Transport business in the Baltics is in recession, with only Lithuania experiencing a slightly brighter picture
Coface records recovery in air transport, but pre-pandemic figures not yet reached.
The transport sector is the one with the highest improvement in risk scores in the latest Coface Quarterly Survey, although the global macroeconomic outlook remains uncertain. Coface experts note that air transport forecasts and new aircraft orders are providing greater optimism. Transport business is rated higher in Western Europe, the Middle East and Japan, while in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), including the Baltic states, the transport sector continues to be rated the highest risk. The transport sector in Estonia and Latvia is facing more challenges this year, while in Lithuania the situation has started to improve since Q2, with a decrease in bankruptcies and an increase in the forecasts for businesses.
According to Coface experts, the higher scores in the transport sector are mainly due to the recovery of the Chinese economy and global tourism, as well as to public policy decisions, such as the priority given to rail traffic in Germany. However, overall risks to the transport sector remain very high due to high energy costs and demand still below pre-pandemic levels.
Head of Coface Baltics, Mindaugas Sventickas, points out that it is air transport that has been the activity most affected in the global transport sector, and that it is now recovering rapidly. This is due to the gradual economic recovery from the second half of 2021 onwards, significantly influenced by the opening up of Japan (end of 2022) and China (early 2023), which has facilitated travel conditions for international tourists.
The Coface survey shows that while the number of commercial flights has increased and is now even above pre-pandemic levels, seat occupancy rates remain lower. For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, total passenger traffic in April 2023 increased by 171% compared to April last year, thanks in particular to China. Despite the strong growth, demand in this region remains lower than in 2019 (-18% in April 2023 compared to April 2019).
New orders for Airbus and Boeing aircraft are rising: aiming to fly greener and save fuel
In Western Europe and the United States, Airbus and Boeing have also reported an increase in aircraft orders, reaching 774 Boeing and 820 Airbus aircraft in 2022. At the 2022 Paris Air Show, a number of new orders were announced, with Air IndiGo ordering 500 A320 aircraft and Air India ordering 250 Airbus and 220 Boeing aircraft. According to the experts at Coface, this acceleration in the aerospace industry has prompted the decision to improve the risk assessment of the transport sector in some countries, e.g. France. Many of the production processes of Airbus are carried out in France, with production sites spread over Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. This has contributed to a better assessment of the transport sector across Western Europe.
“It is also worth noting that the main players in the air transport industry are pursuing a strategy that takes environmental concerns into account. On the one hand, this motivates manufacturers to innovate in order to develop ‘cleaner’ aircraft. On the other hand, it encourages airlines to upgrade their fleets to use less energy,” comments Sventickas.
Cargo transport by sea decreases by almost one third
The situation is different in maritime transport, where activity is slowing down slightly after two exceptional years. Declining sea freight rates, high energy costs and stagflation are adversely affecting the financial performance of sea carriers. The revenues of Maersk and CMA CGM in Q1 2023 decreased by 26% and 30% respectively compared to Q1 last year, although they remain significantly higher than in Q1 2019.
This drop in revenue is primarily due to price effects (a fall in freight rates), while the drop in volumes is smaller, with a 3% annual decrease in the container index for January–April 2023. This drop in volumes is partly passed on to rail and motor transport, which is primarily used for the transport of cargo from ports.
Passenger transport in the Baltic States has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels
When analysing air passenger flows in the Baltic states for the period 2019–2023, the highest passenger traffic is traditionally observed in Q3 of each year. After the pandemic, air passenger traffic in all of the Baltic states, although slowly increasing, has not yet reached the levels recorded in 2019. For example, in Q3 2019, the number of air passengers in Estonia reached 954,000, in Latvia 2,299,000 and in Lithuania 1,821,000. In the same period last year (Q3 2022), the figures were 841,000 (88%), 1,711,000 (71%) and 1,677,000 (92%) respectively. According to Eurostat and Coface, the total number of passengers carried by air in the Baltic states in 2022 was 13,434, compared to 6,094 in 2021, 4,657 in 2020 and 17,548 in 2019.
The situation in rail passenger transport is slightly better. For example, in Q3 2019, the number of passengers in Estonia was 2,105,000, in Latvia 5,256,000 and in Lithuania 1,287,000. In the same period last year, the figures were 1,837,000 (87%), 4,835,000 (92%) and 1,292,000 (100%) respectively. The total number of passengers carried by rail in the Baltic states in 2022 was 27,289, compared to 21,069 in 2021, 22,085 in 2020 and 31,986 in 2019. In Q1 of this year, the figure for the Baltic countries was 6,485.
Sventickas notes that the Lithuanian transport sector is distinguished from other Baltic countries by more optimistic forecasts for 2023: “Although the situation in the Lithuanian transport sector deteriorated in the first quarter of this year, we have seen some positive trends since the second quarter of this year: the transport of freight by sea and water has stabilised and the transport of freight by land has returned to almost pre-pandemic levels. Since February this year, the forecasts of transport companies in Lithuania have become more stable, while previously they had been declining for several months.”
Creditinfo: Optimism of Lithuanian transport companies is good news for almost 200,000 employees in the sector
According to 2022 data, Lithuania’s transport and storage sector generated 11.2% of the country’s GDP, which is 2.6 times more than the average for other EU countries. In total, there are currently 8,568 transport and logistics companies in Lithuania, employing 171,300 people, i.e. a quarter more than in 2019.
Jekaterina Rojaka, Head of Business Development and Strategy at Creditinfo Lietuva, points out that the majority (72%) of companies in the transport sector in Lithuania are involved in road freight transport. According to the data of July this year, even 6,195 out of 8,568 transport companies registered in Lithuania indicate that their main activity is transportation of goods by land. Transport accounts for over 55% of Lithuania’s total exports of services. The number of air and water transport companies is 21 and 37 respectively; 2,233 companies in the sector provide storage and transport-related activities and 82 companies provide postal and courier services.
“During the pandemic, the risk exposure of Lithuanian transport companies increased due to travel restrictions, changes in the demand for goods, and then the rise in fuel prices,” says Rojaka. “In 2022, there was a sharp increase in the number of bankruptcies in the transport sector, which started to stabilise this year. In the first half of this year, bankruptcies in the transport sector accounted for only 6% of all company bankruptcies, compared to 24% in the trade sector and 20% in the construction sector. In total, 35 transport service companies have gone bankrupt since the beginning of the year, compared to 50 companies in the sector that went into bankruptcy in the same period last year.”
Rojaka says that although the number of bankruptcies of transport companies has decreased, the number of new companies has slowed down slightly: last year, despite bankruptcies, new companies were actively registering, while in the first four months of this year that number has contracted by 2%. According to a representative of the credit bureau, transport companies have started to borrow more, and the average debt of a company has increased by approximately 35%. There is also a lower number of companies with a low risk of bankruptcy, that is 58.1%, compared to the overall assessment of Lithuanian business of 69.5%. The share of companies in the transport sector experiencing financial difficulties in 2022 is lower than the national average, and amounts to 13.2% (compared to 17.6% for the economy as a whole).
“With the slowdown in domestic consumption in the EU, transport service providers continue to face challenges this year, with competition in the sector increasing due to limited demand, and service fees shrinking. Waterborne transport has seen a particularly sharp fall: The Baltic Dry index contracted by 57% over the year, and this year similar trends have been observed in road transport,” explains Rojaka. “The best short-term prospects for the sector at the moment are for airlines, which are steadily both increasing the number of flights and trying to rebuild the revenues lost in the pandemic. With inflation gradually slowing and demand stabilising, the situation for land and water transport companies should improve next year.”