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Choppy Waters for Container Shipping. Are More Mergers on the Horizon?

Plagued by overcapacity and ongoing losses, the container shipping industry is rife with talk of potential mergers and acquisitions. The consolidation of the highly fragmented industry is long overdue, especially when contrasted with such other heavily capitalized transportation sectors as railroads and airlines.

The possibility that a new wave of M&A may be imminent was touched off by news that several carriers are in various stages of talks aimed at consolidation, including NOL and both Maersk Line and CMA CGM; Cosco and China Shipping Container Lines; and Hanjin Shipping and Hyundai Merchant Marine. (At press time, an announcement about NOL was said to be imminent, with CMA CGM the likely buyer.)

With the severe glut of vessel space and expected new deliveries threatening to undermine freight rates for another three years, mergers could offer carriers another avenue to cutting costs by eliminating redundant overhead. “What we are seeing now is not all that surprising,” said Lars Jensen, CEO of SeaIntel Maritime Analysis in Copenhagen. “I have been saying that by 2020 there will be only eight big carriers, and this is gradually what is beginning to unfold. It will take a long time.”

If any of the merger talks bear fruit, a shakeup of the five major vessel-sharing alliances will follow, he said.

Any incipient wave of ocean carrier M&A deals would mirror a trend underway in other transportation sectors, especially among third-party logistics providers. In the past year alone, FedEX acquired GENCO and is buying TNT Express, UPS bought Coyote Logistics, XPO Logistics acquired Norbert Dentressangle and Con-way, Kintetsu World Express bought APL Logistics, and DSV is buying UTi Worldwide. Even North American railroad companies may join the merger mania, if Canadian Pacific succeeds in its reported talks to buy Norfolk Southern.

But unlike 3PLs, the path to successful mergers among ocean carriers, whether state or privately owned, is strewn with regulatory, financial and cultural obstacles that throw the outcome of current talks into doubt. “There’s a need for consolidation, but given the politicization of the industry, I just don’t see a rash of mergers,” said Peter Shaerf, managing director of AMA Capital Partners, a New York investment bank that specializes in maritime deals. “I just don’t see it happening between two private companies. I think there will be sporadic mergers, like that between Hapag-Lloyd and CSAV, but I don’t see it as a pervasive trend.”

Any combination of steamship lines would face rigorous scrutiny by international regulators to guard against a single carrier or combination of carriers controlling too much of a single trade lane. European and Chinese regulators’ alarm bells go off when carrier combinations result in their market share reaching or exceeding 30 percent of a single trade lane’s volumes.

“The issue is made more difficult by trying to discern exactly what is in the 30 percent,” said Rod Riseborough, CEO of Container Trades Statistics, which tracks liner companies’ trade volumes. He said it’s hard to tell, for example, whether the Chinese Ministry of Transport’s 30 percent rule on the China-Europe trade includes cargo shipped from China to the areas outside the scope of carrier alliances such as the Gulf and India. “As far as the EU is concerned,” Riseborough said, “their mandate is only for the 27 EU countries, and excludes much of the cargo carriers by alliances to Russia and Turkey, etc.”

Although the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission doesn’t hold the same threshold rule, the agency can block any changes to vessel-sharing agreements, or shipping alliances, caused by the game of musical chairs that consolidation would likely trigger. If the market share is less than
30 percent in trades connecting to the EU, changes to the alliances would receive European regulators’ automatic OK but could be shut down if anti-competitive behavior is detected subsequently.

Timing will be key, with carriers hoping the new marriage or marriages can be leveraged before negotiations of 2016-17 trans-Pacific contracts at the end of April, Chas Deller, a partner in 10XOceanSolutions, which advises shippers in their carrier relationships, told The Journal of Commerce.

A merged CMA CGM and APL, for example, would give the combined entity a 6.75 percent share on the trade lane, while a combined China Shipping and Cosco would control 6.07 percent of the trade, according to an analysis by PIERS, a sister product of The Journal of Commerce within IHS.

Deller said a typical NOL-APL beneficial cargo owner was a high-end fashion and time-sensitive customer, and if acquired by CMA CGM would help improve the image of the French line. But the changes among alliances would be significant, especially if Cosco-China Shipping joined the Ocean Three Alliance. It also makes sense, Deller said, for Hamburg Sud to join the G6 Alliance.

If consolidation occurs, “we have reached the next level of uncertainty in global ocean shipping,” he said.

If the changes were made, the new alliance structure would be: 2M (Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Co.); G6 (OOCL, Hapag-Lloyd, NYK Line, Hyundai, MOL, Hamburg Sud); KYHE (“K” Line, Yang Ming, Evergreen, Hanjin); and O3 (CMA CGM-APL, Cosco-China Shipping and United Arab Shipping Co., with five carriers becoming three).

