Conditions in many sectors of the shipping market are extremely challenging today, but some asset market watchers might look at that as fertile ground for new opportunity. However, different parts of the market cycle pose different questions for shipping’s asset players. What does the historical data tell us about investor behaviour across the cycle in the key shipping sectors?

Where In The Cycle?

The graph illustrates the share of reported secondhand sale and purchase (S&P) activity since 1997 at different ‘price point quartiles’, across the three main sectors and also for total sales activity (see graph explanation for more detail). According to asset investment theory, one might not expect the pattern across the quartiles to be even. At the top end of the price cycle there are limited numbers of ‘optimistic’ buyers willing to make a deal with many keen to sell at rewarding levels, and at the bottom end there are fewer sellers ready to dispose of assets at challenged prices. But how does the pattern look across the shipping sectors?

Life At The Top

Tanker sales reveal a focus at the upper end with a 30% share in the top quartile, and 50% in the middle two quartiles. Less than 20% of sales fell in the bottom quartile. In the bulkcarrier S&P market, transactions have historically been even more concentrated in the upper two quartiles, which accounted for almost 60% of sales in 1997-2014, boosted by record sales numbers in 2007 to many ‘exuberant’ buyers when prices and markets were near to the peak. However, with asset values falling further in 2015, and the market remaining liquid in recent times, in part due to increased pressure from traditional shipping banks, the share of bulker sales in the bottom quartile has risen to 20%, more than in the tanker sector.

Boxships At The Bottom

In the containership sector, the pattern has been more differentiated. Sales in 1997-2014 were much more heavily weighted towards the bottom quartile, with over 30% of transactions occurring there. Often outside of the more traditional ownership structures, it appears that many investors have felt pressure to exit their positions in the prolonged doldrums since the financial crisis. The record number of sales in 2015, at a low point in the price cycle, amplified the trend; by March 2016, 34% of boxship sales since 1997 had taken place in the bottom quartile.

An Optimistic Bunch?

Overall, across all reported vessel sales, only 51% of transactions took place in the mid-quartiles, and almost 30% at the top end compared to 20% at the bottom. What does this mean? Does it make shipping investors an optimistic bunch?

Well, given some of the market ‘spikey-ness’ the top quartile here probably factors in some less than top quartile levels in terms of absolute price range, so that may not be fully true. But still, containership sector aside, it leaves analysts of today’s markets with something to chew over. Even at the darkest of times for some of the sectors, analysis of historical asset play activity could potentially provide some reassuring evidence of more ‘optimistic’ behaviour in the past.