In the last four months dry bulk orders have fallen to 0.4m dwt per month, the lowest level since the 1990s. This is a massive 98% reduction from the 23m dwt peak in orders in December 2007, and probably the sharpest decline in recent decades. Not really a surprise in a market where Capesize bulkers are struggling to earn $4,000/day, but a timely relief to investors with ships on the orderbook.

Investment Fever

This investment collapse marks the end of a remarkable phase of bulkcarrier history. During the last decade, 724m dwt of new bulkers have been ordered, around 70m dwt/year. Just to put that in perspective, during the previous decade ordering averaged about 20m dwt/year.

The 5 years from 1996 to 2001 were disappointing to investors, who ordered only 1.2m dwt/month. At the time this was seen as normal, and included a spike in 1999, when investors snapped up Panamax bulkers for $19-$22m. These were probably the most profitable bulkers ordered in the industry’s post-war history. Upon delivery they sailed straight into the bulk shipping boom. Proof that “crazy investors” are not always crazy.

Softly, Softly

The next phase from 2002 to November 2006 was quite restrained, considering the rise in freight rates. Ordering edged up, averaging 2.8m dwt/month. As earnings eased in 2006, many assumed the boom was over, but they were wrong and what happened next was unprecedented. As earnings escalated owners threw caution to the wind, and the big bulker cash machine drew investors from outside shipping. In December 2007, ordering peaked at 23m dwt, and in 2007 to 2014, investment averaged 6.8m dwt/month (81m dwt/year), an astonishing number for a period mostly in global recession.

Carry On Investing

Despite the onset of the global downturn in 2008, two more bulker investment spikes followed in 2010 and 2013. With surplus bulker capacity, and China’s growth engine easing off, it’s hard to explain this investment on strictly economic grounds. Easier, perhaps, to understand the change in expectations. The memory of spectacular bulker earnings had been fresh in the minds of some investors, but a decade later and that dream is fading.

The collapse in bulkcarrier investment is a particular problem for shipyards. Many builders in China and Japan surfed the wave of bulkcarrier investment and bulkers still account for around half of tonnage on order globally. In today’s sluggish world economy, that is going to be a difficult gap to fill. The fact that bulker prices are around 5% down this year, and ordering has virtually stopped tells its own story.

Big Bulker Investment Boom

So there you have it. The spectacular run of dry bulk investment which kicked off in early 2003 has finally ended. Then China’s imports were growing at 27% a year, a big difference from the 3% growth in 2014. This is disappointing, but as serious shipping investors know, in good markets and bad, there’s still an awful lot of cargo that has to be moved around the world – it’s just a matter of who moves it. Have a nice day.