• Move to 'slow steaming' began during global financial crisis
  • Falling speed of vessels tracks slowdown in China's economy

If you want to know how China’s economy is doing, take a slow boat from one of its ports.

Even with fuel at its cheapest price in almost a decade, the ships that carry goods around the world have been reducing speed in line with the slowdown in China, the biggest exporter.

Shipping companies have been “slow steaming” since the global financial crisis in 2008, as a way to save costs and keep as many ships active as possible. Vessels are now operating at an average of 9.69 knots, compared with 13.06 knots seven years ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Average container-ship speed vs. China's GDP growth
Average container-ship speed vs. China's GDP growth

That means Nike sneakers and Barbie dolls made in China can now take two weeks to arrive in Los Angeles and a month to reach Le Havre, France -- a week longer than if the ships were moving at full speed. And there’s scope for ships to go even slower, according to A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.

“This is the new norm,” said Rahul Kapoor, a Singapore-based director at Drewry Maritime Services Pvt. “The overall speed of the industry has gone down and there’s no going back.”

In the boom years before the 2008 financial crisis, shipping lines expanded fleets and ran ships as fast as they could to keep up with the surging demand for goods manufactured half a world away. As demand dropped, the lines were left with too many vessels, and customers eager to reduce inventory, who would rather pay a lower rate to receive goods than guarantee quick delivery.

Overtaking Tankers

“In 2003, if you were on a tanker, container ships would zoom past and in a matter of a few minutes you couldn’t see them on the horizon,” Kapoor said. “Since 2008, it’s been a different story.”

Fuel costs are the biggest expense for shipping lines and the drop in oil has given them some relief from plunging freight rates driven lower by overcapacity and sluggish global growth. Reducing a ship’s speed by 10 percent can cut fuel consumption by as much as 30 percent, according to ship assessor Det Norske Veritas.

With the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ decision this month to abandon production limits, Brent crude oil has fallen about 35 percent this year to around $37 a barrel, close to the lows reached during the financial crisis. Venezuelan Oil Minister Eulogio Del Pino said last month that prices could drop $20 more in 2016.

Even so, shipping companies such as Neptune Orient Lines Ltd. and China Shipping Container Lines Co. are still losing money.

Slower Still

“There is still scope for further expansion of slow steaming, even in times of low oil prices,” said Mikkel Elbek Linnet, spokesman for A.P. Moeller-Maersk’s container unit, Maersk Line, which pioneered slow steaming in 2008. “Our customers do not want to pay a higher price for faster transport times.”

Companies from Hapag-Lloyd AG in Germany to Hanjin Shipping Co. in South Korea say they also have no plans to increase the speed of their vessels.

Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Triple-E Class container ship
Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Triple-E Class container ship
Photographer: Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg

The go-slow means shipping lines are switching to new designs that favor size over speed. Maersk Line’s so-called Triple-E ships, which can each carry 18,000 20-foot boxes, were made with new hulls and engines to go slower, ditching a widely-used design that had enabled ships to sail as fast as 29 knots. Other shipping lines are seeking similar giants.

“Everyone saw the benefits Maersk Line was getting with the newly designed ships and slow steaming,” according to Park Moo Hyun, an analyst at Hana Daetoo Securities Co. in Seoul.

Shipping companies have lost money or seen profits decline in the third quarter, typically their busiest period as retailers in the U.S. and Europe increase inventory ahead of the year-end holidays. Levies for a 40-foot container to Los Angeles from Hong Kong dropped to $818 for the week ended Dec. 15, the lowest price since Drewry Shipping Consultants began compiling the figures in April 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Idle Ships

That’s prompting companies to idle some vessels. Shipping companies last month reduced capacity by the most in five years, with the biggest cuts coming on the Asia-Europe route, according to data provider Alphaliner.

Overcapacity could get even worse as lines launch new, bigger and more efficient ships. Vessels with a total capacity of about 2.9 million 20-foot containers are expected to be delivered this year and next, according to Drewry.

“The volume of trade is coming down,” said Shin Ji Yoon, head of research at KTB Investment & Securities Co. in Seoul. “Slowing global demand has created oversupply of ships and slow-steaming has been used to ease some of that problem.”