For the golfers contesting this week’s Ryder Cup, the impact of bunkers can be minimised through skill, practice and a little luck. For shipowners, bunkers are unavoidable, and over the past few years high oil prices have ensured that they have been a major handicap. Shipowners are getting plenty of practice at dealing with high oil and bunker prices, maybe they are due a change in their “luck”?

When an onlooker suggested he may have been lucky holing three bunker shots in a row, golf legend Gary Player famously replied “the more I practice, the luckier I get”. Well, over the past few years a combination of low rates and high fuel costs have given shipowners plenty of “bunker practice”.

Par For The Course

The Graph of the Week tracks the share of freight revenue accounted for by bunker costs. In the early part of the period shown, the low and relatively stable oil price ensured that bunkers did not become too much of a burden, with peaks and troughs corresponding to the strength of the freight markets. Then in 2007-08 oil prices started to rise steeply, but the strength of the freight market helped to cover the impact of rising bunker costs and ensure that the share of bunker costs remained below 50%.

In The Rough

However, in the wake of the global financial crisis, a combination of high oil prices and weaker markets caused the share of freight revenues accounted for by bunker costs to climb to much higher levels. This peaked in late 2012 and early 2013, when bunker costs exceeded 80% of freight revenue on the example tanker voyage, with the extra costs of low sulphur fuels generating even higher shares on some routes.

Driving Down Costs

Well-practiced shipowners responded by finding ways to reduce fuel consumption: slow-steaming, retro-fitting fuel-saving equipment and ordering “eco-designs”. They have found environmental regulations pulling in the same direction, and in a way helping. After all, the risk of ordering a slower but more efficient ship is greatly reduced if everyone has to do so to meet regulatory targets.

Out Of The Woods?

Further help has come from the 15% fall in oil prices since June resulting in a reduction in bunker costs (Rotterdam 380cst currently stands at $540/t, down from $601/t in June). Oil prices are on track for their third straight monthly fall, with a combination of sluggish demand and ample supplies seeing the benchmark Brent crude spot price drop below $96/bbl this week, the lowest level for two years.

Bunkers’ share of freight remains volatile and dependent on market fluctuations. Recently the percentage has started to fluctuate in a slightly lower range than previously as lower bunker prices have helped to reduce the fuel cost burden. However, bunkers’ share of revenue is still uncomfortably high for many, and shipowners have had to learn to deal with high bunker costs. For those currently in a position to benefit from lower prices today, is it luck, or is it practice?

SIW1140

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