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Shipshape? What you need to know about Hanjin’s troubles

Hanjin Shipping has limited impact on economy: Nomura
Hanjin Shipping has limited impact on economy: Nomura

One of the world's biggest container shipping lines just saw its financing jump ship, with ports across the globe blocking or seizing its vessels.

The downfall of the South Korean shipper, Hanjin Shipping, has already sent shockwaves across businesses globally.

What has happened?

Banks stopped providing financial support to Hanjin Shipping, which has been bleeding red ink.

For the first quarter, Hanjin Shipping reported a net loss of 261.1 billion South Korean won ($233.6 million) on sales of 1.59 trillion won, citing freight rates' drop to record lows.

That spurred the shipping line to file for court receivership this week, a process that'll mean the judicial system will decide whether Hanjin will remain a going concern.

By Friday, Hanjin said 44 out of its 98 container ships have been denied access to ports around the world and one ship was seized, Reuters reported.

Hanjin hasn't been alone in struggling in the current market, analysts said.

"This is a reflection of the current turmoil in the shipping markets where oversupply of ships is simply killing the market," Pradeep Rajan, senior managing editor for Asia Pacific shipping and freight at S&P Global Platts, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Friday. "It's simply too many ships and freight rates at historical lows."

Nomura, in a research note on Wednesday, noted that South Korean shipping companies took a particular hit as they set their charter rates on leased vessels in 2010 at high levels, prior to a drop in shipping rates.

So does this mean my kid won’t get his Elmo for Christmas?

Hanjin is a significant player. Industry data provider Alphaliner placed Hanjin Shipping at the seventh largest globally, with a 2.9 percent market share; that compared with the largest, APM-Maersk, with around 622 ships and a 15.4 percent market share.

On its website, Maersk Line said that around 90 percent of global trade was transported by ship.

Hanjin's receivership has hit as the retailers were awaiting their shipments of Christmas goodies.

"The goods stuck on Hanjin ships are largely for the shelves on the run up to Christmas," noted Greg Knowler, the Asia editor for maritime and trade at IHS Markit, in an email to CNBC.

That's not lost on retailers preparing for their busiest time of year.

Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said in a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Maritime Commission on Thursday that "the prospect of harm is significant and apparent," with the potential for a "ripple effect" throughout global supply chains.

She added that ports were refusing to release cargo without assurances payment would be made.

Kennedy noted that Hanjin represented nearly 8 percent of transpacific trade volume for the U.S. market.

One of the ripple effects could be higher prices for holiday shoppers. Freight rates for routes out of South Korea have surged as much as 50 percent, according to media reports.

That could affect shipments from some of South Korea's largest exporters.

Daniel Yoo, a strategist at Kiwoom Securities, told CNBC that Hanjin handled more than 50 percent of Samsung Electronics' device shipments from South Korea to the Americas and 23 percent of LG Electronics' appliances.

LG Electronics, one of the world's largest TV-makers, was looking for contingency shipping arrangements for its electronics, Reuters reported.

What’s the impact on the broader industry?

Even if Hanjin were to be entirely wound up, it's not clear that it would affect the industry much.

"Ironically, the collapse of Hanjin will do nothing to address the excess capacity in the industry," IHS Markit's Knowler said, noting that the ships it operates will be sold or taken over with other charters.

"Hanjin exiting the market will not reduce the overall amount of ships," he said. "It doesn't ease the fundamental problem of too many ships and too little cargo to put on them."

Knowler didn't expect Hanjin to herald a wave of shipping failures, but he noted that it could speed up efforts to consolidate the industry into fewer players.

But Kiwoom Securities' Yoo was slightly more optimistic, taking Hanjin's likely demise as a sign that shipping rates may have hit bottom.

He expected that U.S. demand will begin to pick up, while China's demand would stabilize and the European Union's malaise would bottom, likely leading to improvement in global trade.

Will Hanjin’s bankruptcy hurt South Korea?

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Analysts didn't expect that any swan song by Hanjin would weigh on the country's economy that much.

Young Sun Kwon, an economist at Nomura, said in a note Wednesday that the direct economic impact would be limited, although it might weigh on sentiment in the local credit market.

He said in an interview with CNBC on Friday that there were some temporary downside risks from delays to exporters' shipments, but he noted that South Korea's government had already implemented corporate restructuring in the shipping industry.

When it comes to the banks, Kiwoom Securities' Yoo expected that the impact on South Korea's banking industry would be limited, as the sector became aware of Hanjin's difficulties in early 2015 and had already provisioned against potential losses.

He estimated that Korea Development Bank and government-owned banks may lose around $1 billion, while Korean Air, also part of parent Hanjin Group, could lose as much as $700 million.

But letting Hanjin Shipping go could be a longer-term positive for associate Korean Air.

While the national carrier could face impairment for its remaining interest in Hanjin Shipping, the airline likely would no longer be on the hook to provide the shipper with financial subsidies, Citigroup said in a report on Thursday.

It noted expectations were that Korean Air would have needed to inject another 700 billion won to save the shipper.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1