Visualized: Mapping the World's Key Maritime Choke Points
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Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

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Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea.

Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system.

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks—also known as choke points—as identified by GIS.

What’s a Choke Point?

Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location.

Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow, causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

The type and degree of risk varies, depending on location. Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats, at eight of the world’s major choke points.

maritime choke point risks

Because of their high risk, alternatives for some of these key routes have been proposed in the past—for instance, in 2013 Nicaraguan Congress approved a $40 billion dollar project proposal to build a canal that was meant to rival the Panama Canal.

As of today, it has yet to materialize.

A Closer Look: Key Maritime Choke Points

Despite their vulnerabilities, these choke points remain critical waterways that facilitate international trade. Below, we dive into a few of the key areas to provide some context on just how important they are to global trade.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a lock-type canal that provides a shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ships sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. save over 8,000 nautical miles by using the canal—which roughly shortens their trip by 21 days.

In 2019, 252 million long tons of goods were transported through the Panama Canal, which generated over $2.6 billion in tolls.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway that connects Europe to Asia. Without this route, ships would need to sail around Africa, which would add approximately seven days to their trips. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels, and 1 billion tons of cargo, traveled through the Suez Canal.

In an effort to mitigate risk, the Egyptian government embarked on a major expansion project for the canal back in 2015. But, given the recent blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, it’s clear that the waterway is still vulnerable to obstruction.

The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 130,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents, according to private information group ReCAAP ISC.

The Strait of Hormuz

Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, ultimately draining into the Arabian Sea. It’s a primary vein for the world’s oil supply, transporting approximately 21 million barrels per day.

Historically, it’s also been a site of regional conflict. For instance, tankers and commercial ships were attacked in that area during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another primary waterway for the world’s oil and natural gas. Nestled between Africa and the Middle East, the critical route connects the Mediterranean Sea (via the Suez Canal) to the Indian Ocean.

Like the Strait of Malacca, it’s well known as a high-risk area for pirate attacks. In May 2020, a UK chemical tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen–the ninth pirate attack in the area that year.

Due to the strategic nature of the region, there is a strong military presence in nearby Djibouti, including China’s first ever foreign military base.

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Ranked: The World’s 100 Biggest Pension Funds

The world’s 100 largest pension funds are worth over $17 trillion in total. Which ones are the biggest, and where are they located?

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A preview image of some of the largest pension funds in the world. The Government Pension Investment Fund in Japan is the biggest at $1.7 trillion in assets.

Ranked: The World’s 100 Biggest Pension Funds

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

Despite economic uncertainty, pension funds saw relatively strong growth in 2021. The world’s 100 biggest pension funds are worth over $17 trillion in total, an increase of 8.5% over the previous year.

This graphic uses data from the Thinking Ahead Institute to rank the world’s biggest pension funds, and where they are located.

What is a Pension Fund?

A pension fund is a fund that is designed to provide retirement income. This ranking covers four different types:

  • Sovereign funds: Funds controlled directly by the state. This ranking only includes sovereign funds that are established by national authorities.
  • Public sector funds: Funds that cover public sector workers, such as government employees and teachers, in provincial or state sponsored plans.
  • Private independent funds: Funds controlled by private sector organizations that are authorized to manage pension plans from different employers.
  • Corporate funds: Funds that cover workers in company sponsored pension plans.

Among the largest funds, public sector funds are the most common.

The Largest Pension Funds, Ranked

Here are the top 100 pension funds, organized from largest to smallest.

