How a Korean Shipping Line Bankruptcy Could Spoil Christmas

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South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping was, until Wednesday, the country’s largest sea container shipping firm and the seventh biggest in the world. That’s when a Korean court accepted Hanjin Shipping’s receivership application that had been filed the day before. Several of the company’s ships were immediately seized, impounded or kept from unloading their cargoes.

According to a report from Bloomberg News, three of the company’s ships are stuck off the coast of California where they had been expected to deliver their cargoes to the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach. Another 10 have been impounded at Chinese ports for failure to pay service providers and another is stranded off the coast of British Columbia.

The scramble to deliver cargoes is especially acute for LG Electronics, which had depended on Hanjin Shipping to deliver up to 20% of its goods to the United States. Even harsher to the shipping firm’s customers is that September is one of the busiest months for Asian manufacturers to send their goods to U.S. ports. A large percentage of holiday goods arrive on U.S. shores this month and from there make their way to retailers across the country.

Thinking back to last Christmas, every major consumer electronics retailer heavily promoted items like big-screen HDTVs, and there is every reason to expect similar promotions this year. As hard as retailers like Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) pushed TVs last year, the drive to persuade consumers to trade up to the 4K smart HDTVs was shaping up to be just as fierce.

Depending on how quickly alternate carriers can be found, and at what price, the impact on the holiday shopping season may be manageable, if it’s just a matter of a few bucks per item. If the goods are delayed for long, however, that’s a whole different story.

The trip from Korea to Los Angeles-Long Beach takes about 10 sailing days, while shipments to Europe (Rotterdam) can take up to 30 days.

And while other shippers say they will step up to fill the gap left by the idling of Hanjin’s fleet, shipping costs have already risen by 55% on a 40-feet equivalent container. What cost $1,100 last week costs $1,700 today.

Compounding the problem is question of who has the right of retention on the cargoes that are currently sailing on Hanjin ships. If an incoming cargo is in port, the terminal operator may determine if the owner is the shipping company or if there is some other likely owner. On an outbound cargo that has not yet been loaded, the shipper owns the goods. If the ship is on the sea, the shipping company owns the cargo.

That’s why a total of 27 Hanjin ships are stuck in port or sailing in circles offshore. The cargoes on those that are stuck in port will be claimed by the port, the shipper, the bankruptcy court and who knows who else. The cargoes at sea can’t make port because if they do, the same thing will happen to them.

If there is a bright spot it is that the shipping business is wallowing in a supply of vessels. Provided that these can be put into service quickly, and the Korean court acts swiftly, the impact of the Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy may be limited and Hanjin won’t be the Grinch who stole Christmas.

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