Shipping is a cyclical business. For many years, Clarksons Research has tracked the ups and downs of its cycles via the ClarkSea Index, a weighted average of vessel earnings in the main shipping sectors. In the first half of August, the index averaged less than $7,500/day, around 60% down on July 2015’s ‘mini-peak’, with most sectors having weakened. But how long should one expect a downturn to last?
As summer 2016 has progressed, owners could be forgiven an element of downturn fatigue. Average bulkcarrier earnings from January to July 2016 were 21% down year-on-year, whilst the equivalent containership index fell by 37%. Average weighted LPG carrier earnings lost 49%. Even the tanker sector, which had been buoyed by lower oil prices stimulating demand, was down by 35% in terms of its component element of the ClarkSea Index. Both crude and product tanker earnings levels have softened over the course of Q2 2016.
Nor is the decline restricted to the major sectors. Offshore drilling rig dayrates are down by a further 30% or so year-on-year, and OSV term rates about the same amount. LNG carrier spot charter rates are 24% lower. Multi-purpose vessel charter rates have also come under further pressure. Amongst the few areas to have shown signs of improvement have been the ro-ro and ferry markets, but these are far from volume sectors.
So, the industry is undergoing a downturn, and it would be reasonable to ask: how long might the pain last for? Clearly, there are external macro-economic factors, such as the policies of the Chinese state, actions by OPEC or the effects of the Brexit decision, which might have specific influences on the future. However, perhaps past cycles could provide an indication. As the graph shows, the progress of the current weaker market has followed the trend of some previous downward moves – with the clear exception of the 2008-09 crash.
The graph shows that, over the last 25 years, major downward movements in the ClarkSea Index have tended to begin to be reversed around a year to eighteen months after they began. Of course, the picture is complicated by seasonal factors. Additionally, a “dead-cat bounce” is also never off the cards: for example, the first signs of recovery in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. This improvement, between the one and two year marks on the graph, was quickly snuffed out, partly by the heavy ordering of bulkcarriers, helping to prevent a continued recovery along a similar trajectory to previous cycles.
In 2016, the market has probably learnt this lesson, with newbuild ordering numbers lower than at any point in the last two decades. Other actions are also being taken to try to turn the market balance around: ‘non-delivery’ of newbuild tonnage in the first seven months stands at 45%, whilst owners scrapped 30.2m dwt, 33% up when annualised with potential to get close to the record of 58.4m dwt set in 2012. So, it is possible that the index may follow previous trends, and begin to reverse course. But as well as a more controlled supply side, short-term demand will also help determine whether the market stalls, or can embark on the road to recovery. Have a nice holiday.