Eurogate 18.5.2012 16

The 2M vessel sharing agreement has cleared the US Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) regulatory hurdle at the first attempt – and ahead of expectations.

And, unlike its failed predecessor, the P3, with apparently no requirement for approval from the Chinese, Maersk Line and MSC can now turn their attention to the small print of their offer.

While the ports have been revealed in the 2M schedule proforma issued by the carriers, terminals have not yet been announced – or indeed the size of the ships that will be deployed on the 22-loop, 66-port east-west services.

However, one would assume that the 2M partners have by now reached a provisional internal agreement on terminal nominations, although these discussions would have been complicated by Maersk and MSC’s ownership of stevedoring subsidiaries APM Terminals and TIL Group, respectively.

Thereafter, negotiations will begin with the 2M service providers – terminals, tugs, feeders and so on  – which, although in the case of the FMC filing for US trades requires separate negotiations to take place, the other parts of the VSA do not have this restriction on the procurement of services.

Given that the object of the exercise of combining the volumes of the world’s two biggest carriers is to drive down unit costs (analysts estimate that Maersk Line alone will save $400m a year), the opportunity will surely not be missed to use their combined volume clout to squeeze reductions from their service providers.

Moreover, even if there is a serious attempt by the 2M partners or their service providers to maintain separate contracts, it will be almost impossible to prevent information leaks and, consequently, the lowest common denominator will rule in negotiations, whether that is in Europe, Asia or perhaps even the US.

It follows that there will be winners and losers in these procurement rounds as the service providers are asked to “sharpen their pencils”.

As in all business deals “the devil is in the detail” and the final terminal agreements will be a test of the relationship between Maersk and MSC, lines which, prior to the P3 announcement, many saw as the most unlikely of alliance bedfellows.

Avoiding friction resulting from carrier egos was most likely the reasoning behind setting up an semi-autonomous tonnage centre under the P3 proposals, which backfired when the Chinese regulators considered it a de-facto merger.

Meanwhile, as terminals and other agreements are resolved in the period before the slated start of the 2M VSA in January, what is already known from the schedules in North Europe is that the Container Terminal Wilhelmshaven (CTW) will get a long-awaited boost from two calls a week on 2M’s Loops 1 and 5.

Indeed, the economic minister for the Lower Saxony region of Germany, Olaf Read, regards the 2M decision to call at CTW as “the first important signal” to other carriers and a sign that the massive investment in the seaport is about to start paying off.

And perhaps there was an element of schadenfreud in Mr Read’s comments after the ruling by a German court last week that “big brother city port” Hamburg must wait many more months for a ruling on the desperately needed dredging of the river Elbe. The current draught means that ultra-large containerships remain tide-dependent when calling at Germany’s largest container port.

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