Who would have thought it? Nowadays a surprising number of people around the world seem to know about shipbuilding. Even taxi drivers can sometimes tell you there’s been a shipbuilding boom, and they’re right. For two decades the maritime industry watched in awe as shipyard output grew eightfold from 19m dwt in the early 1990s to 166m dwt in 2011.

Nice Steady Investment Story

Then came the crash. Deliveries dropped to 109m dwt in 2013, a big fall, but not the disaster many expected. Somehow the industry bailed itself out, and while lower deliveries grabbed the limelight, the yards were running flat out to keep up with the new investment profile which was throwing them a lifeline. In the run-up to the boom, 42% of estimated investment was in the tanker and container sectors; 50% in bulk and specialised, and 7% in gas. This pattern was largely maintained during the boom. All nice and steady, but then everything changed.

All Change for the Recession

Since 2008, there has been a major re-alignment in market shares, as structural changes in these segments have altered investment patterns. Tankers and containerships have suffered, falling to 22% (the tanker share fell from 24% in the boom years to 12%, and containers from 18% to 10%). Meanwhile, the bulk and specialised share jumped to almost 70%.

Time for Transition

On the tanker side, high oil prices, sluggish OECD growth and greater US energy self-sufficiency have all nibbled at demand. Meanwhile container trade growth has slowed since the boom and the sector is still struggling to absorb overcapacity. No wonder investors are easing back.

Luckily for the shipyards, bulkers and specialised vessels have stepped up to fill the gap. Bulkers have accounted for 25% of investment since 2008, similar to their share during the booming 2000s. This has been helpful for Japan and China, who dominate bulker building. And they have achieved it without taking too much of a cut on prices, which have been edging up in 2013 and 2014.

A Specialised Focus

But the real star is the specialised sector, which has accounted for 43% of estimated investment since 2008, up from 27% in 2003-2008. Cruise did pretty well, but the super-star, especially for the Korean yards, was the boom in offshore investment, including alternative energy like offshore wind farms. Offshore investment jumped from $34bn in 2008 to $47bn in 2012. Really quite exciting, but challenging for the yards.

Where Next?

So there you have it. For the time being the shipyards have struggled through, thanks to this switch in product range. Although tricky, the bulkers are keeping Japan and China busy and specialised was a nice bonus, especially for the big Korean yards. But switching product range is always difficult, and that really is the issue for the future. The first rule of shipbuilding recessions is “you never know what they’ll order next” but it’s often completely different. Have a nice day.