S'pore port faces rough seas amid global gloom

S'pore port faces rough seas amid global gloom

When business was booming, port worker Ravindran would make up to 50 trips a day transporting cargo between ships and the yard, but he is lucky now if he makes 35.

Those heady boom times have faded in the wake of the global trade downturn - something all too apparent to port employees, such as those at PSA Corporation's Tanjong Pagar Terminal.

"(Back then) I usually didn't even have much time for a lunch break," Mr Ravindran, 52, told The Straits Times. "But today, I have time to sit down for a meal because it is less busy. It seems like fewer ships have been coming here since last year."

Mr Ravindran's experience offers a good snapshot of the shipping industry and, in turn, the Port of Singapore, amid the anaemic global economy.

Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) data shows that there were 4,452 container vessel arrivals during the first quarter of the year, marking a 4.5 per cent growth year on year.

But container throughput for the quarter slumped 9 per cent to 7.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) - down from the 8.1 million TEUs in the same period a year ago, and a 0.4 per cent drop from the fourth quarter last year.

"Shipping lines may have been calling more at Singapore, but the intensity of volume is lower," said Mr Victor Wai, a Drewry Maritime Equity Research analyst, adding that port volumes have been "stuck stubbornly in the high single-digit decline" since March last year.

He attributed this largely to the alignment of the mega shipping alliances, which helped lift volumes at Malaysia's Port of Tanjung Pelapas and Port Klang instead.

While first-quarter figures for the two lower-cost Malaysian ports are not yet available, Westports, the main operator for Port Klang, said throughput rose 6.6 per cent to 2.4 million TEUs for the period.

"With bunker price significantly lower now, there is also not much cost savings from deploying bigger vessels to call at transhipment hubs, like Singapore, over making direct calls," said Mr Wai.

In the same vein, Ocean Shipping Consultants director Jason Chiang noted that Singapore's ports took a hit in terms of market share relative to the two Malaysian ports.

Said Mr Chiang: "Trans-shipment volume for the three ports combined, in fact, grew from 42.4 million TEUs in 2014 to 43.5 million TEUs last year, but Singapore's share of this shrank from 65 per cent to 61 per cent."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his May Day Rally speech that a port workers' unionist had told him that there was a day when the Tanjong Pagar Terminal did not receive a single ship for two shifts out of three.

But Mr Chiang is optimistic that business will pick up - possibly as soon as next year, when Cosco Group moves to the three new berths at the Pasir Panjang Terminal.

The move will allow Cosco to accommodate the additional volumes from China Shipping Group, with which it agreed to a merger late last year, he said.

"The proposed Ocean Alliance is also starting in 2017, which will see the alliance members operating new services," added Mr Chiang.

Meanwhile, the MPA and PSA have rolled out measures to help container lines tide over the downturn, including an additional 10 per cent concession on port dues.

PSA last Tuesday also unveiled its $20 million corporate venture capital arm to invest in logistics technology start-ups.

Mr Andy Lane, a partner at CTI Consultancy, said: "What we will not see is a return to the days of 10 per cent to 15 per cent containerised volume growth year on year, every year." He cited a lack of consumer confidence in the United States and Europe that is further worsened by reshoring, as well as disruptive technologies such as advanced robotics and 3D printing.

This article was first published on May 16, 2016.
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