RankFundMarketTotal Assets
1Government Pension Investment Fund🇯🇵 Japan$1.7T
2Government Pension Fund🇳🇴 Norway$1.4T
3National Pension🇰🇷 South Korea$798.0B
4Federal Retirement Thrift🇺🇸 U.S.$774.2B
5ABP🇳🇱 Netherlands$630.4B
6California Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$496.8B
7Canada Pension🇨🇦 Canada$426.7B
8National Social Security🇨🇳 China$406.8B
9Central Provident Fund🇸🇬 Singapore$375.0B
10PFZW🇳🇱 Netherlands$315.5B
11California State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$313.9B
12New York State Common🇺🇸 U.S.$267.8B
13New York City Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$266.7B
14Local Government Officials🇯🇵 Japan$248.6B
15Employees Provident Fund🇲🇾 Malaysia$242.6B
16Florida State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$213.8B
17Texas Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$196.7B
18Ontario Teachers🇨🇦 Canada$191.1B
19National Wealth Fund🇷🇺 Russia$180.7B
20AustralianSuper🇦🇺 Australia$169.1B
21Labor Pension Fund🇹🇼 Taiwan$168.9B
22Washington State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$161.5B
23Public Institute for Social Security🇰🇼 Kuwait$160.0B
24ATP🇩🇰 Denmark$155.4B
25Wisconsin Investment Board🇺🇸 U.S.$147.9B
26Future Fund🇦🇺 Australia$147.9B
27Boeing🇺🇸 U.S.$147.2B
28Employees' Provident🇮🇳 India$145.0B
29New York State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$144.4B
30North Carolina🇺🇸 U.S.$137.1B
31Alecta🇸🇪 Sweden$136.7B
32GEPF🇿🇦 South Africa$129.1B
33California University🇺🇸 U.S.$125.3B
34Bayerische Versorgungskammer🇩🇪 Germany$122.0B
35Ohio Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$121.6B
36AT&T🇺🇸 U.S.$119.5B
37Public Service Pension Plan🇨🇦 Canada$117.9B
38National Federation of Mutual Aid🇯🇵 Japan$117.1B
39Metaal/tech. Bedrijven🇳🇱 Netherlands$115.8B
40IBM🇺🇸 U.S.$115.4B
41Universities Superannuation🇬🇧 UK$111.2B
42Virginia Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$110.0B
43Pension Fund Association🇯🇵 Japan$109.8B
44Raytheon Technologies🇺🇸 U.S.$108.9B
45Michigan Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$108.0B
46Aware Super🇦🇺 Australia$107.5B
47New Jersey🇺🇸 U.S.$104.5B
48Minnesota State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$102.9B
49PFA Pension🇩🇰 Denmark$102.7B
50Kaiser🇺🇸 U.S.$101.0B
51Georgia Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$100.9B
52Oregon Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$100.4B
53Massachusetts PRIM🇺🇸 U.S.$98.5B
54Qsuper🇦🇺 Australia$96.5B
55General Motors🇺🇸 U.S.$96.1B
56Ontario Municipal Employees🇨🇦 Canada$95.7B
57Ohio State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$95.1B
58AP Fonden 7🇸🇪 Sweden$94.4B
59Healthcare of Ontario🇨🇦 Canada$90.5B
60General Electric🇺🇸 U.S.$90.5B
61Employees' Pension Fund🇮🇳 India$89.5B
62Bouwnijverheid🇳🇱 Netherlands$88.5B
63UPS🇺🇸 U.S.$86.8B
64United Nations Joint Staff🇺🇸 U.S.$86.2B
65Lockheed Martin🇺🇸 U.S.$85.7B
66Quebec Pension🇨🇦 Canada$81.4B
67National Public Service🇯🇵 Japan$79.9B
68Tennessee Consolidated🇺🇸 U.S.$79.0B
69Royal Bank of Scotland Group🇬🇧 UK$78.3B
70Bank of America🇺🇸 U.S.$76.3B
71BT Group🇬🇧 UK$74.3B
72Keva🇫🇮 Finland$73.3B
73Ford🇺🇸 U.S.$72.8B
74PME🇳🇱 Netherlands$72.7B
75Los Angeles County Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$72.7B
76Quebec Government & Public🇨🇦 Canada$72.4B
77UniSuper🇦🇺 Australia$72.1B
78Northrop Grumman🇺🇸 U.S.$72.0B
79Pennsylvania School Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$70.4B
80Lloyds Banking Group🇬🇧 UK$69.7B
81Ilmarinen🇫🇮 Finland$69.1B
82Colorado Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$68.6B
83Maryland State Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$68.5B
84AMF Pension🇸🇪 Sweden$67.3B
85Varma🇫🇮 Finland$67.1B
86Wells Fargo🇺🇸 U.S.$66.0B
87Sunsuper🇦🇺 Australia$66.0B
88Verizon🇺🇸 U.S.$64.1B
89Illinois Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$64.0B
90J.P. Morgan Chase🇺🇸 U.S.$62.8B
91Electricity Supply Pension🇬🇧 UK$62.5B
92FedEx🇺🇸 U.S.$60.7B
93Nevada Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$58.8B
94B.C. Municipal🇨🇦 Canada$58.7B
95AP Fonden 4🇸🇪 Sweden$57.7B
96Missouri Schools & Education🇺🇸 U.S.$57.0B
97AP Fonden 3🇸🇪 Sweden$55.9B
98Social Insurance Funds🇻🇳 Vietnam$55.7B
99Organization for Workers🇯🇵 Japan$55.6B
100Illinois Municipal🇺🇸 U.S.$54.9B

