On 14th August 1948, Don Bradman, Australia’s greatest cricketer of all, walked out for his last test match innings, at the Oval in London. Over 52 test matches, his average score was an astonishing 99.9 runs. All he needed was 4 runs for a test match average of 100 (sorry non-cricketers, you’ll have to check it out on Wikipedia). But he was bowled out second ball by leg spinner Eric Hollies.

Two Simple Rules

The moral of this sad story is that however experienced you are, two basic rules apply. Keep your eye on the ball and watch out for spinners that behave erratically. That seems to apply pretty well to today’s tanker market. The fantastic revival of tanker earnings started in October 2013, was interrupted by the summer dip in 2014, then picked up in October 2014. Since then it has not looked back, with crude tanker earnings generally averaging $40-$50,000/day. There is a little weakening right now, but sentiment appears to be confident for the winter.

Demanding Wicket

Against the background of a 2% fall in seaborne crude oil trade in 2014, US fracking and a lacklustre world economy, this earnings surge was a surprise. But there were some mitigating factors. Low oil prices are boosting demand and the IEA has revised up its forecast for growth in global oil demand in 2015 to 1.6m bpd.

Growth on long-haul trades has also helped. Between 2011 and 2014 Caribbean tonne-mile exports increased by 36%, largely due to increased shipments to China and India. That sounds good, but many VLCCs repositioned with a backhaul e.g. West African crude for Europe, and maybe a Transatlantic fuel oil cargo. Although handling fuel oil is time consuming, especially when it involves STS (ship to ship), this undermined some of the “tonne-mile” effect. And so did cargo-leg speeds, which appear to have edged upwards over the last year. But while the part played by demand may not seem entirely clear, there has still been a notable improvement in crude trade volumes this year, with seaborne shipments to major importers estimated to have increased by 4% year-on-year in 1H 2015.

It’s Supply, Stupid?

When we turn to supply, the picture becomes clearer. Until the summer of 2013, the crude tanker fleet was growing at 15-20m dwt pa. That’s about 5-6% per annum growth, well above demand growth. But by October 2013 growth had fallen to 2%, producing a nice year-end spike. The tanker supply slowdown kept on going and by July 2014 the crude tanker fleet was declining. Admittedly the growth has
edged up so far in 2015, but only to around 1-2% per annum.

Nasty Spinner In Sixteen?

So there you have it. Tanker investors have scored well in the last year, but, like Don Bradman, they must remember rule two and watch out for the spinners. Although fleet growth is sluggish, the crude tanker orderbook for 2016 could produce a “googly” as it pushes fleet growth back up to 6% (depending on demolition). Even with positive demand, tanker investors are going to have to keep their eye on that ball and hope it breaks the right way. Have a nice day.