Who will be the next Hanjin Shipping? That was one of most frequently asked questions after the South Korean carrier filed for court receivership in August last year.
It was only a small leap of imagination at the time to envisage another shipping line, especially one of a similar size to Hanjin, like K Line and Yang Ming, as the following victim.
But Hanjin’s demise may just have been a low possibility event, as it was really a consequence of a string of complicated causes, both commercially and politically.
That’s why K Line and Yang Ming, despite their concerning financial conditions and less competitive fleet sizes, remain afloat.
The former has decided to set aside its pride and tie up with compatriot lines, while the latter has managed to win a continued support from the government with its state-led capital injection announced recently.
Freight rates have also been strengthening, helped by subdued tonnage glut, suggesting carriers might be able to breathe better this year, if not longer.
So perhaps we need to be a bit more imaginative: the next container shipping failure could very well be a forwarder, not a major carrier.
Liner shipping companies still need, and will certainly keeping doing, cost reduction, efficiency improvement and product differentiation. And that indicates some of their downstream suppliers, such as freight agents and forwarders, might be facing a bleak outlook.
Signs have already emerged.
Maersk Line, CMA CGM, Cosco Shipping and ZIM have started to embraced online booking services by collaborating with e-commerce giant Alibaba, a move that has the potential to threaten the livelihood of thousands of slot booking agents in China.
Small local freight agents could even lose their container truck business. A recent dispute between Cosco Shipping and business groups in Guangzhou arose because the shipping giant is expanding its box-hauling services from sea to land to counterattack the industry’s commoditised nature.
Of course the day will arrive when another major shipping line has to declare its death knell like Hanjin did last week, leaving shippers one less choice to diversify their risks. Yet before that, lots of players in between the two parties might have to go down first.