18/01/2016 Feature
Could Chinese Shipyards Face Clyde of the 1960s Type Fall
Troubled sector in China mirrors early days of Clyde losses

At one time the Clyde had its own song, a loud, uncompromising rhythm and blues that reverberated and resonated all along its banks. Mighty bangs and drumming, the screech of metal on metal, as gigantic liners to tiny tugs were fabricated in yards that practically covered every square inch from Partick to Dalmuir, from Govan to Paisley, in Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire. The names were legends, and up until the 1950s, it seemed they would go on for ever. There was only one place you went for a ship of any size or description with security - The Clyde.

But during the 1960s, the world changed, fast. And as it did, so too did the customers of ships change their minds. One by one some of the mightiest names in shipbuilding, most of them ancient families who had built up their reputations over centuries, fell. From Denny to Scotts, Fairfields to Barclay Curle, and numerous others, once impregnable and undefeated, in a generation, they disappeared. Even the biggest, John Browns, shortly after completing the world's biggest passenger ship, succumbed in the 1970s. The Clyde fell largely silent. In places nothing short of a wasteland. The mightiest of industrial regions, prosperous, solid, purposeful, now looked as though Adolf Hitler had came back from the grave and finished off what he could not in the 1940s - The destruction of an an entire region.

Thankfully, some yards survive. The Clyde now has three shipyards, and they are expanding, so the story has turned again, but no amount of rose tinted speculation will deny that the home of modern shipbuilding is unlikely to return to the days when up to three or four ships a day were launched on its banks.

That such a change could occur would have been inconceivable before the 1960s. Now all eyes look to China, and marvel at that nations rise as the world's premier shipbuilder. And yet, the tale of the Clyde is a caution to all who grow large.

In the west we are largely oblivious to what goes on in shipbuilding now, our weeping eyes have dried and gone blind as far as that industry is concerned, so it may surprise many to know that China's biggest privately shipbuilder, Rongsheng Heavy Industries Group Holdings Ltd exited the shipbuilding sector last year, after mounting losses and humiliating cancellations of orders from shipowners. State-owned Zhoushan Wuzhou Ship Repairing & Building even went bankrupt in January. Jiangsu Sainty Marine Corporation hasn't had its troubles to seek, facing court orders over its restructuring as well. And these are not isolated cases either. Cancellations, debts, closures are now common in China's shipbuilders. The once sunny heights now cloud with storms above the acres of concrete yard floors.

Now it looks likely that consolidation will be the order of the days, months and years ahead. (Consolidation being the conciliatory sounding word for closures of the weakest). But if the mighty have fallen already, what can be read into this?

China has long enjoyed a boom, in nearly every sphere, with returns being in the teens rather than fractions. All roads led to China for the past three decades, as it industriously converted immense amounts of raw materials into immense ships. Thousands of the them.

And there is the problem.

The world has too many ships. High quality, built to last, vigorous new ships. The world changed, ordered the vessels it needed: mammoth sized bulkers for the raw materials, supertankers for the fuel, container ships for the converted goods. And now the world changes again.

With oil at loss making levels due to over-production, supertankers are idling on the oceans with stores of oil and nowhere to offload it. As the west tires of buying as its citizens feel the slump from less capital to spare, so the world's manufacturer China sees factory closures and less ships needed to empty its slackening output of consumer goods into already stuffed homes overseas. This means China's famed hunger for raw materials has lessened somewhat, and less bulk ships are required. Bulker rates have plummeted, and its this indicator we have to watch.

It isnít merely that no-one is buying, it is that they are buying at a less than furious rate. The returns for China's firms are nowhere near the giddying heights once seen and once thought of as permanent. Of course it cannot be permanent, the world gets a glut and it slackens off. And this is what is happening.

What it means to the biggest players is that they hurt the most. Geared for almost perpetual work in massive complexes, when the work slackens, the overheads remain cripplingly high, the debts accumulate, and investors take fright at their losses. And down go the big boys.

China did not, just like the Clyde, look forward enough. Back in the 1950s the Clyde was used to having home-grown shipping firms servicing a largely family owned empire around the world. Almost overnight, that cosy world disappeared and left a river of mammoth shipyards reeling from change, and costs ongoing that had no profits to sustain them. Within a decade the airliner stuffed the ocean liner into history. The Clyde was caught napping, indolent, and when the yards realised and adapted, it was too late, the customers had been going elsewhere, the new customers, the new world order.

It is perhaps premature to say that the world is changing to the same degree, but what is obvious is that China's shipbuilders are feeling the pain of having grown too big and perhaps been too complacent. And if not, then what is certainly true is that many of them now have no option but to merge, fold altogether or seek new horizons.

It is very doubtful that this will mean the domino effect seen on the Clyde in the 1960s and 1970s, but what it does mean is that China will no longer rely on bulk ships for its shipbuilding backbone alone. Whether this means they will simply keep exiting the sector as a whole or diversifying into others remains to be seen, but the tale of the Clyde can be seen repeating at least as an early warning in today's Chinese shipbuilding industry. Europe has the cruise ship industry firmly in its grasp, and even though China has started to build them (with an order placed last year), it seems a step too far for investors or shipowners just yet. Therefore, building 'the big stuff' may be in trouble in general in China, for what now for the behemoths if the wheels of industry cannot turn to their former speed and purpose of constructing at breakneck speed the mammoths of the seas?

As for our own shipbuilders back here on the Clyde, having slimmed down to levels nearing extinction, there is only one way to go.