“Time is the longest distance between two places,” concludes the Tennessee Williams’ character at the end of the play The Glass Menagerie. For a large number of creditors, vendors, tonnage providers, and predominantly shippers – with $14bn worth of merchandise packed in containers onboard Hanjin ships, this philological expression was a very hard lesson to put to practice when the company filed for receivership at the end of August. At present, and with everything going well, the best estimate is that Hanjin’s vessels will be unloaded by the end of October. A very long time indeed for shipping containers ‘lost’ between ports in today’s age.
The developments with Hanjin are still a work-in-progress that may take several months, if not years, to settle permanently. For now, it’s a logistical nightmare bordering a legal saga that, in turn, stands on the periphery of the self-feeding financial crisis. Each one of these three parallel worlds will have to run their own course and trajectory, but again, not too far apart from each other. Definitely many lessons beg to be learned once all is said and done, and the containers get delivered and the bills get paid, eventually. The fact that Hanjin Shipping has been the largest containership liner company bankruptcy ever (the second biggest was that of the United States Lines in 1986, when the boxship world was still in its infancy) will provide plenty of lessons on where the ‘stress points’ are in the system and the supply chain, and would provide some insight on whether the containership liner industry is a ‘systemic’ industry to the world’s trade. There have been numerous financial restructurings and bankruptcies in shipping since the crisis ensued in 2008, but almost all of them were in the dry bulk and tanker sectors, where the logistical head-scratchers were much easier to address: usually there is one charterer or cargo owner per vessel per voyage in the dry bulk and tanker markets and not the plethora of cargoes and shippers and vendors with their boxes onboard a containership.
While it will take time to know the fine detail of the numerous parts interacting together in the liner business, a perfunctory view of the case, based on info available so far, indicates that all the factors one would expect to see in the cause of a default in the shipping industry were present in the Hanjin case.
The company, going after marketshare and trying to keep up with the main players in the market, had effectively became a house of cards in terms of over-leverage, financially and operationally. Almost one hundred vessels (out of the 140 vessels under management) were chartered in, effectively with off-balance sheet, non-recourse financing. When the banks and lenders stop lending when one’s balance sheet gets stretched, an ambitious shipowner can just turn to the charter market and can pile up abundantly on tonnage based on their ‘signature’ and their (unsecured) promise to pay. No more than that is needed. Just a ‘sterling’ name and a ‘first class client’, as the saying goes, can be of enough assurance for charter payments and place a tall house a cards in short order. This was once a big deal even back then in 2008, for those who recall.
And, there were plenty of companies and shipowners who had been just happy to offer their tonnage on long term charters to Hanjin, just to show to their own shareholders and lenders that they had cash flow visibility and they were not speculators. Nice long charters with juicy cash-flows that paid until they stopped, that is. It may be worth asking whether such business practice was the result of poor risk management or just a case when no-one really questions whether the emperor may be naked. “If so many other tonnage providers had found Hanjin to be a quality charterer, who am I to stop chartering to them vessels,” one almost may be able to hear in a boardroom discussion.
And, Hanjin was not just any charterer. They had real substance since they were a liner company and had access to the end user. If things turned bad for the market, as they did indeed, Hanjin would have cargoes to move and keep the ships busy and therefore keep making the lease and charter-hire payments. They had access to their own terminals (at least partially), and they had preferential access to South Korea’s promising and export-oriented economy, and thus, they were supposed to have a backstop if things were to get ugly. As we learn now, a bad market is a bad market and it burns cash for stand-alone owners but also burns cash for strategic owners, like Hanjin, too. Notions of an end-user charterer are great, but again, a bad market can pinch sharply enough to make the pain felt on the bone of an end-user.
And, Hanjin was part of a substantial industrial conglomerate with strategic access to the ‘system’, that is the government and the state banks; it had to, as being a chaebol company, they had the implicit ‘put option’ of the government itself. And beautifully this was played until when the cash burn topped $2m per diem, and all the constituents had to look for alternative solutions. You can support a company-in-need for so long, but again, all love in this world has to have some limits. And with Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), the local competitor, reaching the restructuring altar in the summer first, there were one too many brides afterwards. There are still many more containership and liner companies that could be considered to have a quasi-government guarantee worldwide. Caveat emptor.
As much as we would like to believe that the Hanjin case will be an example to be held, one has to be doubtful. Time and again, defaults happen in shipping with almost metronomic frequency, and all the times, the same old factors drive those shipping companies to the ground, or the bottom of the sea for that matter: aggressiveness, over-leverage, poor risk management, over-reliance on fundamental assumptions that turn out to be fundamentally wrong, and wishful thinking.
But again, if it were not for all these surprises, shipping would be just any other boring industry. One-dimensional with ships floating beautifully over the ocean. Apparently, there is the dimension of time, at least until one gets their container delivered.