Archives for category: containership

Conventionally, the container shipping market is viewed as made up of two key elements: the freight market for moving boxes from A to B, and the charter market for hiring ships. Often these markets are happily moving in sync, but that’s not always the case. How does the relationship work and how closely have these markets moved in relation to each other, both in recent times and historically?

Happy Couple?

Let’s start with recent history. Improved fundamentals in 2016, when box trade grew by 3.8% but containership capacity expanded by just 1.2%, and into 2017, have had a twin impact on the container shipping markets. Firstly they helped the box freight market bottom out. The mainlane freight rate index (see graph) increased from 24 in Mar-16 to 73 in Jan-17, and this pattern has been mirrored across many trade lanes. Secondly, the backdrop eventually helped support a slightly improved charter market, with rates moving away from the bottom of the cycle in late Q1 2017. In theory, demand from freight market end users (shippers) filters down to the vessel charter market in the end, with additional volume driving charterers (liner companies) to access additional units (from owners).

Splits And Separations

But does the power of the fundamentals always drag the two markets along together? It is not always the case; they often move apart. Before the financial crisis, the freight market appeared somewhat less volatile than today, but that did not always see the markets in sync. Despite more than 20% cargo growth in 2005-06, and the freight market holding most of its ground, the charter rate index slumped by 47% from an all-time high of 172 in Apr-05 to 91 in Dec-06, as super-cycle peak rates proved unsustainable.

The post-downturn period has seen similar instances. The box shipping markets moved into an era of ‘micro’ management of supply (slow steaming, idling and cascading) and this has impacted both freight and charter markets. In both early 2011 and 1H 2015 charter rates rose as freight rates dropped like a stone. In 2011 the freight rate index dropped by 38% to 47 whilst the charter rate index rallied, as operators deployed additional capacity to the detriment of freight rates. But soon after the opposite occurred, and freight rates increased but charter rates dropped back to bottom of the cycle levels where they remained for the next three years.

Re-Coupling…

In the long-term, however, the two spheres do appear to be aligned. What simple inspection suggests, the numbers confirm. In only 33 of the months on the graph (21%) have the markets actually moved in opposite directions (excluding monthly movements of less than 1%).

Let’s Stick Together!

So, the two box markets do move independently at times but they often move in sync and when apart they tend to re-align (what econometricians might call an ‘error correction mechanism’). Perhaps this just confirms that ‘cargo is king’ and the supply side eventually adjusts. Whatever the case, box shipping’s famous couple can’t keep themselves apart for too long. Have a nice day.

SIW1277

In recent years, in generally difficult market conditions, it has been no surprise that many sectors have seen a significant removal of surplus tonnage. This has been particularly notable in the bulkcarrier and containership sectors, and in the case of the Capesizes and the ‘Old Panamax’ boxships, it has been a bit like the famous race between the tortoise and the hare but with even more changes in leadership…

At The Start

Back in 2012, Capesize demolition was on the up with the market having softened substantially in 2011 on the back of elevated levels of deliveries. Meanwhile, ‘Old Panamax’ containership demolition (let’s simply call them Panamaxes here) was also on the rise with earnings under pressure. Across full year 2012, 4.7% of the start year Capesize fleet was sold for scrap (11.7m dwt) and 2.6% of the Panamax boxship fleet (0.10m TEU). In both cases this was working from the base of a fairly young fleet, with an average age at start 2012 of 8.2 years for the Capes and 8.9 years for the Panamax boxships.

The cumulative volume, as a share of start 2012 capacity, of Capesize demolition remained ahead of Panamax boxship scrapping until Sep-13, by which time 7.3% of the start 2012 Panamax boxship fleet had been demolished compared to 7.2% of the Capesize fleet. In 2013 the Cape market improved with increased iron ore trade growth whilst the boxship charter market remained in the doldrums. In 2013, Cape scrapping equated to 3.2% of the start 2012 fleet (7.9m dwt); the figure for Panamax boxships was 6.0% (0.24m TEU). The fast starter had been caught by the slow burner.

