Shipping benefits from globalization more than almost any other sector. But this has also made it more vulnerable to the global economic crisis. Freight and charter rates have plunged, jobs at shipping companies are being cut and many ships are being parked for months at a time.
By Thomas Schulz
The anxiety began in the summer, when the long lines disappeared: the kilometer-long lines of trucks waiting to get into the container terminals outside Los Angeles, one of the most critical bottlenecks of globalization in recent years, or the long queues container ships jostling for spots at the entrance to Hong Kong harbor, often waiting for days for a berth.
Instead, what is backed up today is the once hotly sought-after merchandise, as electronic goods and textiles pile up in Chinese factories, now that consumption has declined, first among Americans and now in Europe. Iron ore and other minerals are piling up in South American mines, because the Chinese no longer need as much of the natural resources to produce goods.
Many ships are now sailing half-empty, if they are sailing at all. In fact, shipping companies are pulling more and more ships out of circulation, due to a lack of demand, and placing them at anchor indefinitely. Experts estimate that one-fourth of all ships used to transport raw materials in the Pacific are now idle.
Until recently, shipping was plainly globalization’s booming industry, its hammering pulse, pumping more and more goods around the world at an ever-increasing pace. But the financial crisis has brought this activity to an unexpected halt. Although the pulse is still beating, it is no longer the fast and powerful pulse of a sprinter, instead it resembles that of a coma patient.
For months, prices have been falling throughout the industry. In the spring, large commercial shipping companies like Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd were still charging about $2,000 (