It has been a grim start to 2016 for the bulkcarrier market, with the Baltic Dry Index sliding to new record lows on almost every day of the year so far. With a nearly constant stream of negative news continuing to emerge across each of the key dry bulk cargo sectors, it is almost as if Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, has with his powerful trident launched a three-pronged attack.

Down To The Ocean Depths

The current depression is indeed severe. The Baltic Dry Index, a daily indicator of bulkcarrier rates, fell to its 19th consecutive record low of 317 points on 29th January. This is far below the average of 718 points in 2015, which itself was the second lowest annual average on record, and represented a year in which bulker earnings averaged around $7,000/day, little over estimated operating costs.

Surprise Attack

Of course, difficult market conditions are nothing new. Bulker earnings have been under pressure since 2011, when more than 100m dwt of deliveries kept fleet growth in double-digits. Whilst fleet growth eased to 2.4% in 2015, the slowest pace in 16 years, new demand-side pressures emerged, with dry bulk trade remaining flat last year. In Greek mythology, Poseidon’s trident had the power to cause earthquakes on earth, and there has certainly been evidence of a shake up recently. But where have each of the three prongs hit, and how sharply?

Strikes To The Core

The first earthquake is being felt in the iron ore trade, which accounts for around a third of dry bulk trade. Following rapid growth of 15% in 2014, Chinese imports eased in 2015, and expansion in iron ore trade slowed during the year (see graph). Overall, global iron ore trade is estimated to have grown by only 2% in 2015, and continued weak Chinese steel demand and the temporary closure of several major iron ore ports in January has done little to reverse this trend into 2016 so far.
The second shake up has hit trade in coal, which accounts for a quarter of dry bulk trade, very hard. Volumes declined by an estimated 5% in 2015, and the decline in volumes on the top 100 coal trade flows neared 10% y-o-y in Q3 2015, as Chinese and Indian imports fell. With several countries looking to increase reliance on clean energy sources, a major improvement in volumes seems unlikely.

Shifting The Currents

Finally, whilst the third earthquake has perhaps been less obvious than the first two, it has still had a significant impact. Growth in minor bulk trade, a diverse cargo grouping that accounts for more than a third of dry bulk trade volumes, was limited to 1% last year, owing in part to lower Chinese demand for imports of forest products, steel products, nickel ore, and various other smaller cargoes.

Stem The Tide?

So, the seas have been exceedingly stormy in the dry bulk sector. The impact from China’s economic transition is still resonating, and as yet there are few signs of an imminent improvement. As distressed conditions take their toll, hopes will be that the power of Poseidon’s trident will eventually start to ebb.

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