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The Shipping Industry Is Suffering From China’s Trade Slowdown

So many boats, so little cargo as Chinese exports and imports drop.
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Ship: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images; Container: Shutterstock; Illustration: 731

When business slows and owners of ships and offshore oil rigs need a place to store their unneeded vessels, Saravanan Krishna suddenly becomes one of the industry’s most popular executives. Krishna is the operation director of International Shipcare, a Malaysian company that mothballs ships and rigs, and these days he’s busy taking calls from beleaguered operators with excess capacity. There are 102 vessels laid up at the company’s berths off the Malaysian island of Labuan, more than double the number a year ago. More are on the way. “There’s a huge demand,” he says. “People are calling us not to lay up one ship but 15 or 20.”

Shipbuilders, container lines, and port operators feasted on China’s rise and the global resources boom. Now they’re among the biggest victims of the country’s slowdown and the worldwide decline in demand for oil rigs and other gear amid the oil price plunge. China’s exports fell 1.8 percent in 2015, while its imports tumbled 13.2 percent. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the cost of shipping coal, iron ore, grain, and other non-oil commodities, has fallen 76 percent since August and is now at a record low. Shipping rates for Asia-originated routes have dropped, too, and traffic at some of the region’s major ports is falling. In Singapore, the world’s second-largest port, container traffic fell 8.7 percent in 2015, the first decline in six years. Volumes at the port of Hong Kong, the fourth-busiest, slid 9.5 percent last year. Beyond Asia, the giant port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands recorded a dip in containerized traffic for the year.