GEOJE, South Korea (Reuters) - Geoje Island, off the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, appears as prosperous as ever: foreign cars cruise the streets, young mothers pushing strollers converge on coffee shops, and workers on motorcycles pour into bustling shipyards.
It is what comes next that worries people in Geoje, the world's largest producer of ships by tonnage.
South Korean shipbuilders are facing their biggest ever crisis, with mass layoffs expected later this year as finished vessels leave the shipyards and few new orders come in.
"We've never had a serious downturn - ever," Kim Hyeon-gyu, director of Geoje's main industrial park, said on the sidelines of a public hearing to discuss looming layoffs.
Because it takes about two years to build a ship, Geoje's docks are still busy. But without a major uptick in orders by September, which looks unlikely, 20,000 shipbuilding jobs in Geoje will be lost by March, city officials say.
Some 70 percent of Geoje residents rely for a living on shipbuilding, an industry that for four decades was a key engine of South Korea's export-driven growth and still employs about 200,000 across the country.
Now, a global slump in trade and commodities, plus rising competition from China, is forcing Geoje to find ways to ease its dependence on the shipyards.
"Past strong shipbuilding growth made us lax in finding ways for the tourists to spend money here instead of driving through," said Kwon Min-ho, the mayor of Geoje, which is building a 424-room resort as part of a plan to expand its tourist infrastructure.
But the shift is painful.
Subcontractors at the massive Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and Samsung Heavy Industries Co Ltd yards in Geoje and at Hyundai Heavy Industries Co Ltd in nearby Ulsan are especially hard-hit.
"The number of subcontractors going out of business has exploded this year," said Kim Dong-sung, an official with a lobby group representing them. "Unpaid wages and bonuses plus 20-30 percent pay cuts are now seen as the norm."
In the first quarter of this year, South Korea's total shipbuilding industry landed just eight orders totalling 171,188 CGT (compensated gross tonnage).
That compares with 68 ships totalling 2,886,589 CGT in the same period last year and roughly 100 per quarter during a 2003-2008 industry boom that saw massive capacity expansion.
The legacy of those boom days is still apparent, even as activity slows.
Geoje's gross regional domestic product exceeded $50,000 (£34,504) per person in 2013, nearly double the $27,214 national average in 2015, according to the Bank of Korea.
A short drive from traditional fishing villages and the massive shipyards stand smart apartment blocks resembling those of Seoul's well-to-do suburbs. The island's 270,000 residents include 14,800 foreigners mainly working in the shipyards as shipowner representatives or workers, giving Geoje's city centre a cosmopolitan feel.
"Business is alright near tourist spots, but it has slowed down in downtown stores," said Lee Mi-eun, owner of a large beef rib soup restaurant near one of Samsung's shipyards. "People ask for lower-priced menus, come in smaller groups."
Shipbuilding here was largely spared the state-driven restructuring many other South Korean industries went through during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis as it earned valuable dollars and had years of orders in place.
While in the aftermath, some shipbuilders were bankrupted or sold, and Daewoo Shipbuilding was bailed out by a state-run bank, industry heavyweights built a dominant position against European and Japanese rivals.
More recently, as orders for traditional ships dried up or moved to China, Daewoo, Samsung and Hyundai - the world's three largest shipbuilders - bid aggressively to build complex, expensive offshore oil and gas facilities.
That kept the yards humming but cost overruns and delays led to combined net losses of $4.9 billion for the three giants in 2015.
Under prodding by Seoul, shipbuilders have been shedding assets and cutting staff and wages in hopes of riding out the downturn.
Clarksons Research previously said it expects global commercial ship orders to begin resuming some time around late 2017, with a full recovery only emerging in 2020.
Seen as "too-big-to-fail", the government is looking for ways to shore up the solvency of state-run creditor banks in the event that they need to step in to save one of the giant shipbuilders before then.
Cho Hyun-woo, planning manager at the Daewoo Shipbuilding workers' union, said restructuring should not cut so deeply that the industry loses expertise it has developed for high-end structures, which it should bid on once demand returns.
"If you kill the technology that can make these ships when they are ordered en masse starting 2018, it's painfully obvious the technology will go to China or Japan," he said.
By Joyce Lee
(Editing by Tony Munroe and Lincoln Feast)
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In 2017, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global – also known as the Oil Fund – proposed a complete divestment of oil and gas shares from its massive portfolio. Last week, the Norwegian government partially approved that request, allowing the Fund to exclude 134 upstream companies from the wealth fund. Players like Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, CNOOC, Premier Oil, Soco International and Tullow Oil will now no longer receive any investment from the Fund. That might seem like an inconsequential move, but it isn’t. With over US$1 trillion in assets – the Fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – it is a major market-shifting move.
Estimates suggest that the government directive will require the Oil Fund to sell some US$7.5 billion in stocks over an undefined period. Shares in the affected companies plunged after the announcement. The reaction is understandable. The Oil Fund holds over 1.3% of all global stocks and shares, including 2.3% of all European stocks. It holds stakes as large as of 2.4% of Royal Dutch Shell and 2.3% of BP, and has long been seen as a major investor and stabilising force in the energy sector.
It is this impression that the Fund is trying to change. Established in 1990 to invest surplus revenues of the booming Norwegian petroleum sector, prudent management has seen its value grow to some US$200,000 per Norwegian citizen today. Its value exceeds all other sovereign wealth funds, including those of China and Singapore. Energy shares – specifically oil and gas firms – have long been a major target for investment due to high returns and bumper dividends. But in 2017, the Fund recommended phasing out oil exploration from its ‘investment universe’. At the time, this was interpreted as yielding to pressure from environmental lobbies, but the Fund has made it clear that the move is for economic reasons.
Put simply, the Fund wants to move away from ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. Income from Norway’s vast upstream industry – it is the largest producing country in Western Europe – funds the country’s welfare state and pays into the Fund. It has ethical standards – avoiding, for example, investment in tobacco firms – but has concluded that devoting a significant amount of its assets to oil and gas savings presents a double risk. During the good times, when crude prices are high and energy stocks booming, it is a boon. But during a downturn or a crash, it is a major risk. With typical Scandinavian restraint and prudence, the Fund has decided that it is best to minimise that risk by pouring its money into areas that run counter-cyclical to the energy industry.
However, the retreat is just partial. Exempt from the divestment will be oil and gas firms with significant renewable energy divisions – which include supermajors like Shell, BP and Total. This is touted as allowing the Fund to ride the crest of the renewable energy wave, but also manages to neatly fit into the image that Norway wants to project: balancing a major industry with being a responsible environmental steward. It’s the same reason why Equinor – in which the Fund holds a 67% stake – changed its name from Statoil, to project a broader spectrum of business away from oil into emerging energies like wind and solar. Because, as the Fund’s objective states, one day the oil will run out. But its value will carry on for future generations.
The Norway Oil Fund in a Nutshell