MuniLand: Panama Canal Expansion Is Changing the Shipping Industry

The opening of a wider Panama Canal and subsequent entry of Post-Panamax ship may lead to major changes in in North American seaport infrastructure and shipping routes that could materially impact seaport credit quality. The Panama Canal has been in the process of building wider canals that are set to open in mid-2015. The wider canals will allow for larger ships called Post-Panamax ships to navigate the passage that previously only smaller ships could navigate. Post-Panamax ships can carry approximately the same load as three typical container ships. Currently Post-Panamax ships account for 16% of the global ocean going vessels. However, this number is projected to be 60-70% by 2030. Ports that hope to compete for these massive ships, equal in size to 3 football fields, will need to have the port and transportation infrastructure, available land, and deep water shipping channels.  Additionally due to the cost of operating these larger ships, port calls will be limited.  Based on our research we estimate that this will have a negative impact on West Coast ports which will see their shipping volumes dip as more East Coast and Gulf Coast ports see an increase in container volume from the larger ships.  We also see a hub and spoke system forming in the global shipping industry, similar to today’s airline industry, with the Caribbean region being an ideal place for a few major hubs to service circumnavigating Post-Panamax vessels. The hub and spoke system has already been implemented in Asia where Post-Panamax ships are widely used. We are currently are watching several East Coast/Gulf Coast ports as possible plays. Several of the ports we are watching are actively improving their facilities to accommodate Post-Panamax vessels as well as the largest shipping vessels in the world. We see a couple ports in the East and Gulf coast having the potential to becoming part of a  select few major shipping hubs within the Caribbean region. Our research indicates that we can be comfortable holding our current positions in both East and West Coast ports until maturity.  However, we are watching the changing landscape in the shipping industry to take advantage of better positioned seaports that can adjust to the changes in the industry.