As the many Greek players in the shipping industry know well, the legend of Icarus tells us the dangers of flying too high. Merchant vessel earnings eventually found their 2008 heights just as unsustainable, even as some talked of a “new paradigm”. Most will be familiar with the lengthy downturn that has followed. But spare a thought for the offshore markets, now going through their own Icarus moment.

Flying On The Dragon’s Back

As with the expectations of some in the shipping industry that Chinese demand for raw materials would grow indefinitely, the consensus over the 2010-13 period was that oil prices were set to remain above $100/bbl. Oil demand growth seemed firm and supply growth scarce as decline in output from ageing onshore fields undermined growth from new deepwater offshore regions. The offshore sector attracted interest from shipyards in both Korea and China, and amongst traditional shipowners (including some Greek players).

The precipitous fall from grace of the main shipping markets in late 2008 seemed to presage a tough and lengthy downturn. As the graph shows, the ClarkSea Index (an indicator of merchant sector vessel earnings) fell by more than 80% in a matter of weeks, and offshore support vessel (OSV) and rig dayrate indices fell by 50%. Yet, by late 2009, the oil price had bounced back, and offshore units seemed like attractive investment opportunities for diversification away from over-supplied shipping sectors.

On The Right Path?

For some years, offshore investors seemed to have taken the correct turning, as dayrates for rigs and OSVs soared, and by 2013 were close to the heights reached prior to the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the ClarkSea Index remained earthbound, with earnings hampered by a sluggish world economy and phases of newbuilding activity, as government stimulus and low newbuilding prices combined to boost counter-cyclical orders.

For Icarus, the heat of the sun proved to be his undoing. In the case of the offshore markets, the heights they reached were dashed by an unexpected underground source of oil and gas. Few saw coming the game-changing effect that technological change would have on the oil supply-demand balance. Fracking produced 3.8m bpd of additional onshore oil supply from US shale by 2015.

Initially, the effect of this extra supply was hidden, by outages due to political instability in areas such as Libya, Russia, and Iraq. But as oversupply of about 2m bpd became clearer, Saudi Arabia refused to resolve the problem through a unilateral oil output cut.

Down To Earth

Today the offshore markets look to be in an equally or even more challenged position than the major shipping segments. Dayrates for both rigs and OSVs have fallen by 40-50% over the course of the last eighteen months. There is currently little positive sentiment, and many assume that the near future for these offshore sectors could come to resemble the ClarkSea Index’s recent past. But cyclicality, after all, has been a part of these industries for decades. As the best Greek asset players will tell you, the key is to ride a market upturn, but to get out before you get too close to the sun.

SIW1219

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