2019 and all that

January 23, 2019

That the shipping industry faces considerable uncertainty in 2019 is not really news, but here are five things that we can say with some degree of conviction are pretty likely to happen (if they haven’t done so already).

1. Pressure on the regulatory process will continue.

After finally getting the ballast water management convention up and running, the IMO might have hoped for a bit less attention last year and this. If so, they were to be disappointed. In setting 2020 as the date for the sulphur cap, the IMO achieved something many thought impossible. In making such a momentous change, it also attracted attention from far beyond the range of views normally interested in shipping.

In particular, by allowing scrubbers as an alternative to using low sulphur fuel it enabled criticism that it was moving the problem around rather than solving it. The media attention will fade in time providing that trade is not disrupted, but the effects will continue to be felt.

This will happen most keenly as the IMO tries to steer the debate towards 2030 and 2050, the dates by which it has committed to act on carbon emissions from shipping. As Chief Operating Officer of the Methanol Institute Chris Chatterton said recently, 2050 is going to make 2020 look like a small bump in the road, so great is the challenge of decarbonising an entire industry.

As a result, it may find it hard to persuade the industry it needs to focus on what appears so distant a deadline when there are short term problems ahead.

2. World trade woes will impact shipping markets

After a decade of downturn shipping appeared on the verge of a concerted upswing over the past couple of years, buoyed by a better US economy, the potential of China’s Belt and Road plans and greater stability in the Eurozone.

While the first two remain viable, the health of European economies is much less robust and for the UK, the decision to exit the EU is almost certain to deliver another sharp blow to Sterling and stocks, not to mention the potential physical effects on trade flows between the UK and Europe. For those whose business is trading volatility, it could be an exciting year.

US policy is less predictable than ever and despite a thriving economy and low unemployment, key industries are taking steps to cut losses as the effects of the President’s trade war bite. The impact will be felt in Europe too but here the commission has no similar policy levers to pull. Europe also lack’s the US supply of shale oil and gas which is proving a tonic for tanker tonne mile demand but also being wielded as an economic weapon rather than a lubricant.

The fears for China’s economy have already caused gyrations in global stock markets and this seems likely to continue. Even so, China can take steps to insulate itself to some extent by putting its own economic strategy first and government stimulus rather than organic growth seems the more likely prescription this year.

3. Technology will continue to advance (but not necessarily in a straight line)

One of the most encouraging trends of recent years is the extent to which start-ups have identified shipping as an industry with problems to solve with the application of new technology. Across the world, new initiatives are emerging, backed by fresh capital and missionary zeal.

How many of these see their future in the industry and how many are taking the dotcom approach of getting in, doing the smart coding and getting acquired, remains to be seen. That some established industry players have created their own innovation labs suggests that they are open to the opportunities but pragmatic on implementation.

At the more mature end of the market, the trend is towards consolidation and a realisation that if vendors – or indeed class societies – are going to provide technology based solutions to emissions or energy efficiency challenges, they will need to take an enterprise approach.

Nowhere is this more evident than the companies that have made the biggest noise about disruption and autonomy, both of which are changing hands, as their owners find that maritime can be an unforgiving place to be long on technology and short on customers.

4. Owners will continue to adopt smarter operations (for cost saving reasons mostly)

On the topic of technology, the point too often overlooked is what owners really want and how to deliver it. There are some must-haves such as data gathering, analysis and delivery for fuel efficiency and tighter operations but we must accept that it is a rare and brave shipowner who invests in business transformation without cost saving as the primary driver.

From fuel quality to navigation data, the critical decision point is not to overlook security, as it is no prediction at all that 2019 will see more hacks, attacks and cyber scares. It’s hardly surprising given the amount of catch up that the shipping is doing to a 21st century infrastructure capable of running the new applications it is adopting.

This will increase as connectivity grows – and it will, not just in the conventional sense but as providers adopt new ways of keeping assets connected. In the longer term, new types of constellation will change that dynamic further, but isolation is not a sustainable option.

In more general terms – if the industry is going to get smarter is still must work out ways to collaborate while being competitive, share without losing out and think bigger than their piece of the supply chain.

5. Arguments about IMO2020 will continue

To end near where we began, January 2020 (and the months before it) will be a time of some turbulence, although the predictions of interruptions to maritime trade appear to be receding.

A recent analysis by Maritime Strategies International suggests that refiners will be able to meet demand for compliant low sulphur fuels in 2020 – though not by much. It also predicts a reasonable amount of non-compliance and it is quite possible to imagine where this might take place, away from the regions with strong public opinion and active Port State Control.

Most of the industry seems to be settling into a pattern of passing on the costs one way or the other – some will surcharge customers and could see margins shrink, others will attract a premium because they can still use cheaper high sulphur fuel and amortise the cost.

Either way the impact will not be confined to this year or to 2020 and the fallout will continue to be felt across the industry. As usual it will be a bumpy ride but not without opportunity for savvy navigators.