are propping up weak players and delaying the mergers and alliances needed to resolve the crisis, Jon Slangerup, CEO of Long Beach, the second-busiest U.S. port, said in an interview in Geneva.

“There are going to be some lingering weak players and it will take some time to sort out,” Slangerup said after meeting shipping clients in Copenhagen, Hamburg and Geneva. “It will be a year or two. A year for some, two for others.”

Slowing demand in China and Europe combined with a glut of containerships has pushed down freight prices, with Drewry Maritime Equity Research last month projecting industry losses of $6 billion in 2016. Long Beach is being hurt by the fallout as cargo volumes slumped 22% in April after CMA CGM SA shifted some business to neighboring Los Angeles, the busiest U.S. port, following its acquisition of Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines Ltd.

“Even though we had a very good first quarter and we had a very good last year, our second quarter will be very weak,” Slangerup said. “We are in the middle of all this musical chairs so volumes are shifting dynamically as we speak.”

Volumes at the port, which derives more than 90% of its business from trade with Asia, should normalize in the third quarter, he said. Cargo increased 6.1% in the first quarter, following a 5.4% gain in 2015.

As interest rates and fuel prices rise, mergers and alliances designed to cut costs by sharing ships should proliferate, said Slangerup, a former FedEx Corp. executive.

An alliance between the world’s two biggest container shipping lines, A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S of Copenhagen and Mediterranean Shipping Co. of Geneva, represents the “gold standard” for the industry, Slangerup said. In April, CMA CGM signed a preliminary agreement with three other shipping lines to form what could be the second-ranked grouping, the Ocean Alliance.

Hapag-Lloyd AG, Germany’s top container shipping line, and five Asian carriers said this month they will form a new vessel-sharing alliance to take on bigger rivals. The grouping includes South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co., whose shares have declined 50% this year.

Slangerup said there could be further consolidation in the South Korean shipping industry as Hanjin and Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., which is working with creditors to restructure its debt, are both struggling.

“The South Koreans are in trouble,” Slangerup said. “They are competitors but it would not surprise me if they were forced to join together as one.”

The port hopes to serve as a “facilitator of change” to bring together clients in alliances and mergers that will allow them to share not only ships but also information about container freight demand and availability, Slangerup said.

“Pain is a great teacher,” he said. “It has really begun to bring people together in ways that it hasn’t done in the past.”