The level of ‘forward orderbook cover’ is one indicator of the state of global shipbuilding. When times are tough, yards can find the race for the limited amount of ‘cover’ available difficult, but when times are better ‘forward cover’ can seem very supportive. In the face of slowing ordering volumes, the shipbuilding industry might take a look at this indicator as part of its regular health check.
‘Forward cover’ shown in the graph (see graph note for the exact calculation) reflects the number of years ‘work’ yards have on order at recent output levels. In the 1990s yards averaged 2.5 years cover but following the ordering boom of the mid-2000s forward cover rose to over 5 years. The onset of the global recession saw ordering levels decrease significantly and orderbook cover had dropped below 2.5 years by 2012. But with yard output having adjusted downwards, a pick-up in ordering in 2013 helped cover expand to 3.5 years. However, investment slowed again in 2014, instigating a downward trend, and by early 2015 orderbook cover had adjusted to around 3 years.
Chinese yards have seen the most dramatic reduction in forward cover. As capacity created to meet boom demand came online between 2009 and 2011, output doubled. But investment levels decreased, the orderbook declined, and China’s forward cover briefly fell below that of its competitors in Korea and Japan in 2012, as Chinese yards were not as able to attract the increased ordering in the more specialised sectors. However, cover has since increased as active capacity has adjusted downwards and Chinese yards have regained the majority share of orders, slowly diversifying their product mix. Although overall cover has returned to pre-boom levels (3.6 years today), the situation varies substantially. Whilst state owned yards and a handful of private yards have a strong orderbook cushion, the vast majority of smaller local yards have limited cover.
South Korea and Japan did not expand shipyard capacity to the extent as China, and their industries are much more consolidated across fewer yards. As such their forward cover did not swing so dramatically. The largest Korean yards responded to the downturn in merchant vessel ordering by entering the high value offshore market (the ‘big three’ Korean yards grew their offshore orderbook to around two-thirds of the value of all units they had on order). Yet whilst this provided relief for yards in 2011 and 2012 the downturn in offshore ordering in 2014 has contributed to forward cover at Korean yards (2.7 years today) falling below that of Japanese yards (3.0 years) for the first time. Japanese yards have been slowly improving forward cover partly due to a revival in export ordering backed by the depreciation of the yen against the dollar.
Today, whilst a long way from boom time highs, ‘forward cover’ looks more comfortable than two years ago. However, that’s not the only part of the health check and global shipbuilding has been through a period of immense turmoil and financial pressure. Moreover, with output stabilising and ordering currently suppressed, builders could well be checking their orderbook cover closely once again.