By Andrea Cosentino and Hans-Henrik Hansen.

On 25th January 2023, MSC and Maersk announced they will not continue their 2M alliance when it comes up for renewal in 2025. The news has been received generally positively by cargo owners believing it will lead to more competition between the carriers and therefore better pricing options. Whilst this may be true, significant ripple effects are likely to create serious supply chain disruptions to those not preparing for and keeping on top of developments.

The Background

Eyebrows were raised, and questions posed when the 2M operating alliance, between two of the world’s leading container shipping lines, was announced in 2014. Would it lead to reduced competition and thus higher rates? Would it even be approved by anti-trust authorities? Could two companies, with historically very different approaches to, not to mention reputations in, the marketplace really be able to cooperate for mutual benefit?

It worked so well, in fact, that other carriers quickly followed suit, creating THE alliance and Ocean Alliance. Whilst the initial implementation led to some market disruption, service levels stabilized and remained historically high for the following period. Although several shippers’ organizations felt these alliances led to less price competition, rates did fall to end at historically low levels in 2019.

This all changed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw record-high container shipping rates and record-high profits for the carriers. Since then, we have seen unprecedented price decreases in 2022 due to the drop in demand, caused by inflation in Europe and North America.

Why Now?

Opinions as to why the agreement is not being renewed are varied, for instance, is it because:

  • Maersk is seeking an end-to-end service proposition in direct competition with forwarders, while MSC is seeking a stronger cooperation with forwarders,
  • the CEO’s Søren Toft and Vincent Clerc have been rivals since the late 90’s – both worked their way up the Maersk ranks before Søren Toft moved to MSC in 2020,
  • the companies have different opinions of the environmental footprint they wish to develop,
  • the shipping lines have bolstered their finances during covid-19 and thus want more freedom to pursue their own priorities.

Few will ever really know the cause or causes, and this is only important to the “shipping nerds”. What is important to understand is the effect this will have on the market and the risks all cargo owners need to be aware of.

The Competitive Scenario

“The dissolution of the 2M alliance could set up the container shipping industry for a price war” – Andrea Cosentino, partner in ERA Italy.

Most market analysts believe that the 2M discontinuation will be only the first of several changes in the alliance set-up within the next few years, as shipping lines seek the agreements that will enable them to execute their respective strategies most successfully.

This will likely result in 4-6 operational cooperations and thus more distinctly different offerings for cargo owners. The perceived additional competition will also pose a challenge for the shipping lines to increase the unit prices, on the other hand unit costs might increase slightly, wherefore it is still doubtful if rates long term will reach pre-covid levels.

What to Watch Out for

While the changes are likely to provide positive outcomes for cargo owners, there are associated risks that will need to be monitored and addressed more closely, including:

  • How many weekly sailings the chosen supplier(s) will be able to offer?
  • What impact will there be on the transit time?
  • Will service re-shuffling result in rapid rate changes, as seen in 2017?
  • What rate validity will be best for your business?
  • How do we ensure our supply chain is geared in a timely manner for the changes?
  • Etc.

It is already important during the 1st half of 2023 to allocate sufficient resources, internally or externally, to get the risk management right can save many headaches, improve your financial situation, and not least place you in a better position than your competitors.

To find out more, contact your local ERA representative or the authors:

AndreaC

Andrea Cosentino

[email protected]
+39 331 47 06 535

HansHenrikH

Hans-Henrik Hansen

[email protected]
+45 2498 1173