The world's largest ocean carriers

Maersk, MSC, Cosco... which of the world's ocean carriers do you think moves the most freight?

When it comes to global trade, the ocean is basically a vast, busy highway

At least 11 billion tons of goods across 50,000 commercial ships are transported by sea every year. That translates into an average of nearly 1.5 tons shipped per person on earth. Globally, an estimated 90% of the world’s goods are shipped via ocean or sea freight.

In a world that is still as globalized as ever despite the setbacks and supply chain snarls resulting from the covid-19 pandemic, ocean liners remain the primary channel by which global trade operates. Moreover, while businesses from retailers to manufacturers to car makers, as well as end consumers, spent the vast majority of 2021 coping with supply shortages, labor scarcity, exorbitant shipping rates and consumer price inflation, container lines actually saw some of their most bullish returns in decades. In light of that, we thought we’d take a look at the 5 ocean carriers running the game and moving ~65% of the total volume of shipped goods today.

Got any guesses?

Mediterranean Shipping Company

Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has just recently been crowned the world’s largest shipping company by capacity. MSC, founded in 1970, is a Switzerland-based shipping line founded by Gianluigi Aponte, an Italian businessman. While based in Europe, with one of its most strategic ports in Antwerp, Belgium, MSC’s footprint is very much global with a footprint in over 155 countries. 

  • 🏆 Rank: #1
  • 📦 Capacity (in twenty-foot equivalent units): 4.3M
  • 📊 Market Share: 17%
  • 🚢 Number of Ships Owned: 600+

Maersk Line

Until very recently, Maersk, a Danish shipping line founded in 1928, had ranked as the single largest ocean shipping company in the world. It was only displaced from the top spot very recently by MSC. Maersk plays such a crucial role in contributing to its home country’s economy its revenues generate 10%-15% of Denmark’s GDP. Despite losing pole position, Maersk remains a pioneer, making great strides in digitizing internal and operational processes in an industry infamous for its aversion to innovation. Recently, it invested in a number of carbon-neutral methanol-powered vessels.

  • 🏆 Rank: #2
  • 📦 Capacity (in twenty-foot equivalent units): 4.3M (1,888 fewer than MSC)
  • 📊 Market Share: 17%
  • 🚢 Number of Ships Owned: 700+


CMA CGM, a French shipping line based out of Marseille was founded 42 years ago in 1978 by Jacques Saade. While CMA only broke into the top 10 ocean carriers in the early 2000s, the company has established itself among the elite in the ocean freight ecosystem, receiving widespread recognition for its rapid growth and expansion strategy. Today, it operates well above 200 shipping routes between 450+ ports. More recently, in 2018, CMA CGM set up Zebox, a logistics innovation-focused startup incubator in partnership with Accenture, EY, Ceva, Centrimex & BNP Paribas, at its headquarters in Marseille. 

  • 🏆 Rank: #3
  • 📦 Capacity (in twenty-foot equivalent units): 3.2M
  • 📊 Market Share: 12.7%
  • 🚢 Number of Ships Owned: 600+

COSCO Shipping

COSCO Shipping, the largest shipping company in China, is a Chinese state-owned transportation and logistics company. Originally established in 1961 as China Ocean Shipping Company Limited, as a subsidiary of China Ocean Shipping Group, COSCO Shipping was spun off in 2016 following a merger between its predecessor and China Shipping Group. The company’s fleet is among the largest in the world with 1310 vessels on record as of March 2020. Having been established at the heart of the world’s largest exporter, COSCO has benefited tremendously from China’s ascent as a global trade and economic powerhouse.

  • 🏆 Rank: #4
  • 📦 Capacity (in twenty-foot equivalent units): 2.9M
  • 📊 Market Share: 11.5%
  • 🚢 Number of Ships Owned: 1300+


Hapag Lloyd, founded in Hamburg, Germany a little over 50 years ago in 1970, as a result of a merger between 19th century companies Hamburg American Line and North German Lloyd. It is the fifth largest shipping company in the world by container capacity and second largest in Europe. Unlike the previous five companies, Hapag-Lloyd has been a public company for over 6 years, having listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in October 2015.

  • 🏆 Rank: #5
  • 📦 Capacity (in twenty-foot equivalent units): 1.7M
  • 📊 Market Share: 6.7%
  • 🚢 Number of Ships Owned: 250+

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Over the past 3 years, freight rates all across the world’s most important trade routes have increased dramatically as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent impact on market trends, supply chains and consumer behavior. In particular, no container prices have soared more than those pertaining to Asia-U.S. trade lanes. Between January 2019 and December 2021, forty-foot equivalent (FEUs) container rates rose 320% from around $2,650 to $11,150, after having peaked at $16,100 in September 2021. What that means for the world’s largest carriers is a substantial boost in revenues and profit margins, yielding monumental amounts of cash to be reinvested in consolidation, technological innovation, and vertical integration. While the supply chain crisis is expected to subside over the course of 2022, the financial impact of this episode will likely change the scope of carrier operations for years to come.

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