Hare Today…

But by 2015, Cape scrapping was surging once more, regaining the lead from the Panamax boxships. By May-15 the cumulative share of the start 2012 fleet scrapped in the Capesize sector was 13.7% compared to 13.4% for the Panamax boxships. Iron ore trade growth slowed dramatically in 2015, whilst the Panamaxes appeared to be enjoying a resurgence with improved earnings in the first half of the year ensuing from fresh intra-regional trading opportunities.

…Gone Tomorrow

But the result of the race was still not yet clear. Today the Panamaxes are back in front again, thanks to record levels of boxship scrapping in 2016, including 71 Panamaxes (0.30m TEU) on the back of falling earnings, ongoing financial distress and the threat of obsolescence from the new locks in Panama. Despite a huge run of Capesize scrapping in Q1 2016 (7.5m dwt), the cumulative figure today for Capes stands at 22.3% of start 2012 capacity, compared to 25.4% for Panamax boxships, remarkably similar levels.


Where’s The Line?

So, today the old Panamax boxships are back in the lead, but who knows how the great race will end? Capesize recycling has slowed with improved markets, but Panamax boxships have seen some upside too, even if the future looks very uncertain. Hopefully they’ll both get there in the end but no-one really knows where the finish actually is. That’s one thing even the tortoise and the hare didn’t have to contend with. Have a nice day.

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In the high jump ‘the scissors’ was one of a number of techniques eventually superseded by Dick Fosbury’s ‘Flop’, which saw the American athlete win the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The container shipping market has seen a bit of ‘flop’ of its own in recent years but today a return to the ‘scissors’ appears to be providing some helpful support at last…

The Flop

It has been clear to market watchers that containership earnings have spent most of the period since the onset of the global financial crisis back in 2008 at bottom of the cycle levels. The Analysis in SIW 1,245 illustrated how cumulative earnings in the sector in that time proved a bit of a flop, and notably so in comparison to those in the tanker and bulker sectors. However, it’s fair to say that things have started to look a little bit better recently.

Jumping Back

The first building block was that the freight market appeared to bottom out in the second half of last year, with improvements in box spot rates on a range of routes backed by careful management of active capacity. In the first quarter of 2017, the mainlane freight rate index averaged 64 points, up 42% on the 2016 average. However, containership charter rates remained in the doldrums into 2017, with the timecharter rate index stuck at a historically low 39 points at the end of February, before the market picked up sharply during March taking the index to 47 (though since then market moves have been largely sideways). This change in conditions was partly supported by liner companies moving quickly to charter to meet the requirements of new alliance service structures, but how much were fundamentals also driving things?

Well, the start of some upward movement at last was to some extent in line with expectations, with demand growth expected to outpace supply expansion this year, and no doubt accelerated charterer activity helped too. However, the market received additional impetus from recent sharp shifts in supply and demand.

Doing The Scissors

The lines on the graph (see description) show y-o-y growth in box trade and containership capacity; this is where the scissors come in. In 2015, capacity growth reached 8%, and remained ahead of trade growth until Q4 2016 when the lines crossed. In 2017, with capacity declining by 0.1% in Q1, backed by historically high demolition, and trade growth, notably in Asia, pushing along nicely, a big gap between the two lines has opened up. Demand is projected to outgrow supply this year (by c.4% to c.2%), but not by quite as much as seen so far. Full year expectations may be a little more restrained, but it’s still a helpful switch.

Going For Gold

So, in the case of the recent changes in containership earnings, maybe a bit of extra heat from the charterers’ side helped, but it looks like fast-moving fundamentals have offered some support too. Perhaps it all goes to show that old methods can sometimes be as good as new ones, and right now boxship investors should be happy to forget the ‘flop’ and focus on the return of the ‘scissors’.

