Japan’s Largest Shipping Companies Merge

Japan’s three biggest shipping companies have agreed to merge their operations in an effort to combat the global decline in the container industry and rock-bottom freight rates that caused severe profit losses. Nippon Yusen KK, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. announced Monday that they will consolidate into the world’s sixth-largest box carrier, controlling 7% of the global container capacity. The combined entity expects to start operations by April 2018 with 256 vessels and about 2 trillion yen ($19 billion) in sales, making it Asia’s biggest box carrier after the recently-formed China Cosco Shipping Corp.

Since the start of 2015 on the benchmark Asia-to-Europe trade route, freight rates have averaged less than $700 a container a month with the break-even point at $1,400, according to the Shanghai Shipping Exchange. With so much supply in the water, about 30% above demand, freight rates have dropped to barely covering the cost of fuel.

“With joint shipping and alliances, the scale of our operations and business styles, we have many things in common,” the shipping lines said in a joint statement. “We thought it would be easier to utilize each other’s strengths this way.”

It’s just the latest consolidation in the shipping business as operators are forced to either forge alliances or face bankruptcy in the wake of historically low freight rates. Over the past two years, China’s Cosco Group and China Shipping Group merged their operations, Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd AG merged with Dubai-based United Arab Shipping Co., and France’s CMA CGM, the world’s third-biggest container operator, bought Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines Ltd. In August, South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co. filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving billions of dollars’ worth of cargo stranded at sea.

“In 2016, most probably, none of the 20 top companies will be profitable,” CMA CGM Vice Chairman Rodolphe Saadé told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “Consolidation will continue because small shipping lines will not be able to survive. The small to medium operators will be looking for a big brother to acquire them.”

Shipping executives estimate the top 20 operators will post combined losses of as much as $10 billion this year, WSJ reported. All three Japanese companies predicted operating losses for the fiscal year: 44 billion yen for Kawasaki Kisen, 25.5 billion yen for Nippon Yusen, and 15 billion yen for Mitsui. Danish shipping-and-oil company A.P. Moeller-Maersk Group, the world's largest shipping company by capacity, said Wednesday that third quarter net profit plunged 43% to $438 million from $778 million a year prior.

Global trade is forecast to grow by just 1.7% this year, marking the slowest pace since the 2008 financial crisis, says the World Trade Organization.