When the shipping market boom of the 2000s came to an abrupt end with the onset of the financial crisis in late 2008, vessel earnings underwent a severe and well-documented downturn. Almost six years on, it may seem there have been ups and downs since then, but for the shipping markets as a whole, to what extent has this been the case?

Cashflow Crunch

Since the onset of the downturn in Q4 2008, although residual asset values have survived relatively well (see the analysis in SIW 1134), vessel cashflow has struggled. The graph makes this clear, showing the quarterly average of the Clarksea Index since the start of 2007. Following the huge recalibration of earnings in late 2008, the average of the ClarkSea Index in Q1 2009 stood at $11,516/day. After five and a half years of painful downturn, in Q3 2014 (to 22 Aug), the average was $10,900/day, just 5% different. Are we back to square one?

Well, although it is the case that there have been some interesting moves in the markets since end 2008, the average value of the Clarksea Index has moved within a quite narrow band. The quarterly average of the index peaked $5,522/day above the ‘post-downturn’ average (since end 2008) and has dipped as far as $3,078/day below the average. Across this period, the average divergence of the quarterly average from the post-downturn average has been just $1,864/day, with 14 of the 23 quarters seeing the index within $2,000/day of the average ‘line’.

Bouncing Up (And Down)

The post-downturn period can be split into phases. In Phase 1, late 2009 through to mid-2011 the index ‘bounced’ from its post-crash trough on the back of Chinese government stimulus driving the bulk markets and the rapid reactivation of boxships idle in the immediate aftermath of the downturn. During this phase the quarterly index averaged 19% ‘above the line’. But in the face of hefty supply side growth it wasn’t to last and during Phase 2 (2012 and 1H 2013) the gains ebbed away and the quarterly index remained resolutely between $8,623 and $10,767/day, averaging 20% ‘below the line’.

Great Expectations?

Phase 3 in 2H 2013 was relatively short-lived. Big bulkers and tankers staged a rally in late 2013, a year in which investors seemed to have started to scent the bottom of the market (leading to 2,818 new ship orders in all, up from 1,506 in 2012). In Q4 13 and Q1 14 the quarterly index values were ‘above the line’ by $1,089/day (9%) on average.

Still At Square One (Or Not?)

But in Q2 and Q3 14 the index averaged 12% ‘below the line’, and has now moved within a $4,650/day range for the last 15 quarters. On 22 August the index stood at $11,249/day, more or less where it was in Q1 2009. Analysts point to improving fundamentals, and some sectors are seeing traction, but in overall terms we’re still waiting for take off from market conditions too close to subsistence for many. Despite resilient asset prices, helped by itchy investors and low interest rates, industry cash flow has remained within a narrow band for the last six years. Here’s hoping for a lucky number 7!