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Old September 15th, 2009, 09:51 PM
BlackBat242 BlackBat242 is offline
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Business for bulk carriers has picked up slightly in recent months, largely because of China's rediscovered appetite for raw materials such as iron ore, says Huxley. But this is a small part of international trade, and the prospects for the container ships remain bleak.

Some experts believe the ratio of container ships sitting idle could rise to 25 per cent within two years in an extraordinary downturn that shipping giant Maersk has called a 'crisis of historic dimensions'. Last month the company reported its first half-year loss in its 105-year history.

Martin Stopford, managing director of Clarksons, London's biggest ship broker, says container shipping has been hit particularly hard: 'In 2006 and 2007 trade was growing at 11 per cent. In 2008 it slowed down by 4.7 per cent. This year we think it might go down by as much as eight per cent. If it costs 7,000 a day to put the ship to sea and if you only get 6,000 a day, than you have got a decision to make.

'Yet at the same time, the supply of container ships is growing. This year, supply could be up by around 12 per cent and demand is down by eight per cent. Twenty per cent spare is a lot of spare of anything - and it's come out of nowhere.'

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.

Stopford explains: 'Globalisation and shipping go hand in hand. Worldwide, we ship about 8.2 billion tons of cargo a year. That's more than one ton per person and probably two to three tons for richer people like us in the West. If the total goes down by five per cent or so, that's a lot of cargo that isn't moving.'

The knock-on effect of so many ships sitting idle rather than moving consumer goods between Asia and Europe could become apparent in Britain in the months ahead.

'We will find out at Christmas whether there are enough PlayStations in the shops or not. There will certainly be fewer goods coming in to Britain during the run-up to Christmas.'

Three thousand miles north-east of the ghost fleet of Johor, the shipbuilding capital of the world rocks to an unpunctuated chorus of hammer-guns blasting rivets the size of dustbin lids into shining steel panels that are then lowered onto the decks of massive new vessels.

As the shipping industry teeters on the brink of collapse, the activity at boatyards like Mokpo and Ulsan in South Korea all looks like a sick joke. But the workers in these bustling shipyards, who teem around giant tankers and mega-vessels the length of several football pitches and capable of carrying 10,000 or more containers each, have no choice; they are trapped in a cruel time warp.
There have hardly been any new orders. In 2011 the shipyards will simply run out of ships to build

A decade ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (who died last month) issued a decree to his industrial captains: he wished to make his nation the market leader in shipbuilding. He knew the market intimately. Before entering politics, he studied economics and worked for a Japanese-owned freight-shipping business. Within a few years he was heading his own business, starting out with a fleet of nine ships.

Thus, by 2004, Kim Dae-jung's presidential vision was made real. His country's low-cost yards were winning 40 per cent of world orders, with Japan second with 24 per cent and China way behind on 14 per cent.

But shipbuilding is a horrendously hard market to plan. There is a three-year lag between the placing of an order and the delivery of a ship. With contracts signed, down-payments made and work under way, stopping work on a new ship is the economic equivalent of trying to change direction in an ocean liner travelling at full speed towards an iceberg.

Thus the labours of today's Korean shipbuilders merely represent the completion of contracts ordered in the fat years of 2006 and 2007. Those ships will now sail out into a global economy that no longer wants them.

Maersk announced last week that it was renegotiating terms and prices with Asian shipyards for 39 ordered tankers and gas carriers. One of the company's executives, Kristian Morch, said the shipping industry was in uncharted waters.

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.'

The current downturn is the worst in living memory and more severe even than the slump of the early Eighties, Palsson believes.

'Back then the majority of the crash was for tankers carrying crude oil. Today we have almost every aspect of shipping affected - bulk carriers, tankers, container carriers... the lot.

'It is a much wider-spread situation that we have today. China was not a major player in the world economy at that time. Neither was India. We had the Soviet Union. We had shipbuilding in the United Kingdom and Europe.

'But then, back in those days the world was a very different place.'

Hopefully these ships won't become pirate targets though.

So what happens if there is a sub-sector-wide (or multi-sub-sector) recession/depression?

Does the Traveller merchant universe go through the same thing... and can your PCs take advantage of it... or are they victims as well?

What if they decide to snag a "mothballed" ship and "Go on the Account" or "take up the Filibustering life"?
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