The volatility of the shipping markets has always presented opportunities and pitfalls for investors (see SIW 1210). Getting the timing right is key, and newbuilding decisions can prove especially difficult given the need to look further forwards into the future – always a tricky task. The challenging state of many shipping markets suggests that owners have struggled to find the right balance when planning ahead.
Accurately forecasting future shipping market developments is clearly fraught with difficulties. Owners making newbuild investments may be renewing their fleets, or building for dedicated business, but for those ordering more speculatively, the investment might reflect expectations of future demand and market conditions.
These trends are hard to predict. Economic and political developments, amongst many others, can shift quickly and change trade patterns. Combined with supply factors such as newbuild pricing or finance availability, it is easy to see how the volume of tonnage ordered can be misaligned with the requirement.
Comparing historical contracting to the volume of ‘required’ deliveries shows that investment has frequently ‘overshot’ the need for additional ships. In 2003 for example, global contracting totalled 117m dwt. Assuming that these ships take two years to be delivered, trends in 2005 could indicate whether this level of ordering was lower than or surplus to requirement. Global demolition totalled 6m dwt in 2005, and world seaborne trade grew by 4.5%, which based on estimated fleet productivity in 2003, could have required an extra 42m dwt of tonnage to transport. So ordering in 2003 may have been 70m dwt greater than the estimated volume of deliveries needed in 2005. The surplus was even greater in 2007, when 275m dwt was ordered, but with seaborne trade dropping by 3.7% in 2009, there was no ‘requirement’ for any additional tonnage to be delivered that year.
Gusts From The East
Since 2000, more years than not have seen ‘excess’ ships ordered. After the financial crisis hit, surplus capacity led to weaker markets and changes in productivity, such as slow steaming. Ordering in 2009-12 was closer to estimated ‘requirement’, but surged to 178m dwt in 2013, with hope in some sectors that the bottom of the cycle had been reached.
Yet 2015 saw seaborne trade growth slow to 2.1%, led by trends in China. With 39m dwt scrapped in 2015, and an estimated 36m dwt needed to ship the additional trade volumes, ordering in 2013 could have ‘overshot’ by 100m dwt, exerting further supply pressures.
An Unsettled Climate
The story clearly varies across sectors, but shipping investors seem an optimistic bunch, and are now being let down by underperformance of seaborne trade. At times, this optimism has raised demand for shipyard capacity, but has still created a surplus, with lower ordering in 2014-15 still possibly excess to requirement based on current projections. In such a changeable climate as shipping, it’s clear that checking the forecast is vital, but it seems that getting a clear view ahead is hard.