The U.S. Federal Maritime Commission is expected to take a hard look at the proposed P3 vessel-sharing agreement between Maersk, CMA CGM and Mediterranean Shipping Co., but regulatory scrutiny is much more likely to come from the Europe, according to Bruce Carlton, president and chief executive officer of the National Industrial Transportation League.
The agreement was filed with the FMC on Oct. 24 - unless the FMC asks for additional information, it will go into effect in 45 days on Dec. 8.
At this point, the NIT League isn’t “adamantly opposed” to the deal because there isn’t enough information out there, Carlton said. Information gathered during the 45 days will bring a few issues to light, but stopping the deal now is a bit harder than having the FMC simply withhold approval.
“If the FMC found something egregious, and the operative word there is ‘if,’ they would have to go to court to stop it to get an injunction,” Carlton said. "Judges will never give them an injunction if they come in and say, ‘We feel like this might be a problem.’… They have to bring a packet of evidence that says there is going to be irreparable harm and damage, and anti-competitive behavior. It’s a high bar; it should be a high bar.”
During a press conference at the NIT League’s annual conference in Houston, Carlton pointed out the largest trade lane is Asia to Europe, and thus European authorities may be more concerned about the deal than their American counterparts. The same holds true for shippers.
“I think they are more concerned in Europe than shippers are so far in the United States,” Carlton said.
Fresh off the heels of a denial by the European Union to approve a merger between UPS and TNT, the deal might receive a bit more attention across the Atlantic. Carlton expects European regulators to look at how the other carriers in the arena will respond to such a deal. Carlton noted he was told last week that EU regulators have begun looking at the deal, but admitted he has no idea what that might mean for the proposed alliance.
On the American side, Carlton has written the FMC with a list of questions to ask, and he does believe the commission will submit a list of probing questions to the carriers soon.
“The customer wants to know what’s the market impact of bringing the three biggest containership operators together — what’s going to end up happening to prices, what ports are going to be served — that’s what customers care about,” he said.
(The FMC on Tuesday afternoon said it is "accepting further public comment on the P3 Network Vessel Sharing Agreement" of Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM until midnight Friday, Nov. 29.)
Dupont’s Mary Pileggi, who serves as the organization’s second vice chairman, said her company, and shippers in general, have much the same worries as those expressed by the NIT League.
“We are concerned that you could see less capacity, less of a chance to get goods to market when the customer wants them, that the pricing could change based on what they do between the three of them,” she said.
Whatever happens with the vessel-sharing deal, Carlton said, the combination of the three large shipping lines is a “game changer” in the industry that will lead to the companies having a 45 percent market share.
“All of us know why they’re doing this; there is just way too much capacity out there chasing cargo. They’re driving a lot of air around the world, so they’re going to take ships out of the trade,” he said.
Carlton continued, “The business model of the containership owners, operators and stockholders is not working and is not sustainable. They cannot continue to lose this amount of money every year and expect to survive. We know they’ve got to change the game.”