THE collapse of Hanjin Shipping, a South Korean container line, on August 31st brought home the extent of the storm in shipping. The firm’s bankruptcy filing left 66 ships, carrying goods worth $14.5 billion, stranded at sea. Harbours around the world, including the Port of Tokyo, refused entry for fear of going unpaid. With their stock beyond reach, American and British retailers voiced concerns about the run-up to the Christmas shopping period.

Hanjin is not alone. Of the biggest 12 shipping companies that have published results for the past quarter, 11 have announced huge losses. Several weaker outfits are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In Japan three firms, Mitsui OSK Lines, NYK Line and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, look vulnerable. Activist investors are now pressing for them to merge to avoid the same fate as the South Korean line.

Even the strongest are suffering. France’s CMA CGM, the world’s third-largest carrier, announced a big first-half loss on September 2nd. Maersk Line, the industry leader, and the largest firm within A.P. Moller-Maersk, a family-controlled Danish conglomerate, will be in the red this year, having lost...Continue reading