U.S. fund data are as of Sep. 30, 2021, and non-U.S. fund data are as of Dec. 31, 2021. There are some exceptions as noted in the graphic footnotes.

Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) is the largest in the ranking for the 21st year in a row. For a time, the fund was the largest holder of domestic stocks in Japan, though the Bank of Japan has since taken that title. Given its enormous size, investors closely follow the GPIF’s actions. For instance, the fund made headlines for deciding to start investing in startups, because the move could entice other pensions to make similar investments.

America is home to 47 funds on the list, including the largest public sector fund: the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), overseen by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. Because of its large financial influence, both political parties have been accused of using it as a political tool. Democrats have pushed to divest assets in fossil fuel companies, while Republicans have proposed blocking investment in Chinese-owned companies.

Russia’s National Wealth Fund comes in at number 19 on the list. The fund is designed to support the public pension system and help balance the budget as needed. With Russia’s economy facing difficulties amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the government has also used it as a rainy day fund. For instance, Russia has set aside $23 billion from the fund to replace foreign aircraft with domestic models, because Western sanctions have made it difficult to source replacement parts for foreign planes.

The Future of Pension Funds

The biggest pension funds can have a large influence in the market because of their size. Of course, they are also responsible for providing retirement income to millions of people. Pension funds face a variety of challenges in order to reach their goals:

  • Geopolitical conflict creates volatility and uncertainty
  • High inflation and low interest rates (relative to long-term averages) limit return potential
  • Aging populations mean more withdrawals and less fund contributions

Some pension funds are turning to alternative assets, such as private equity, in pursuit of more diversification and higher returns. Of course, these investments can also carry more risk.

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, number 18 on the list, invested $95 million in the now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The plan made the investment through its venture growth platform, to “gain small-scale exposure to an emerging area in the financial technology sector.”

In this case, the investment’s failure is expected to have a minimal impact given it only made up 0.05% of the plan’s net assets. However, it does highlight the challenges pension funds face to generate sufficient returns in a variety of macroeconomic environments.

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Visualized: FTX’s Leaked Balance Sheet

As Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange FTX files for bankruptcy, this graphic visualizes FTX’s balance sheet leaked by the Financial Times.

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Visualizing FTX’s Balance Sheet Before Bankruptcy

In a difficult year for the crypto space that has been full of hacks, failing funds, and decentralized stablecoins going to zero, nothing has compared to FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF) rapid implosion.

After an astronomical rise in the crypto space over the past three years, crypto exchange FTX and its founder and CEO SBF have come crashing back down to earth, largely unraveled by their misuse of customer funds and illicit relationship with trading firm Alameda Research.

