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Strapped container carriers rely on lessors for boxes

2012/8/22      view:

Weak finances are forcing ocean carriers to rely more heavily on lessors to provide them with containers.

Lessors’ share of the global container fleet rose to an eight-year high of 46.2 percent last year, according to the Container Leasing report published recently by Drewry Maritime Research. The lessors’ share was 41 percent in 2009.

“The leasing sector’s fleet growth has outpaced that of owner-operators for each of the four years since the worldwide recession of 2009,” said Andrew Foxcroft, editor of Drewry’s Container Leasing report.

The growth in leasing companies’ market share contrasts with 2004-2008, when carriers’ container fleet growth outpaced lessors. Container lines traditionally have ordered about 60 percent of new boxes. Lessors ordered 53.6 percent of new boxes last year, Drewry said.

“The changed financial climate has left the container shipping industry heavily in debt and unable to easily access capital for investment,” Foxcroft said. “Carriers have been forced to turn to the leasing sector to renew their container equipment fleets.”

Brian Sondey, CEO of lessor TAL International, told analysts July 24 that his company estimates leasing companies accounted for the majority of new container purchases in the first half of 2014, and that lessors’ share is expected “to be even a little higher in the second half of the year.”

In addition to leasing a larger percentage of their containers, cash-strapped carriers also are showing increased interest in sale-leaseback deals for portions of their existing container fleets.

Sondey said TAL International said the growth in sale-leaseback activity is driven “by generally weak profitability for the shipping lines due to persistent excess vessel capacity and weak freight rates.”

Carriers’ increased reliance on container lessors is a trend that has gained speed since the recession. Many carriers view containers as a necessary expense, not a strategic asset, and are finding it makes more sense to lease boxes than to own them.

Since posting record losses exceeding $15 billion in 2009, major container ship lines have had only one profitable year — in 2010. With vessel capacity has outpaced cargo demand, carriers’ rates remain stagnant.

Meanwhile, ship lines’ finances have been strained by acquisition of new ships designed to provide economies of scale, fuel efficiency and capacity to handle forecast growth in cargo volume.

Carriers have responded by intensified cost-cutting and by raising cash through asset sales such as Korean carrier Hanjin’s recent spinoff of its bulk shipping unit.

Drewry forecasts that lessors’ share of the global container fleet will continue to outpace that of carriers, but that the gap is expected to narrow as carriers’ finances improve and they have enough cash to buy instead of lease.

Although lessors have benefited from increases in leasing and sale-leaseback activity, container lease rates fell to a new low in 2013, the Drewry report said.

“Returns are now lower than they were in 2009,” Foxcroft said. “The recent rate erosion has been due to the expansionist antics of top leasing firms, most of which are still chasing market share growth in order to maintain investor interest and draw in further capital funding for investment.”