Finding Finding allies
It's high time that terminals followed lines and ports and get in on the partnerships act finds Felicity Landon
The US Federal Maritime Commission's decision allowing two Miami terminal operators 'to seek cooperation and commonality in both business and operating matters' certainly caused a stir. Does it pave the way for other terminals to seek close partnerships? Is it the turn of terminal operators to set up alliances that match up to the oversize alliances of their customers? And are they really free to go ahead?
The FMC gave its blessing for the Miami Marine Terminal Conference Agreement to take effect, allowing the South Florida Container Terminal Port of Miami Terminal Operating Company (POMTOC) to establish 'a variety of common rates, rules and practices, as well as to meet to discuss these matters'. It also went as far as suggesting that this agreement could form a template for terminal alliances to create framework service agreements with shipping line alliances.
Miami is the first high-profile example and every case will be different, says Neil Davidson, Drewry's senior analyst - ports & terminals. However, he adds: “The FMC are normally pretty cautious in terms of allowing parties to work together, and don't give their permission lightly. The fact that they also made a very general statement that they expect to see more terminals doing this is quite an interesting comment from the regulatory side. Having said that, the EU has its own set of rules and ways of weighing this up, of course.”
Reducing fragmentation of capacity is necessary in order to handle volumes that are so much bigger than they were, says Mr Davidson. There is a logic behind terminals looking to work together in order to cope with what is being thrown at them by their customers, he says - and there is scope for alliances to happen, but there are operational and regulatory challenges, and risks attached to such a partnership.
“Because of the peaks and pressures created by the bigger ships in port, the natural reaction might be to say I should work with my next-door-neighbour terminal rather than against him, to join forces for practical reasons and commercial reasons - the client has got bigger and more powerful, therefore I need to do the same.
“There are lots of sensible operational reasons for doing that, which would also benefit the shipping lines. But the dilemma is that the regulatory authorities would always be in the background - perhaps saying you are colluding or you are a cartel or too close together. So the formation of more terminal alliances is dependent to an extent on the competition in the port or with neighbouring ports, and on the attitude of the authorities towards competition.”
The other issue to consider, says Mr Davidson, is how it works in practice. “Yes, you can sign the document to say you will work together with your neighbouring terminal - but to really make it work, you may need to buy or merge, in order to bring in the same rules in terms of strategy, profitability and shareholding, and have a completely uniform approach.
“Shipping lines can have alliances because they will have similar capacity vessels and share schedules and rotations. However one terminal in a port could be very different from another, so it is not aligning like with like. The chances are the one of the two terminals just isn't as good as the other one, so you would always have a weaker terminal of the two which is difficult to overcome.
The proliferation of mega container ships means massive surges of containers when they do call. A terminal alliance might sound like the answer - but Mr Davidson points out: “The alliance idea doesn't address the fact that usually everyone in the port has the same peaks. So even if you work together, you are still suffering the same peaks.”
It is difficult for terminals to form successful working alliances if they are not immediately next door to each other, he points out. “If you share a quay line, you can cooperate more easily. If you are across the bay from each other, it is much harder.”
In the case of the Miami partnership, the two terminals are, as pointed out by the FMC, in close proximity to each other.
“The alternative is what you see in Los Angeles/Long Beach, where the volumes of an alliance get spread over numerous terminals and there are lots of inter-terminal transfers. Clearly it would be better to merge neighbouring terminals so you don't need to split the volumes so much. In Asian ports perhaps there is more port authority ability to make these things happen but in North America and Europe, where private operators are more independent in their outlook, it is more difficult for the authorities.”
Despite recent expansions, true deepwater capacity for vessels of 18,000 teu and above is still at a premium in Northern Europe, says Andrew Penfold, director - global maritime at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.
“At first you think the (liner) consolidation means the common user terminal operators are scrapping around for business - but not really. The point should be made that the mergers and consolidation situation in the shipping lines certainly wasn't driven by wanting to cut bunker prices or handling prices - it was driven by their own self-inflicted problems of overcapacity. The question of which port choice or which terminal you use has been almost an afterthought and is only now receiving the attention it needs.”
The challenges of handling the volumes of alliance partners are emerging in the developing world too, he says. Again, terminals will struggle to handle the sheer volumes involved; there are already instances where the demands of the big caller are so huge that the terminal operator has to push out the smaller shipping lines. “That provides an opportunity for smaller terminal operators to get in.
“Economies of scale? Yes, on the water, driven by the shipping lines' problems. But with the higher consignment size to push through the terminal, generally speaking you hit the point when the efficiency of the terminal starts to decline. I think there will be some scope for more terminals to work together in response to their customers' consolidation - but they don't need to do that - at the moment the terminal operators aren't in distress from all of this.”
The Port of Long Beach has been addressing congestion caused by ever-long dwell times of containers across terminals. Michael Christensen, senior executive lead, supply chain optimisation, points out that while there is so much opportunity for ocean carrier alliances to use multiple terminals, once one terminal gets congested and a vessel switches to another, the congestion moves among terminals and spreads through a port very quickly.
“Terminals are so interlinked these days,” he says. “When we had a big labour-driven congestion problem two years ago, there was an interesting metric we noted; any time a terminal reached about 80% of capacity, the fluidity of the terminal and efficiency of the operation degraded very quickly.”
ALLURE OF BETTER BARGAINING POWER
Will the creation of alliances give terminals better bargaining power when dealing with their ever stronger and larger customers? WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff's Andrew Penfold says despite expectations, terminal operators have seen only a marginal impact on prices for handling containers, and most are not 'in distress'.
"If you take the volume of containers that CMA CGM would be wishing to handle with their partners and associates, it becomes quite difficult to put that all in one terminal - even Rotterdam World Gateway with its capacity will be sorely tested to handle all the demand. So you have a situation whereby the new alliances will have to make some sort of deal involving one or more other terminals. So while Maersk will be putting all its business through APM in the Maasvlakte, it is quite likely they will have overflow cargo that may have to be placed elsewhere.”
A large shipping line serving Northern Europe will have a certain amount of business that must go into Antwerp and into Rotterdam, says Mr Penfold - it is the 'debatable' business that could be switched into either that is where the real questions are.
“In response to that, the stevedores have continuously added new features and new value-added - for example, barge terminals, investment in intermodal trains. The independent terminal operator is in a better position to make this kind of investment than a shipping line owned terminal would be, because of the money available.”
It might be good for the shipping line to play one terminal off against another in order to secure the lowest possible price, but it isn't good for the shipping lines if they create a situation where none of the terminals can meet their needs, adds Drewry's Neil Davidson.
“If none of the terminals has the capacity or ability to cope with the surges and associated challenges, then having a choice means nothing.”
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