This graphic visualizes FTX’s leaked balance sheet dated to November 10th, and published by the Financial Times on November 12th. The spreadsheet shows nearly $9 billion in liabilities and not nearly enough illiquid cryptocurrency assets to cover the hole.

How did FTX wind up in this position?

How FTX’s Bankruptcy Unfolded

FTX’s eventual bankruptcy was sparked by a report on November 2nd by CoinDesk citing Alameda Research’s balance sheet. The article reported Alameda’s assets to be $14.6 billion, including $3.66 billion worth of unlocked FTT and $2.16 billion of FTT collateral.

With more than one-third of Alameda’s assets tied up in FTX’s exchange token FTT (including loans backed by the token), eyebrows were raised among the crypto community.

Four days later on November 6th, Alameda Research’s CEO, Caroline Ellison, and Sam Bankman-Fried addressed the CoinDesk story as unfounded rumors. However, on the same day, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (CZ) announced that Binance had decided to liquidate all remaining FTT on their books, kicking off a -7.6% decline in the FTT token on the day.

Back and Forth with Binance’s CZ

While Ellison publicly offered to buy CZ’s FTT directly “over the counter” to avoid further price declines and SBF claimed in a now-deleted tweet that “FTX is fine. Assets are fine.”, FTX users were withdrawing their funds from the exchange.

Less than 24 hours later on November 7th, both SBF and CZ tweeted that Binance had signed a non-binding letter of intent for the acquisition of FTX, pending due diligence.

The next day, the acquisition fell apart as Binance cited corporate due diligence, leaving SBF to face a multi-directional liquidity crunch of users withdrawing funds and rapidly declining token prices that made up large amounts of FTX and Alameda’s assets and collateral for loans.

FTX’s Liabilities and Largely Illiquid Assets

In the final days before declaring bankruptcy, FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried attempted a final fundraising in order restore stability while billions in user funds were being withdrawn from his exchange.

The balance sheet he sent around to prospective investors was leaked by the Financial Times, and reveals the exchange had nearly $9 billion in liabilities while only having just over $1 billion in liquid assets. Alongside the liquid assets were $5.4 billion in assets labeled as “less liquid” and $3.2 billion labeled as “illiquid”.

When examining the assets listed, FTX’s accounting appears to be poorly done at best, and fraudulently deceptive at worst.

Of those “less liquid” assets, many of the largest sums were in assets like FTX’s own exchange token and cryptocurrencies of the Solana ecosystem, which were heavily supported by FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried. On top of this, for many of these coins the liquidity simply wouldn’t have been there if FTX had attempted to redeem these cryptocurrencies for U.S. dollars or stablecoin equivalents.

While the liquid and less liquid assets on the balance sheet amounted to $6.3 billion (still not enough to equal the $8.9 billion in liabilities), many of these “less liquid” assets may as well have been completely illiquid.

Relationship with Alameda Research

When looking at FTX’s financials in isolation, it’s impossible to understand how one of crypto’s largest exchanges ended up with such a lopsided and illiquid balance sheet. Many of the still unfolding details lie in the exchange’s relationship with SBF’s previous venture that he founded, trading firm Alameda Research.

Founded by SBF in 2017, Alameda Research primarily operated as a delta-neutral (a term that describes trading strategies like market making and arbitrage that attempt to avoid taking directional risk) trading firm. In the summer of 2021, SBF stepped down from Alameda Research to focus on FTX, however his influence and connection with the firm was still deeply ingrained.

A report from the Wall Street Journal cites how Alameda was able to amass crypto tokens ahead of their announced public FTX listings, which were often catalysts in price surges. Alongside this, a Reuters story has revealed how SBF secretly moved $10 billion in funds to Alameda, using a bookkeeping “back door” to avoid internal scrutiny at FTX.

While SBF responded to the Reuters story by saying they “had confusing internal labeling and misread it,” there are few doubts that this murky relationship between Alameda Research and FTX was a fatal one for the former billionaire’s empire.

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