Today’s headlines often point towards the impact of the demand side on the state of health of the shipping markets. But despite the fact that today’s global orderbook appears less onerous than previously (at 16% of the fleet), capacity levels are still important, and a look at the future of the supply side can provide an idea of just how hard a balancing act the markets still face in today’s demand conditions.

Like The High-Wire?

An indicator combining capacity and demand elements gives an idea of how difficult it might be just to maintain the current supply-demand balance, before the surplus present in many sectors today can even be addressed. The graph shows a ratio which compares the orderbook as a percentage of the fleet to ‘current’ and ‘trend’ rates of demand growth in a selection of sectors (see graph description for details). At a high level, this broadly indicates how many years of demand growth the orderbook to be delivered over the next few years equates to, and how much the supply side will need to otherwise adjust to balance things out. In many cases, even after a sharp slowdown in ordering, this looks like a real high-wire act.

How Hard Does It Look?

The orderbook for oil tankers equates to 18% of the fleet, equivalent to 8 years of ‘current’ demand growth, so there could be some work to be done there to maintain today’s balance. However, it’s the bulkcarrier sector which really illustrates the impact of slower demand growth. Today’s orderbook, 15% of the fleet, equates to 11 years of ‘current’ demand growth. In the boxship sector, relatively faster trade growth (despite an historically slothful 2015) means that today’s orderbook equates to a perhaps more manageable 4 years of ‘current’ trade growth. Other sectors reinforce the impact of demand side issues. The LNG carrier orderbook equates to 14 years of ‘current’ trade expansion (although expectations might be for improved trade growth, and the figure drops to 3 years on the basis of the ‘trend’ rate), and for car carriers the figure stands at 13 years.

Balancing Acts

Of course, in market mechanics, it’s often the supply side which adjusts, and other factors not captured by the ratio used here can lend a hand. Demolition is one obvious factor, with, for example, the relative size of potential bulkcarrier capacity growth suppressed by record levels of demolition this year so far (14.1m dwt in Q1). Delay or cancellation of the orderbook also plays a role: 42% of start year scheduled bulkcarrier deliveries failed to enter the fleet in 2015. Changes in vessel productivity, such as adjustments to operating speeds, can also impact of the absorption of capacity in the future.

Still Walking The Tightrope

Nevertheless, shipping globally still appears to be walking a tightrope in the current demand environment. Today’s orderbook equates to 7 years of ‘current’ seaborne trade growth (a rate of 2.4%), though looks slightly less daunting (5 years) if demand growth was to reach the last decade’s ‘trend’ rate (3.4%). But in current demand conditions, even to maintain the status quo, there’s a significant supply-side balancing act to perform.