Within the global liner market, the 2M partnership, comprised of MSC and Maersk, is scheduled to discontinue in 2025. This change will alter the landscape of a sector traditionally dominated by three major alliances with roughly comparable market share. Post-2025, both MSC and Maersk will return to their status as independent carriers, while two mega-alliances will emerge, with one poised to be significantly larger than the other, according to Alphaliner.
Alphaliner, a prominent industry analyst, anticipates that the transition of the 2M partnership will unfold smoothly, given that Vessel Sharing Agreement (VSA) members MSC and Maersk have already initiated the process of disentangling their operations. Most 2M shipping routes now predominantly involve the operation of vessels from a single carrier, rather than a mixed fleet. Meanwhile, cooperation within THE Alliance is expected to continue without major disruptions.
The Ocean Alliance, which already stands as the world’s largest carrier grouping in terms of deployed capacity, is projected to experience substantial growth in the coming years. This expansion might prompt regulatory bodies to reconsider and redefine the permissible market share for mega-alliances, as no explicit limits have been established thus far.
Historically, the only instance of regulatory intervention against a new liner shipping alliance was in 2013 when the Chinese government vetoed the Maersk, MSC, and CMA CGM’s joint P3 Network proposal, aiming to protect the interests of its national carrier, COSCO.
In response, Maersk and MSC formed the 2M Vessel Sharing Agreement (VSA) in January 2015, initially for ten years. This cooperative venture was driven by the need to optimize the utilization of their megamax ships during a period marked by exceedingly low freight rates.
The Ocean Alliance, comprising CMA CGM, COSCO SHIPPING Lines, Evergreen, and OOCL, was launched in April 2017 for an initial five-year term, with an option for an additional five years. Presently, it boasts a fleet of 303 container ships, representing a total capacity of 4.22 million twenty-foot equivalent units (Mteu), making it larger than both the 2M VSA and THE Alliance, which each have a comparable capacity of around 3.1 Mteu. The Ocean Alliance’s market share in terms of fleet capacity deployed currently stands at 34% on the Asia – Europe trade and 35% on Asia – North America routes.
This share is expected to grow further as the Ocean Alliance members have a combined orderbook of nearly 2.38 Mteu for delivery starting in 2024, even when considering only ships with a capacity of 13,000 teu or larger.
While not all of these new vessels will be dedicated to Ocean Alliance services, the construction of 36 ‘megamax’ ships is intended for the Asia – Europe trade, with plans for three weekly loops.
In line with COSCO SHIPPING Lines’ announcement, the current Ocean Alliance ‘Day 7’ Product, introduced in January, is based on the deployment of 353 ships with a total capacity of 4.62 Mteu, marking a 49% increase since its launch in April 2017. In comparison, the global cellular fleet expanded by 27.5% during the same period. Furthermore, the average size of container ships deployed in Ocean Alliance routes increased from nearly 9,600 teu to over 13,000 teu.
Regarding the 2M partnership, MSC’s current capacity of 1.43 Mteu deployed on 2M services may seem modest when compared to the Ocean Alliance. Nevertheless, MSC, a Swiss carrier owned by the Italian Aponte family, operates numerous East-West services beyond the scope of the 2M VSA. In 2023, MSC expanded its fleet with 14 megamax ships (approximately 24,000 teu) and 18 neo-panamax vessels (around 15,200 – 16,550 teu), holding the largest orderbook for deliveries in 2024 and 2025. In fact, MSC’s total fleet capacity already surpasses the combined capacity of Hapag-Lloyd, ONE, HMM, and Yang Ming, which together constitute THE Alliance.
The separation of MSC from Maersk is expected to proceed smoothly, as MSC possesses sufficient tonnage to operate its East – West network independently. The two partners have already taken steps to streamline the 2M fleet, with services that once involved a mix of MSC and Maersk ships gradually shifting to a single ship operator per route.
Maersk, equally capable of establishing its East-West network, plans to introduce ‘green’ loops operated with methanol-powered vessels. It is unlikely that the capacity of these loops will be shared with competitors, although some ad hoc slot exchange agreements might remain a possibility.
For THE Alliance, which consists of Hapag-Lloyd and Ocean Network Express (ONE) as its key members, no major changes are anticipated. This German-Japanese collaboration has its roots in the early days of containerization and has evolved over the years, forming a cornerstone for today’s THE Alliance, along with HMM and Yang Ming.
Contrary to certain media reports suggesting that the alliances may need adjustments following the European Commission’s decision not to extend carriers’ exemption from regular competition law for consortia (when market share is below 30%), shipping alliances remain a legitimate means for liner operators to cooperate. As long as carrier groupings, even with market shares exceeding 30%, do not unduly hinder competition and receive formal regulatory approval, they will continue to operate normally. However, the Ocean Alliance’s planned expansion may serve as a test case for assessing the permissible size of mega-alliances in the future.