South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine 011200 -2.92% is getting another $5 billion in state funding to finance a series of new orders for megaships as the company tries to compete with bigger Asian and European rivals in a difficult container shipping market.
HMM, the country’s de facto flag carrier after the collapse of Hanjin Shipping Co. in 2016, will spend $2.8 billion to buy 20 large container vessels from South Korean shipbuilders. The rest of the money will likely be used to buy container terminals, according to people involved in the matter.
The state intervention to prop up the struggling container ship operator reflects the willingness of Asian governments to stand behind national carriers that move billions worth of exports to Western markets and the local shipyards that build their vessels.
The financing was partly arranged by Korea Ocean Business Corp., a government body established in July to support a shipping sector that is considered critical to the country’s economy but which has been foundering since a global downturn in maritime business.
“Let’s say it’s a government investment,” one person involved in the matter said. “Korea must keep its place in global shipping. It’s a national interest issue.”
Korea’s struggling shipbuilders— Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. Samsung Heavy Industries Co. 010140 0.13% and Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. 009540 1.50% —will split a new order of 12 behemoths that can move 23,000 containers each and another eight smaller vessels, according to the people familiar with the matter.
“The order couldn’t have come at a better time,” said a senior executive at one of the three yards, asking not to be named. “Orders have dried up and we are desperate for revenue to keep us going.”
HMM controls 1.8% of the global container capacity, while the world’s top five container operators hold a combined 65% share of the market. It narrowly escaped default last year with a $660 million state bailout and has been losing money for years.
Similar bailout packages have been arranged over the years for the shipbuilders.
The state aid has infuriated European shipowners, who are asking the European Union to take punitive measures against Seoul to end what they call “unfair trade practices.”
Container ships, move $4 trillion worth of manufactured good a year, but industry operators have been weighed down by a glut of ships in the water and below-cost freight rates, pushing most companies into deep losses and some, like Hanjin, out of business.
The European Community Shipowners’ Association, a trade body representing most owners across Europe, said the bailouts distort markets and add to global overcapacity.
“Part of this plan is also to secure stable cargoes for Korean flagged vessels, which is a flag reservation of a particularly protectionist character,” said Martin Dorsman, ECSA’s, secretary-general.
HMM moves roughly a quarter of South Korea’s exports.
Lars Jensen, chief executive of Copenhagen-based SeaIntelligence Consulting, said the order is a risky move by HMM to build capacity.
“They are after volume growth, which is costing them dearly,” Mr. Jensen said. “Their volumes grew 17% in the second quarter, seven times more than much bigger (German) rival Hapag-Lloyd , which lost $25 per container. HMM lost $169 per container.”
The Korean carrier reported a $215 million overall loss in the second quarter, one of the worst performances in the industry.
HMM’s relatively small share of global shipping volumes leaves it in a precarious position, and subject to freight rates set by bigger carriers with bigger ships. The operator is too small for any scale advantages and the company’s ships are too big for niche markets, like intra-Asia sailings, that have been a bright spot in an otherwise depressed container shipping market.
“HMM is unsustainable and nobody wants to buy it,” Mr. Jensen said. “Korea lost Hanjin in an embarrassing mess so it will keep HMM going for as much as it can, despite all its problems. If nothing else, it’s one of the best clients for the Korean yards.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Hyundai Merchant Marine last year received a $660 million state bailout. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount in billions.