SIW1269:Graph of the Week

The fundamental lying beneath the shipping industry is cargo and its journey, and in many cases the cargoes are the world’s key commodities. In 2014, prices across a range of commodities took a sharp dive, but over the last year or so they’ve started to improve again. So, what do the trends in the prices of the commodities underlying the shipping markets tell us about the shape of things today?

Oiling The Wheels?

Most followers of commodities will be aware of the oil price downturn, with the price of Brent crude falling from an average of $112/bbl in June 2014 to reach a low of $32/bbl in February 2016. However, it has since improved, to an average of $52/bbl in March 2017, with the key driver the implementation of oil output cuts by major producers. Despite this recent price rise, in this case the underlying commodity price trend does not appear to be supportive for shipping, with seaborne crude oil trade growth subsequently slowing, having risen by an average of 3.9% p.a. in 2015-16, and tanker markets easing back. On the other hand, rising oil prices might start to help support an improved offshore project sanctioning environment, though the stimulation of increased shale production in the US poses a risk to its seaborne imports.

Bulk Bounce

On the dry bulk side, the iron ore price fell from $155/t in February 2013 to reach a low of $40/t in December 2015 but has since recovered robustly to an average of $87/t in March 2017. Meanwhile, the coal price fell from $123/t in September 2011 to a low of $50/t in January 2016 but has since improved firmly to an average of $81/t in March 2017. In China government policies and domestic output cuts drove shipments of ore (up 7%) and coal (up 20%) in 2016, helping to support international prices. Demand growth has continued in the same vein in 2017, with ore and coal imports up 13% and 48% y-o-y respectively in the first two months. Average Capesize spot earnings recently hit $20,000/day, and some industry players have appeared cautiously optimistic about the possibility of better markets.

Spending Power?

What does all this mean for the third main volume sector, container shipping? Well, in this case, the previous downward pressure on commodity prices had been felt in the form of pressure on imports into commodity exporting developing economies faced with reduced income and spending power. This had a clear negative impact on volumes into Latin America, Africa and eventually even the Middle East; overall north-south volume growth fell below 1% in 2016. Although it’s early days yet, the recovery in commodity prices should suggest a gradual improvement even if the benefits lag commodity pricing, and the positive impact might not be evenly paced across the regions.

From The Bottom Up

So, it appears that commodity prices have now departed the bottom of the cycle. Alongside the impression of a generally firmer background, inspection of the underlying drivers suggests a mixture of messages for shipping, less beneficial in some instances, but in many ways more positive for volumes. As ever, it’s interesting to take a look at what lies beneath…

SIW1267:Graph of the Week

In the last few decades, the shipping industry has generally been able to rely on seaborne trade as a fairly steady performer. However, the slowdown in volume growth since the financial crisis has focussed the industry’s thoughts on potential barriers to healthy long-term trade growth, so all eyes are on signs of a potential return to faster expansion in volumes…

Steady As She Goes

From 1988 to 2008 growth in world seaborne trade averaged an estimated 4.2% pa, a fairly robust level underpinning long-term demand for ships. Sure, the markets at times felt the impact of oversupply, but sustained weakness of demand growth wasn’t generally the problem. However, since 2009 the growth rate has slowed, averaging 3.2%, and just 2.8% since 2013. This still equates to significant additional volumes (1.8% growth in 2015 added 194m tonnes) but it’s still enough to get market players worrying.

Could Be Worse?

But should it? Maybe it depends on how you put the trend into context. Cycles can be long; Martin Stopford has famously identified 12 dry cargo cycles of more than 10 years back to the 1740s! The current cycle certainly feels like it has dragged on; it’s now more than eight years since the onset of the financial crisis. However, there are interesting historical comparisons. Between 1929 (the year of the Wall Street Crash) and 1932, the value of global trade dropped by 62% and didn’t get back to the same level until the post-war years. Now that really would have been a time to worry!

Getting Serious?

