Too Many Ships in the World Merchant Fleet

For ship spotters and maritime historians, it was an event of great significance. Back in 2005 the world fleet of cargo-carrying ships reached the symbolic 50,000 number. Today there are many more, and their capacity has risen enormously. For shipowners and market analysts, this enlargement is also significant, but has worrying overtones: expansion in many categories has greatly exceeded the growth of seaborne trade and demand for these vessels. The result has been varying degrees of depressed shipping markets over much of the past few years.

The world merchant ship fleet is very large, probably larger than most people would guess. But just how many vessels are there? What is their cargo carrying capacity? How did this fleet develop in recent years and why? And what is the outlook for the future? The answers to these questions are of interest not only to those participating in, or merely observing, this remarkable industry; they are scrutinised intensely within academic maritime studies at GMI.

Fleet statistics weave a fascinating pattern. By mid-2011 the world’s entire fleet of all types of commercial ships over one hundred tons had increased its gross tonnage to 1 billion. At the end of last year the total reached 1.09 billion GT, numbering 86,300 ships. This gigantic armada includes not only the vast fleets of bulk carriers, tankers and container ships, but also a wide range of other types. General cargo vessels, multi-purpose ships, car carriers, roll on-roll off vessels, gas carriers, reefer tonnage, cruise ships, offshore service vessels and others (such as tugs and dredgers) are represented. Many perform services which do not involve carrying cargo, of course.

According to figures compiled by shipping information providers Clarksons, another (nautical) milestone was attained recently. The world’s fleet of vessels actually carrying cargo – which had numbered 50,000 over seven years ago – reached 1 billion GT in September last year, and since then has grown to 1.01 billion, comprising 57,400 ships, today. It is especially significant that this achievement resulted from cumulative growth of an astounding 43 percent over the past five years, averaging 7.5 percent annually.

Looking at the fleet statistics in more detail reveals some impressive performances over the past few years. Expansion rates in the largest sectors have been rapid. Measured by deadweight volume, the tonnage measurement normally used in the bulk markets, the world fleet of bulk carriers has grown by 73 percent in the past five years. At the end of 2012 there were 9,500 bulk carriers totalling 679 million dwt. The tanker fleet’s growth was 29 percent during the same period, to a total of 515 million dwt (13,500 ships, including 7,700 small tankers below 10,000 dwt). In the container ship sector, where the standard measurement is TEUs (twenty-foot-equivalent units), the world fleet reached 5,100 ships totalling 16.2 million TEU at the end of 2012, after growing by 50 percent over a five-year period.

Why is all this a problem? Unfortunately (for shipowners and their bankers), expansion of transportation capacity in the main fleet sectors has outpaced the growth of global seaborne trade and demand for shipping services. The market’s two sides are often out of balance, to some extent, but in the present cycle the imbalance (oversupply) is particularly large and persistent and is having a brutal impact on freight earnings and profitability.

Contrary to many perceptions, international cargo movements have been growing quite vigorously in recent years. There has been a good recovery from the damaging setback experienced in late 2008 and 2009, when the global financial crisis caused the ‘Great Recession’, which severely but temporarily reduced world economic activity and trade volumes. The upwards trend in seaborne trade resumed and continues, with most forecasts suggesting further strengthening through 2013. A positive trade scene is therefore evolving; some other factors which affect shipping demand have been beneficial as well. On the other side of the balance sheet, enormous amounts of new shipping capacity coming in to the marketplace (partly offset by higher scrapping) has greatly swelled the fleet, as discussed. Much of this new tonnage, or ‘newbuildings’, was ordered at shipbuilding yards in better times when the shipping markets were booming. The result – more rapid fleet expansion than needed – is still unfolding and signs suggest it will continue.

Where do we go from here? Forecasters in this notoriously hard-to-predict industry are frequently wrong-footed by unanticipated events. If the world economy soon takes off again and stays there, boosting trade, surplus shipping capacity could be quickly eliminated, but few expect that to happen. Although China’s economic growth appears to be reviving, the USA is picking up, and Japan could start regaining momentum, Europe’s economy is still in the doldrums and probably will remain there for a while. Political events could disrupt trading patterns and potentially add to demand for ships, but these circumstances are essentially unpredictable. There are other factors, of course, but no indications at present of a quick solution to the fleet over-capacity problem. The scale of the problem, although diminishing, is still so large that adjustment towards a better balance may yet take some time to complete.

Richard Scott
GMI visiting lecturer and MD, Bulk Shipping Analysis

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