Archives for category: Aframax

Eight years ago, the onset of the financial crisis following the demise of Lehman Brothers heralded a generally highly challenging time for many of the shipping markets, which today remain under severe pressure. But even within the relatively short period of history since then, different sectors have fared better or worse at various points along the way. This week’s Analysis examines the cumulative impact…

What Was The Best Bet?

So how would a vessel delivered into the eye of the financial storm in late 2008 have fared? The Graph of the Week compares the performance of three standard vessel types. It shows the monthly development of cumulative earnings after OPEX from October 2008 onwards for a Capesize bulkcarrier, an Aframax tanker and a 2,750 TEU containership.

A Capesize trading at average spot earnings would have generated around $37m in total, benefitting from market spikes in 2009-10 and 2013. But with Capesize spot earnings hovering near OPEX in recent times, the cumulative earnings have not increased much since mid-2014. For a hypothetical vessel delivered in October 2008 (and ordered at the average 2006 newbuild price of $63m) those earnings would equate to close to 60% of the contract price (note that if the vessel was sold today, this would result in a net loss of c. $8m, taking into account the earnings after OPEX, newbuild cost and sales income but not finance costs).

Totting Up Tanker Takings

By contrast, Aframax tanker earnings hovered close to OPEX for several years after the downturn, with far fewer spikes than in the bulker sector. However, the 2014-15 rally in the tanker market allowed the Aframax to start playing catch-up, and cumulative Aframax earnings between October 2008 and September 2016 reached around $31m. This represents around 50% of the value of a newbuild delivered in 2008 (with a newbuild price at the 2006 average of $63m), not too far from the ratio for the Capesize.

Bad News For Box Backers

Containerships haven’t really seen similar spikes, with the charter market largely rooted at depressed bottom of the cycle levels since 2008, battling with a huge surplus created by falling consumer demand and box trade in the immediate aftermath of the crash. With earnings close to operating costs for much of the period, a 2,750 TEU unit generated cumulative earnings after OPEX of just $6m from October 2008, around 10% of the average newbuild price in 2006 ($50m). The timecharter nature of the boxship business would also have potentially reduced owners’ upside when improved rates were on offer, and there was an ongoing chunk of capacity idle too.

The Stakes Are Still High

So, despite persisting challenging conditions overall, some of the shipping markets have seen significant ups and downs since 2008. Though boxships have seen limited income, interestingly similarly priced tanker and bulker newbuilds delivered heading into the downturn might have offered roughly comparable accumulated returns on the outlay. With conditions currently weak across most sectors, owners today would surely love to see any form of accumulation again.

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Analysts are busy updating their models for the new US budget year. If the big picture for tankers and bulkcarriers is what interests you, it’s not enormously complicated. Everyone uses roughly the same information, and data for running supply-demand balances is readily available. Of course it’s a complex world, but one conclusion is recurrent – overall, there’s still plenty of surplus shipping capacity.

Same Surplus, Different Rates

The fundamentals have not changed much over the summer. Comparing ‘raw’ supply and demand figures, both the tanker and bulker sectors appear to have a surplus of around 25%. These are the same numbers that have been cropping up for a while. But earnings statistics tell a different story. Over the last year tanker earnings averaged $29,000/day (VLCCs $50,000, Suezmaxes $43,000 and Aframaxes $35,000). But bulkers only managed $8,000/day (Capesizes $11,000, Panamaxes $8,000 and Supramaxes about $7,600). If both markets have 20-30% surplus capacity, what’s going on?

Could the statistics be wrong? It’s possible but it’s hard to see how. In tankers, for example, 2015 seaborne oil imports are only 6% higher than in 2008 but the tanker fleet is 33% bigger. These statistics are fairly easily verified. Bulk trade is up 38% since 2008, but the fleet has grown 93%. There may be some extra tonne-miles, but not enough to change the conclusion that both markets are carrying a lot of surplus ships.

