QuickHit: China is not going to stop being China
Panama Canal Authority’s Silvia Fernandez de Marucci joins us for this week’s QuickHit, where explains why China is not going to stop being China. She also shares first-hand observation on the global trade trends — is it declining and by how much, what’s happening in cruises and cargo vessels, where do gas and oil shipments are redirecting, why June was worse than May, and what about July? She also shares the “star” in this pandemic and whether there’s a noticeable regionalization changes from Asia to Europe, and when can we see it happening? Also, what does Panama Canal do to be up-to-date with technology and to adapt the new normal?
Silvia is the Canal’s manager of market analysis and customer relations. She has 20 years of experience studying all the markets for them and is responsible for their pricing strategy, their forecasting of traffic and customer relations.
Panama Canal opened in 1914 with annual traffic of 14,702 vessels in 2008. By 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal. It takes 11.38 hours to pass through it. The American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
***This video was recorded on July 30, 2020 CDT.
TN: Recently, the CPB of the Netherlands came out and said that world trade was down by double digits for the first five months of the year. Obviously that’s related to COVID. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve seen at the Canal and really what you guys have been doing? Everyone’s been in reactionary mode. So what have you seen happening in the market?
SM: There are some trends that had been present before COVID like the movement of production from China to Eastern Asia and we think this is going to be accelerated by this pandemia. But I don’t think that China is going to stop being China. It will keep the relevance and the importance in global trade as they have today.
We think that probably, yes, we will see more regionalization. We saw the signing of the renewal of the NAFTA trade between Canada, the US, and Mexico. So we think that there may be something happening in that area. However, we don’t see that trade is going to stop. I mean trade is going to continue growing after this pandemic.
This is something that I would say very different from anything that we have experienced before because once it is solved, I don’t know if the vaccine appears and people start going back to the new normal, there will be changes probably to the way we do things and the consumer is going to be very careful and probably will change his habits in order to prevent contagion. But I think trade is going to continue.
We see some of these trends becoming more and more important or at a faster pace. It is not an economic crisis per se. Once the people are going back to work, the industry will restart their operations, people are going to be rehired. The economy should start recovering faster. We are not sure because there is no certainty with this situation.
We first heard about it early in the year with the cases in China. But then, it looked so far away. It was happening to China. It was happening to Italy. We didn’t think about it as something that was so important or so relevant. The first casualty was the passenger vessels. The whole season for cruise ships at the Canal was cut short in March and Panama went to a total lockdown on March 25.
It really started for us when we received the news of a cruise ship arriving in Panama with influenza-like disease on board that wanted to cross, which was the Zaandam, and the first one that we had with the COVID patients on board.
TN: And how much of your traffic is cruise ships?
SM: It’s very small, to be honest. It’s less than two percent of our traffic. But still, we see it as an important segment, not only because of the traffic through the Canal, but also because of what it does to the local economy. We have a lot of visitors, a lot of tourism, and that is a good injection of cash coming to Panama. It was the probably the end of the season but it was shorter than what we would have wanted.
TN: When we saw the first wave of COVID go through Asia, did you see a a sharp decline in vessel traffic in say Feb, March? Or was it pretty even? Did we not see that much? Because I’ve spoken to people in air freight and they said it was dramatic, the fall off they saw. I would imagine in sea freight, it’s not as dramatic but did you see a fall off?
SM: It started in January, which is the very low season for containers, which is the most important market segments in terms of contribution to tolls. When we saw that there was this COVID happening in Chinese New Year, everything was closed. We were in a slow season. So we didn’t see much of an impact.
And for the Canal, there is a lagging effect because we are 23 days away in voyage terms. So whatever happens in China, we feel it probably one month later. We expected January and February to be slow because of the normal seasonality of the trade. But then after March, I would say that April was probably the worst month for us. We were hit April then May was worse than April and then June that was even worse than than May.
TN: June was worse than May? Okay.
SM: June was worse than May. We‘ve seen four percent, ten percent, fourteen or sixteen percent decline each month. It was like, “Oh wow! This is really thick. This is really getting worse.” We had reviewed our forecast in April. And I think so far, it is behaving as we expected back then. But there’s nothing written about COVID. We are learning as we go.