When it comes to an NOL acquisition, Shaerf isn’t the only skeptic. NOL’s owner, the Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, has plenty of money and would only sell the carrier if the price were right, industry analyst Drewry contends. “Price will be the sticking point,” Drewry said. Although no price has been provided officially, Drewry said NOL has an enterprise value of nearly $4.3 million with debt of around $2.9 billion, down from $5.3 billion at the end of last year after the sale of APL Logistics.

The weak container shipping market under which NOL might be acquired is vastly different than what prevailed in 2005, during the last round of consolidation, when the two big liner companies acquired were profitable. At that time, Maersk Sealand bought P&O Nedlloyd (and dropped Sealand from its name) and Hapag-Lloyd acquired CP Ships.

A successful offer for the money-losing Singapore carrier would come with an increase in debt, which will only rise over time because of the losses NOL is expected to suffer in coming quarters.

Once one of the strongest carriers on the trans-Pacific trade, APL, NOL’s container division, has seen its market share shrink in recent years, to the point where Drewry called it an “also-ran.” Still, its acquisition would propel the buyer into a market-leading position, if it could retain all of the company’s business. “CMA CGM is smaller than Maersk in the trans-Pacific and would benefit from APL’s access to APL’s large base of high-end textile and other time-sensitive product customers, as well as its profitable U.S. government contracts linked to the use of U.S.-flag vessel, both of which Maersk already has,” Drewry said.

What also may make an NOL acquisition attractive to CMA CGM are its nine terminals, including six in Asia, two in the U.S. and its 20 percent stake in the new Maas-vlakte 2 Terminal in Rotterdam. “Both CMA CGM and Maersk are expanding their terminal portfolios, and while neither has a particular need for them, both would like to have them, presumably because they are profitable assets,” Drewry said.

Among current M&A talks, the deal that probably makes the most sense is the merger of Cosco and China Shipping Container Lines, which are majority state-owned, with some of their numerous divisions traded publicly. Shaerf called the consolidation of these two lines a rationalization between two government-owned companies rather than a true merger, which may happen on a limited basis.

“They are not making money, so rationalization is a natural consequence, but it’s a long way from getting done,” he said.

The consolidation, which has been discussed for years and appears to be a foregone conclusion despite the lack of confirmation from the Chinese government, still faces a number of hurdles. The merger, which involves nine listed companies that are traded on three stock exchanges in China, is so complicated that it may only result in the merger of some divisions, according to a new report by Jefferies, the global investment bank.

“We think the format could either be a consolidation under one shared platform or a series of asset swaps to create multiple listed entities, each with a focused business line,” said Johnson Leung, managing director of Jefferies Hong Kong, who wrote the report. “There is a fair chance this reorganization plan may not even pass the minority shareholders’ referendum.”

The combined container divisions of the two entities would have an 8 percent share of the global container market with 1.5 million 20-foot-equivalent units and rank as the fourth-largest container line behind Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM. It would become the largest carrier of Asia exports to the U.S., according to an analysis of data from PIERS.

Still, Leung said in the report, “We do not expect the merger of the two to have much impact in the international markets, which are probably 75 percent of their business.”

Perhaps the biggest benefits would come from the consolidation of the two companies’ coastal Chinese container operations, where the combined entity might monopolize that market, Leung said.

The third potential merger between South Korea’s two largest container lines, Hanjin Shipping and Hyundai Merchant Marine, already has come to a halt, according to media reports. Both carriers have been losing money — Hyundai on Nov. 18 posted a third-quarter loss of 24 billion won ($20.5 million) — and trying to raise cash by selling off various assets. The government had asked Hyundai to consider a merger with its larger rival, after a deal to sell of its minority stake in Hyundai Securities fell through. But Hyundai called off talks with Hanjin this month when it was able to stave off a liquidity crisis by selling a $217 convertible bond issue.

Kim Young-suk, South Korea’s new minister of oceans and fisheries, said in a Nov. 18 press conference that both carriers need ultra-large container ships if they are to be competitive. He said he’d hold discussions with related agencies to enable banks to provide financing that would allow the financially strapped carriers to acquire the mega-ships. “I have never believed the two companies should merge,” Kim said.

“With just one shipping line, we could become less competitive with export rivals in the region, such as Japan,” a senior Korean industry executive added. “Our shippers are concerned about the potential reduction in competition and the effect this could have on rates.”

Still, if the losses continue to mount, the merger speculation will, too.

Peter T. Leach at

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