Industrials

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

While the global container industry has embarked on a spree of pairings and menages-a-trois over the past 12 months, many of Asia's shipping lines have remained proudly single.

Conscious of their status as national champions and contemptuous of rivals' business prowess, Taiwan's Evergreen Marine Corp., Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. and Wan Hai Lines Ltd. have kept aloof from the fray. Even the biggest player, AP Moeller-Maersk A/S, joined the melee last week, with the announcement that it's acquiring Hamburg Sud.

With Friday's unprecedented phone conversation between the Taiwanese and U.S. presidents and Beijing's testy response, the mood music is suddenly changing, and Taiwan's shipping lines aren't looking quite so young and fresh as they were when the dance began. To spare regrets, Evergreen would do well to take some advice from Beyonce -- the part about how if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it. It's time to settle.

Ghost Ships
Six of the world's top 15 shipping lines will vanish once current mergers and bankruptcies are complete
Source: Alphaliner, Gadfly calculations
Note: Assumes that UASC/Hapag-Lloyd and Maersk/Hamburg Sud mergers complete and that Hanjin's fleet is disposed of; treats J3 merger of Mitsui OSK, Nippon Yusen and Kawasaki Kisen container lines as a single line under NYK. Capacity figures are based on current numbers and don't take order books into account. TEU = twenty-foot equivalent units.

Just 12 months ago, Evergreen had Asia's largest container fleet, and was the fifth-biggest operator worldwide. It's now been relegated to third place in the region after tie-ups between the major Chinese and Japanese lines, and is depending on a $1.9 billion government relief package to keep itself above water.

The problem is, none of the potential love matches out there looks ideal.

Yang Ming has some overlapping trans-ocean routes that could be eliminated to increase market muscle, but its finances make even Evergreen's overstretched balance sheet look attractive. Like South Korea's bankrupt Hanjin Shipping Co., it's been hobbled by a tendency to carry freight at cost for local exporters, providing a great service to Taiwan Inc. but doing few favors to shareholders.

Aggregate operating losses over the past five years amounted to NT$38.4 billion ($1.2 billion), almost twice Evergreen's NT$20.8 billion, while net debt of NT$80 billion outstrips Evergreen's NT$72.9 billion despite an operating and on-order fleet that's about half the size.

Money Pit
Even by the standards of the global shipping industry, Yang Ming's operating losses have been immense
Source: Bloomberg

Wan Hai has a better model -- taking business at commercial rates, limiting itself to less-competitive intra-Asian routes and posting just three quarters of operating losses over the past five years. But it's hard to see what such a well-run company would want with a bloated giant like Evergreen, and its fleet isn't big enough to move the needle in an industry where scale is everything.

Long-distance romances can be difficult, but the best option may lie across the Taiwan Strait, in Hong Kong.

Adding Orient Overseas International Ltd.'s 97 ships to Evergreen's 189 would give a combined capacity of 1.57 million twenty-foot equivalent units, just a sliver behind merged mainland giant China Cosco Holdings Co.'s 1.58 million TEUs and ahead of the merged Japanese lines and the proposed tie-up between Hapag-Lloyd AG and United Arab Shipping Co.

Evergreen and Orient Overseas are already members of the Ocean Alliance grouping with Cosco and CMA CGM, so they shouldn't find it hard to work together.

Time, though, is of the essence. Of the 15 largest lines last December, only nine will be left as fully independent players once current mergers and bankruptcies play out.

A year ago, the world's top six container fleets had a capacity of about 10.2 million TEUs, giving the big players about 54 percent of the market among the top 100 lines. The deals now in train would send that capacity to 13.2 million TEUs, or 70 percent of the market -- and ship orders and further bankruptcies of smaller lines may skew the picture further. Those who don't pair off soon may find themselves too small to compete.

Others may not stand still, either. Maersk has ample liquidity for deals to extend its lead, and Cosco may see benefits in deploying China Inc.'s checkbook to consolidate more of the industry.

Orient Overseas, controlled since its founding by the family of a pro-Beijing former Hong Kong leader, Tung Chee-hwa, may not be averse to falling into the arms of a bigger mainlander should Cosco come knocking. If Evergreen wants to prevent that sort of marriage it needs to act now, or forever hold its peace.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Paul Sillitoe at psillitoe@bloomberg.net