Container shipping companies' profit margins hit a two-year low in the fourth quarter of 2022, as rates and demand plunged.
According to Alphaliner's latest report, margins fell from nearly 52% in the third quarter to 33% in the fourth.
There was a wide range of results at the individual carrier levels with Japanese carrier ONE at the top end of the range with a margin of 43.7%, while Taiwanese intra-Asia specialist Wan Hai Lines fell to the bottom with 11.6%.
Particularly, Wan Hai became the first liner operator to incur a quarterly loss since rates began normalising from pandemic highs when the Taiwanese company recorded a US$1.3 million net loss in 4Q 2022.
Year-on-year profit increases differed widely among the leading carriers: at the top end Hapag-Lloyd grew operating profits by 66% in 2022, while at the lower end, ZIM, Yang Ming and Wan Hai reported only single-digit increases or, in Wan Hai’s case, a decline in earnings.
This contrasts with 2021 when the top 10 carriers achieved an average profit increase of 87%, with all the carriers within five percentage points of this number. Hapag-Lloyd’s strong 2022 result was realised on the back of fundamentals: among the top 10 lines, it achieved the greatest increase in rates (43% year-on-year at US$2,863 per TEU) on the smallest decline in volumes (0.2% year-on-year to 11.8 million TEU). The German carrier also saw average rates fall only 15% quarter-on-quarter in the final three months of 2022, versus 30-44% declines for lines with more capacity on the transpacific trades such as ZIM, HMM, COSCO and OOCL.
COSCO Shipping Line achieved US$20.3 billion in profit in 2022, with its subsidiary OOCL contributing nearly half that figure. On its own, OOCL would have posted the highest profit margin of the major lines in 4Q 2022, at 49.5%, despite operating a fleet of 747,000 TEU, compared with COSCO's 2.16 million TEU.