Sunday, June 16

Why the Panama Canal Didn’t Lose Money When Ship Crossings Fell

Low water levels have forced officials to slash the number of ships that are allowed through the Panama Canal, disrupting global supply chains and pushing up transportation costs.

But, remarkably, the big drop in ship traffic has not — at least so far — led to a financial crunch for the canal, which passes on much of its toll revenue to Panama’s government.

That’s because the canal authority introduced hefty increases in tolls before the water crisis started. In addition, shipping companies have been willing to pay large sums in special auctions to secure one of the reduced number of crossings.

In the 12 months through September, the canal’s revenue rose 15 percent, to nearly $5 billion, even though the tonnage shipped through the canal fell 1.5 percent.

The Panama Canal Authority declined to say how much money it earned from auctions. At a maritime conference last week in Stamford, Conn., Ilya Espino de Marotta, the canal’s deputy administrator, said the auction fees, which reached as much as $4 million per passage last year, “helped a little bit.”

But even now, during a quieter season for global shipping, auction fees can double the cost of using the canal. This month, Avance Gas, which ships liquefied petroleum gas, paid a $401,000 auction fee and $400,000 for the regular toll, said Oystein Kalleklev, the company’s chief executive. Auction fees are ultimately borne by the company whose goods are being shipped.

The canal’s financial stability in the face of a dire water shortage shows how the people who manage crucial links in global supply chains are adapting as climate change disrupts operations. It also helps that there are no viable alternatives in Latin America to the canal, an engineering marvel that opened in 1914 and handles an estimated 5 percent of seaborne trade.

If delays continue and the cost keeps rising, however, shipping companies may find ways to avoid the canal. Last year, as the canal became backed up, ships that wanted to travel from Asia to the East Coast of the United States began going through the Suez Canal, a far longer voyage that uses much more fuel.

Many vessels are still using a western route from Asia even after the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea forced shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal and go around Africa. Mr. Kalleklev said that, after his vessels had delivered their cargo and were empty, they now typically returned to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope.

Though Panama is one of the world’s wettest countries, a sharp drop in rainfall last year deprived the canal of the water it needs for locks that raise and lower vessels into and out of the 40-mile passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Climate experts say such water shortages may become more common.

The weather pattern known as El Niño initially causes hotter and drier conditions in Panama, and scientists say climate change may be prolonging dry spells. Last year, there was 1.85 meters (six feet) of rainfall in the Panama Canal’s watershed, well below the historical annual average of 2.6 meters, according to the canal authority. Rainfall in the watershed was below average in six of the last 10 years, including years that were the second, third, sixth and seventh driest since 1950, the authority added.

To conserve water, the authority gradually reduced passages from a normal range of 36 to 38 vessels a day to 22 by December. But higher-than-expected rainfall and the canal’s water conservation measures enabled it to since raise crossings to 27 a day.

Though the number of passages is still below normal, the canal is in decent financial shape, analysts said.

Verónica Améndola, an analyst for S&P Global Ratings, expects that the canal’s revenue in the 12 months through next September will be roughly the same as a year earlier, primarily because of the toll increases. S&P Global estimates that the cost of shipping through the canal will rise to $10 a ton from $6 a ton.

This is good news for Panama’s government, which relies heavily on payments from the canal and is facing skepticism about its deficit from investors in the international bond market. The canal authority expects to pay the government $2.47 billion this year, down modestly from the record $2.54 billion that it paid last year.

Canal tolls and dividends were 24 percent of government revenue in 2023, said Todd Martinez, a co-head for the Americas at Fitch Ratings who analyzes Panama’s government finances.

“The good news is that the drought doesn’t have a terrible near-term impact on Panama’s public finances, because the canal has a lot of pricing power,” Mr. Martinez said. “But the bigger problem is the government can no longer keep relying on the canal to solve all of its other fiscal problems.”

Faced with the prospect of permanently lower rainfall, the canal authority plans to create a big new reservoir that would supply enough extra water to handle an additional 12 to 15 passages a day. Lawmakers still need to approve the project, which the authority estimates will take four to six years to complete. Panama has elections in May, but Ms. Marotta, the deputy administrator, said last week that all the presidential candidates had told the authority that they supported the reservoir.

“There’s a great understanding in Panama that life without the canal would be very difficult to deal with,” said Sebastian Briozzo, an analyst for S&P Global Ratings.