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New market landscape to question commodity shipping

In a recent article on this site, a debate was initiated on whether shipping is a ‘commoditised’ business. We define a ‘commodity business’ as any business or industry whereby there is little pricing power and the product can be procured from many different suppliers with little effort or additional cost (interchangeable product.)

Certain sectors of shipping, such as the cruiseship business, have positioned themselves as far from ‘shipping’ as possible, and their relevance to the shipping industry is limited to the loyalty and romance and affinity they can offer on behalf of the differentiation of their cruiseship fleet to their guests and passengers. For those who have talked with vacationers who are frequent cruiseship passengers, we all have moved by their affection for the cruiseships individually and their loyalty to the brand collectively and the type of cruiseship they cater to. The cruise-line industry has managed to create a clear image for the industry and individual cruiseship companies have created a ‘brand’ and appeal to a certain segment of the market, ranging from the luxury and discerning high-end of the market to the ‘cattle class’ segment of cruising appealing to the younger crowd on a budget. The cruiseship industry is a clear example of a sector in shipping that has not been a commodity and it has created a brand and has charging a premium pricing for its product.

The dry bulk market, however, with the very long tail of charterers – with some of them trading in obscure ends of the globe and the freight cost being of paramount importance, is a highy commoditised business. As long as a dry bulk ship can transport a certain amount of cargo from port A to port B, price is the only differentiating factor: the age of the ship, the quality of the vessel management, the financial strength of the shipowner, and several more factors could easily be sidestepped. A ship with a shiny, bright smokestack would get almost exactly the same freight revenue as a ship with a heavily darkened-from-smog smokestack; and given that the former ship has a higher cost basis (the cost of the fresh paint, at the very least), the owner of the latter dry bulk vessel was enjoying better overall economics. Dry bulk is the least regulated of the shipping sectors and the sector closest resembling what economists call ‘perfect competition’ and staying closest to a commodity business model has made sense. Charterers objectively would barely differentiate vessels besides pricing, and pricing was set by the market, not a shipowner or a ship.

But again, the last few years forced the shipping industry to take many steps quickly at a time: the freight market crashed and controlling vessel operating expenses became critical, new regulations came to effect (whether for emissions or ballast water, etc), bunkering costs could not be neglected by the charterers, etc. Therefore, some differentiation started entering the market in an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, large charterers and trading houses, under the luxury or pretense of a weak freight market, have been pushing for higher vessel and vessel management standards in terms of safety, performance, security, accountability, predictability, efficiency, consistency, etc which further allowed some shipping companies to differentiate their ‘product’.

The tanker industry, having to live with higher standards ever since the Exxon Valdez became a household name three decades ago, has forced shipping companies to be more cognisant of their ‘brand’ and reputation. The tanker industry is also driven by a group of select charterers (oil majors, etc) who themselves are held to high standards and a few minimum standards we established for the tanker market (i.e. OCIMF, CFR, etc). Still the tanker market is far away from a ‘branding’ strategy when tanker owners can differentiate themselves, but nevertheless there is a higher level of ‘name recognition’ in this market sector.

The shipping industry is a ‘price taking’ industry where the shipowner has to take and accept what price the market offers at any time. Unlike the yacht industry where the customer invests in an ‘I want’ or desire product, in the shipping industry, the customer invests in an ‘I need’ or mandatory product. In the first case, the level of desire can be graded and the optimal product and pricing can be found. In the latter case, the product is a basic need (transport of cargo) which by itself doesn’t allow for price differentiation. However, for shipping companies that have a strategy of differentiating the product at any market price, they are likely to be more successful in the future.

Since 2008, there have been tectonic changes in the shipping industry. What worked in the past likely will not work equally well in the future. There are many reasons for that and the fact that the landscape of shipping financing has changed is just one of them. It’s hard to create a brand in a commodity-driven market and charge a premium price, but charterers and financiers and the rest of the stakeholders will want to see distinct companies with a quality product. ‘Me too’ shipowners of a handful dry bulk vessels will be pressed hard to stand out in a new market. Setting a shipping company apart from the competition will eat into earnings (once again, shipping is a ‘price taker’ industry) and shipowners will have to deliver more value for every dollar earned.

It’s hard to create a ‘brand’ in a commodity world, and there is little in extras one can offer for a basic need of transporting raw material (hard to abuse most of the time, never complains, doesn’t have any demand for comfort and pampering, etc). The only way really to differentiate and build a ‘brand’ would be by providing the charter with the offering of a better product: a ship with good performance with tight ranges of consistency, performance, etc, by optimising voyages and minimising downtime and damage, by having a solid balance sheet and not jeopardising vessel and cargo arrests, etc. And, in order to be able to offer these and any more attributes that would define their ‘brand’, they would need a critical mass of a fleet in order to be able to spread SG&A and overheads across many ships, and also being able to obtain competitive financing in a world where shipping finance is tough to be found.

Shipping is a B2B (business-to-business) model where the end consumer has little say. It would be impossible to have an ‘Intel Inside’ marketing campaign to differentiate the product and drive demand via ‘pull’ by the end-consumer (except possibly in the containership sector), but still, charterers and financiers and stakeholders would like to see a product that stands out in terms of quality and value. Probably such a model may not offer the best profitability that the competition over time, but most likely, it may ensure survivability when the market takes another dive. Charterers are likely to ‘fly to quality’ and shipping companies that have moved away from a commoditised world with a better product have better odds of survival.

Basil Karatzas

Basil M Karatzas is CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors, a maritime consultancy and shipping finance firm based in Manhattan, New York.
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