the Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy

Last week Hanjin Shipping (HS), a subsidiary of the Korean Hanjin Group, one of that country’s big industrial conglomerates, filed for bankruptcy.

Korean chaebol conglomerates, their analogue of the Japanese zaibatsu/keiretsu, have traditionally been highly financially leveraged, at least in part on the assumption–again along Japanese lines–of unlimited financial support from the nation’s banks.

I decided long ago that there wasn’t enough payoff for me as investor to spend the time it would take to understand the ins and outs of Korean economic politics.  So I don’t know know why HS was allowed to enter bankruptcy, or whether an effective rescue will ultimately be mounted by the Seoul government.  (The Financial Times says that the chairman of the Hanjin Group is going to inject $90 million into HS and that another $90 million in government loans is being made available, but that this falls short of the $500 million+ HS needs just to pay for unloading cargoes already on its ships.)

The bankruptcy itself seems to have occurred, whether by design or not, in a way that is creating maximum chaos for HS customers:

–HS ships are not being allowed to dock at their destinations, since ports are not likely to be paid docking fees.  Nor are HS ships already in port being unloaded, since dock workers are unlikely to be paid for their work, either.  So cargo in transit is effectively trapped on HS ships.

–some ships have already been seized by creditors, at least partly because HS didn’t take standard legal measures to prevent this

–the move comes close enough to the holiday selling season in the US to be threatening some domestic merchants’ efforts to stock their shelves

–the bankruptcy may disproportionately affect other South Korean chaebols, since HS handles 40% of Samsung Electronics’ exports and 20% of LG’s

Temporary supply chain disruptions aside, the HS bankruptcy is unlikely to do much to address worldwide shipping overcapacity. The ships themselves will continue to exist, although they will doubtless end up in the fleets of financially stronger owners–either third parties or a restructured Korean shipping industry.  What I find most striking about this is the lack of advance planning.


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