I would say that container vessels were also affected these three months of the year. We have LNG vessels that were supposed to deliver natural gas to Japan, Korea, and China. And LNG had been behaving very badly all year. That is kind of a peak season for LNG and LNG has been having a hard time because the market were supplied and the prices were very low, so many shipments that were supposed to end up in Asia, ended up in Europe or other destinations that were more profitable for the owners. But when the price of oil collapsed and went negative, the prices of LNG were affected in the Middle East and became more competitive than the US prices.
We saw a harsher decline in LNG shipments. We see, for example, 30 percent less than we expected to see and by COVID in April, it was probably 50 percent below what we were expecting. It was major and Iguess it’s a matter of demand because since the whole Asia was locked down, there was no demand.
TN: When industry stops, you don’t need energy. It’s terrible.
SM: Exactly. It’s really terrible. It was terrible. But we had some stars in our trade that supported the situation like LPG, the cooking gas and obviously people were cooking more at home so the demand was high and we saw an increase in trade for LPG. It’s a good market for us, for the neopanamax locks, so in a way we are grateful that our trade has not suffered as much as we have seen in other areas.
TN: You said you declined into June. How have things been in in July, so far?
SM: July seems promising. We came from a from a very bad June that was closed probably 16 percent below what we expected to have. But July is about maybe seven percent below our expectation. But we are very concerned about a potential W-shape recovery because of the new cases that we have seen in the US.
TN: When we saw factories close across Asia in the first quarter and in some cases stay until the second quarter, did you see some of the folks who were shipping through the Canal start to pivot their production to North America?
SM: It’s probably too early to say. We will see the effects of COVID probably in terms of near shoring maybe in two years. I don’t think that the companies or the factories are so quick as to move the production especially during this period in which everybody is still trying to cope with the situation.
TN: And manage their risks, right?
SM: Yes. So I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But it’s probably something that the factories and the companies are going to start speeding up and diversifying their production.
TN: And as you said earlier, China’s still going to be there. China’s not going to disappear as an origin, right? What I’ve been saying to people is it’s incremental manufacturing that may move. It’s not the mainstay of Chinese manufacturing that’s going to move or regionalize. They’re still going to do much of the commoditized manufacturing there because the infrastructure is there.The sunk cost is there, and they need to earn out the value of those factories. I like your timeline of two years before you really start to see an impact because we may see some incremental movement and maybe some very high value, high tech stuff or something like that move first but the volume of things probably won’t happen for at least two years. Is that fair to say?
SM: I would say so and I would add that we have seen these shifts to Vietnam and Malaysia and other countries in Asia, but we still see containerized cargo shipping from China. The volumes are still not high enough to be shipping directly from those countries. The container may come from Vietnam and or from Malaysia and they come to Shanghai or to another port in China. They consolidate the vessel there and the vessel departs from those ports. So in terms of Canal, for us that is good news. And I would say that probably Korea is trying to attract that tradition as well. So the long voyage will start in China or in Korea or in Japan instead of these other countries that are further away from our area of relevance.
TN: That makes a lot of sense. Just one last question. How do you see transit changing over the next five to ten years? What are you seeing from the Canal perspective in the way your operations will change?
SM: We are still adjusting to what is happening. We have always been very regulated in the best way. What I mean is that we have always had our protocols and codes for attending every situation. We have our protocol for infectious diseases that was the basis to start working with COVID. We think that at the canal probably, what we will see in the future is more technology to improve the operation. I’m not sure exactly how, but definitely there are machine learning and artificial intelligence that may help us be more accurate in our forecasts and probably organize our traffic in a way that is faster or we make better use of the assets. The canal is 106 years old. We have been adjusting every time to the new ways of the world, and we’ll continue to do so as a trade enabler.
TN: That’s right. Silvia, thank you so much for your time. This has been very insightful. I really do hope that we can connect again in some time and and just see how trade recovers and what we look like maybe going into 2021 or something like that. Okay. Thank you so much.
SM: Thanks to you.