A Slow Moving Mystery

Another possibility is our old friend ‘slow steaming’. Maybe tanker owners are getting smarter. The tanker fleet trading at 15 knots carries around 25-30% more cargo than at 11-12 knots. Supply-demand calculations are usually based on a ‘design’ speed, say 15 knots. So if the fleet trades at 11 knots, the ‘surplus’ disappears because the fleet is strung out around the world, with no surplus ships at the loading zones. Freight negotiations are based on prompt ships, so it’s the backlog that does the damage. If ships speed up, surplus capacity is released to undermine the boom. But if owners do not speed up, and are sufficiently aggressive, they can benefit from the supply curve kink until someone breaks ranks, and create market spikes.

Cargo Helps

Bulkers operate in a more complex market, with different charterers. Capesizes trading at around 11.5 knots have squeezed out a few short spikes in recent years, but the smaller ships haven’t. A market moving from demand growth to apparent stagnation does not help either. Owners have a better chance of pushing rates up when cargo volumes are rising.

Does It Matter?

So there you have it. Tankers are doing well today, but are they now a better investment? The red line on the graph shows the trend in the difference in earnings over 25 years. Tankers on average earned about $7,300/day more with a slight trend in bulkers’ favour. But what the graph really demonstrates is that it basically averages out in the end. Like poker, it’s not about the hand, it’s about the players. Have a nice day.

Seven years into the recession, the tanker market is blazing away, with VLCCs earning over $50,000/day and Aframaxes not far behind. It’s an amazing development which leaves investors pondering whether this is, in Churchill’s famous words, “not the beginning of the end, but maybe the end of the beginning”. Analysts now wonder if it’s worth the risk of going out on a limb and calling “turning point”.

Potential Paradigms

Whatever the outlook, it’s worth pausing to enjoy the moment – and, perhaps, reflect that nothing like this happened in the 1980s. So something has obviously changed, but over the long-term it’s hard to see what it is. Since 2007, the tanker fleet has grown much faster than seaborne oil trade. We know from experience that when there’s an underlying surplus, spikes rarely last more than a few months and paradigm shifts making “this time different” are rarer than hen’s teeth, if not impossible.

Disappointing Demand

Let’s start with the crude oil trade, which fell by 6% from 38.4m bpd in 2007 to about 36.3m bpd in 2014. OECD oil demand has declined since 2007, with North America down 8%; Europe down 12% and Japan down 13%. So there’s not much joy there. Add an extra 4.6m bpd of oil production in North America and seaborne crude imports dropped by 2.1m bpd. Of course, non-OECD imports have increased, as has products trade, but overall the oil trade has only increased 2.8%, from 55m bpd in 2007 to 56.5m bpd in 2014. A tonne-mile approach pushes the growth up to 7.9%, but that’s still only 1.1% pa.

The Flighty Fleet

Meanwhile the tanker fleet has been buzzing. At the end of 2007, when the credit crisis was just getting started, it was 383m dwt, but since then it has grown by one third (126m dwt) to 509m dwt. Of course, macro statistics are always a bit fuzzy, but an increase of less than 10% in trade and 33% in ships tells a pretty clear story that there is probably lots of ‘surplus’ tonnage tucked away.

A Logical Disconnect?

Such a surplus should surely “cap” rates. But clearly this is not happening, so what’s going on? There are a few explanations. Firstly, seasonality; global oil demand was 2.1m bpd higher in Q4 2014 than in Q2. Assuming most of that is translated into trade, that’s a 4% increase which, over a short period is enough to get things started. Add to that the surge in speculative cargoes held at sea, and demand is motoring. Finally, throw in the reluctance of owners to speed up, and the limited growth in the crude tanker fleet in recent years, and the recent rates look more convincing.

Cyclical Or Structural?

So, simple numbers don’t always give you the whole answer, but there’s never any harm in looking at the big picture. If the simple interpretation is right, things might ease off. But the real dilemma is probably the underlying surplus. Are today’s speeds the ‘norm’ for the future? With bunkers at $300/tonne, the answer is “maybe”. But given time, it could well become a key question. Have a nice day.

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