Protecting the Supply Chain: U.S. Government Studies the Role of Federal Agencies in Ocean Carrier Bankruptcies

Rick Antonoff and Evan Jason Zucker

In December 2018, the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act (the “LoBiondo Act”) was enacted to, among other things, improve and support the operation and administration of the Coast Guard and update maritime and environmental policy. Section 713 of the LoBiondo Act directs the Comptroller General of the United States to “conduct a study that examines the immediate aftermath of a major ocean carrier bankruptcy and its impact through the supply chain.” In accordance with that mandate, in January 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) published a report on the role of the Federal Maritime Commission (the “FMC”) and Department of Commerce (“Commerce”) in an ocean carrier’s bankruptcy case.

The study was prompted by supply chain disruption at sea and at numerous ports caused by the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping Co., Ltd. in August 2016. At the time, Hanjin was one of the world’s largest integrated logistics and container shipping companies transporting cargo to and from ports throughout the world. The GAO concluded that the FMC and Commerce played an important monitoring function in the industry, but did not recommend any changes to either agency’s role in an ocean carrier bankruptcy. This is because the GAO found that industry participants have already taken steps to mitigate the effects of another ocean carrier bankruptcy and current law does not authorize these agencies to have a more active role.

The Ocean Carrier Industry

The maritime transport industry is the backbone of globalized trade and the manufacturing supply chain. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Review of Maritime Transport 2019, more than four-fifths of world merchandise trade by volume is carried by sea. Annually, more than one trillion dollars in U.S. exports and imports are moved by ocean vessels. Prior to the current pandemic, the industry was already coping with low-freight rates, reduced earnings, and oversupply as a result of increased global tariffs, volatility in demand, and new environmental regulations. These market conditions have led to the continued consolidation of ocean carriers. “In February 2019, the [top] 10 deep-sea container-shipping lines represented 90 per cent of deployed capacity and dominated the major East-West trade routes through three alliances.” This consolidation in the industry increases the risk of disruption that the financial instability of any one shipping company can have on the global supply chain.

Scope of the GAO Study

To address the objectives mandated in the LoBiondo Act, the GAO reviewed documents filed in Hanjin’s bankruptcy case and documents provided by the FMC and Commerce. Additionally, the GAO interviewed 15 industry stakeholders representing various roles in the supply chain including representatives from four ports, two ocean carriers, one association representing carriers, one association representing freight forwarders and customs brokers, five associations or companies representing transportation and equipment providers, one association representing retailers, one association representing agricultural cargo owners, and officials with the FMC and Commerce. Continue Reading