Terminals buffeted by volatility
Container terminal operators are having to grapple with increased market volatility after being buffeted by several other forces that amount to a “perfect storm,” says Drewry.
About 18 months ago, the London-based consultants identified four related trends impacting terminals: softening demand, higher operating and capital costs due to bigger ships, increased business risk from the reduction in the number of liner alliances and carriers demanding lower prices.
Speaking during a webinar this week, Neil Davidson, Drewry’s senior analyst of ports and terminals, said the industry has been able to maintain earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for several reasons, including a recovery in global demand, from stagnation in 2016 to growth of more than 6 percent in 2017. That growth is continuing, but he said possible trade wars and sanctions are “creating clouds on the horizon.”
He said terminals have implemented cost-savings initiatives to mitigate operating costs and been able to resist carrier pressure for lower prices because large ships have less choice in which terminals they can call. As ships have grown in size, berths at some terminals can no longer accommodate them and in some cases are becoming obsolete.
Davidson said “hybrid” terminal operators — that is operators owned by carriers — are becoming more prominent. But he noted individual carriers are not in complete control of what ports and terminals they use because they are members of alliances.
There also is an increase in the number of joint-venture agreements between shipping lines and terminal operators that are not affiliated with shipping lines.
That potentially could lead to conflict. He noted carriers want to pay as little as possible for terminal services while a stevedoring company may seek to generate as much revenue as possible.
Terminal operators also are focusing less on building new terminals and more on filling up existing facilities, mergers and acquisitions, and forming alliances within ports.
They also are diversifying into areas such as intermodal transportation, inland terminals and free trade zones, though Davidson says this is more common in Europe and the Middle East than in North America.