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Prepare for the “new normal”

No one will be surprised by the fact that 2009 was a devastating year for the container handling sector, with volume declines at the majority of ports around the world. After all, the writing was on the wall for some time. The financial markets were rocked by the worst collapse in living memory in 2007. Despite this, the trickle-down effect to the real economy took some time to appear. Throughput figures in 2007 remained buoyant and

even held up well in the first half of 2008. But the second half of that year, especially the final quarter, saw sharp volume declines at ports in many key consuming regions. And that is the picture that dominated 2009. For many ports and terminals, simply avoiding a

double-digit volume decline was an achievement. Those that maintained their throughput levels or actually grew their volumes had genuine cause for celebration. TheTop 100 Container Ports collectively handled just

short of 389m teu in 2009 representing a decline of over 37m teu, or 8.7%, on the 2008 total. The overall number of containers handled globally in 2009 is estimated at 446m teu, down by around 11% on the more than 500m teu recorded the previous year, and also much lower than the 480m teu handled in 2007. Last year was characterised by liner shipping

companies attempting to manage vessel overcapacity. Most carriers found themselves saddled with large order books for 10,000teu-plus sized vessels and this situation largely remains. Around 10% of the world fleet was laid up in 2009, with much of those ships under 3,000teu capacity. There was also a move to increase the scrapping of older vessels, with 1,800teu vessels the average size scrapped. Slow steaming was another strategy employed, with a typical Far East-Europe string of 8/9 ships increasing to 10/11 ships, and this may well continue for the foreseeable future. Ports, terminal operators and investors, meanwhile, were

forced to take drastic action to shelve port capacity expansions and to manage the costs of existing operations. But there has been a distinct lack of transparency about the extent and timescale of postponed expansions. Because the economic downturn and the resulting

impact on trade was a global phenomenon, many ports’ world rankings barely changed in 2009. For instance, there was no change in the ranking of the world’s top five ports even though they collectively handled 15.2m teu fewer containers than the previous year. There were, of course, some notable exceptions, with

those ports reliant on transhipment cargo often the worst affected. Constantza, for example, was ranked number 81 in 2008 with a throughput of 1.38m teu but plummeted out

August 2010

of the Top 100 after handling just 594,299teu in 2009 as the Black Sea regional transhipment market collapsed. Another transhipment casualty was Las Palmas which

fell 19 places to number 97 in the league table after its throughput fell by 29.6% from 1,428,944teu in 2008 to 1,005,844teu last year. A loss of transhipment traffic to the Baltic was a key

reason for losses at Germany’s leading ports. Bremerhaven saw volumes decline by 964,867teu, or 17.5%, and dropped four places in the rankings to 23. Hamburg was worse affected, handling 2.73m teu fewer boxes in 2009, representing a contraction of 28%, and that resulted in a drop of four places in the rankings to number 11. Much of the reason for the decline in German ports

was due to a collapse in consumer demand from Russia. Consequently, St Petersburg went from position 61 in 2008 to 74 in 2009, after its throughput declined by 641,260teu, or 32.3%, year-on-year. Rotterdam and Antwerp saw contractions of 9.6% and

15.6% respectively, with each losing over one million teu. However, the slide was mitigated by some ocean carriers switching their relay business from the German ports due to cheaper rates and, in some cases, because the lines operate their own terminals in the leading Dutch and Belgian ports. But it was another Belgian port, Zeebrugge, which was

the star performer in Northern Europe, being the only port there to grow its throughput. It handled 118,485teu more containers in 2009, a rise of 5.4%, and climbed eight places to number 47 in the rankings. In Southern Europe, Marseilles failed to recover from

earlier loses sufficiently to regain a position in the Top 100, though it is predicting it will break the one million teu barrier again this year. Piraeus, too, made only modest gains after its throughput nosedived in 2008 as dockworkers protested against port privatisation. Spain’s ports had mixed fortunes but overall saw a 25%

decrease in throughput. Valencia was the only Spanish port to register positive growth, increasing volumes by 51,778teu, or 1.4%, buoyed by transhipment traffic, with MSC routing additional cargo through Europe’s fifth largest box port. This was partially at the expense of Barcelona, where throughput fell by 769,336teu, or 29.9%, prompting a fall of 15 places to number 60 in the world rankings. Algeciras, meanwhile, fell only one place in the rankings after a decline of 281,551teu, or 8.5% year-on-year. Algeciras’ up-and-coming nearby neighbour and rival,

Tanger Med, registered growth of 301,000teu, or 32.7%, breaking through the 1m teu barrier and catapulting it into the Top 100 for the first time at number 84. 3

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