Today perhaps some of the anxiety is amplified by the seemingly wide range of factors that look threatening to seaborne trade’s supportive historical record. Protectionist tendencies, whether they be from the Trump presidency or the UK’s Brexit vote, slowing growth in China, ‘peak trade’, robotics and 3D printing: no-one really knows how things will pan out but everyone’s watching closely for anything to allay at least some of the fears.

Basket Case

So that brings us back to our old friend the ‘monthly trade basket’ (see graph and description). Six months ago we reported that this appeared to be showing a pick-up and this time round things are still looking positive. The 3-month moving average shows a generally upward trend since autumn 2015 with an average of 4% in the second half of 2016, hinting that the bottom of the demand cycle may finally have been passed. The current projection for overall seaborne trade in 2017 is still less than 3% with plenty of scenarios possible, but both market sentiment and the momentum right now feel a little more positive than that.

Feeling Any Better Yet?

So, while it’s quite right to try to assess the range of factors which appear to be lining up against a return to more robust levels of trade growth, it’s also far from incorrect to look for signs of a turn in the trend. Cycles in shipping can be long and sometimes it can take a while to identify them. That may not be helpful to hear but you can have a nice day trying…

SIW1264

Last year saw a huge amount of change in the under pressure container shipping sector. In particular, the ongoing consolidation of the sector in one form or another grabbed the headlines. To put this into context, it’s interesting to see how the level of consolidation relates to other parts of shipping, how it has developed over time and how it might progress looking forward.

Solid In A Fragmented Field

It’s quite clear that the shipping industry is a fairly fragmented business. On the basis of start 2017 Clarksons Research data, 88,892 ships in the world fleet were spread across 24,267 owners. That works out at less than 4 vessels per owner. Although 145 owners with more than 50 ships accounted for almost 12,000 of the vessels (and 29% of the GT), it’s still not that consolidated. The liner shipping business however is one the more consolidated parts of shipping, as well as being home to some of the industry’s larger corporates. At the start of the year, the 5,154 containerships in the fleet were owned by 622 owner groups, about 8 ships per owner, but, perhaps more pertinently, were operated by 326 carriers, about 16 ships per operator. Each of the top 8 operators deployed more than 100 ships. But despite the less fragmented nature of the sector, recent market conditions have led to another round of consolidation in the box business.

All Change At The Big End

The three largest operators (by deployed capacity) at the start of 2017 were European: Maersk Line (647 vessels deployed) followed by MSC (453) and CMA-CGM (454). Of the remaining carriers in the top 20 all but three were based in Asia or the Middle East. However, what’s really interesting is that out of the 20 largest carriers back in late 2014, 4 are now gone. CSAV was acquired by Hapag-Lloyd, NOL/APL by CMA-CGM and the two major Chinese lines merged. And of course in late summer 2016, the financial collapse of Hanjin Shipping marked the sector’s biggest casualty in 30 years.

Long-Term Liner Trends

Against this backdrop, the graph shows  that the latest wave of box sector consolidation is actually part of a long-term trend. Back in 1996 the top 10 carriers deployed 45% of capacity and at the start of 2017 that figure stood at 70%. The coming year is set to see Hapag-Lloyd complete its merger with UASC, and Maersk Line’s planned acquisition of Hamburg-Sud is also awaiting necessary approvals. The second half of last year also saw the three major Japanese operators declare their intention to merge containership operations in a joint venture due to be established this year and start operations in 2018. The ‘scenario’ based on these changes would see the top 10’s share at 79%, nearly twice as much as 20 years ago.

Tracking The Top Table

So, the container sector is one of the more consolidated parts of shipping, and both the long-term trend and recent developments point towards ongoing consolidation. Many hope this will help the recalibration of market fundamentals and eventually support improved conditions. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing the ranking of the top containership operators every month, so watch this space.

SIW1259

Once upon a time, before the Chinese economic boom captured so much of the attention of the world of shipping, the US was a more important demand source for seaborne trade. Its share of global imports is lower today, but the US still plays a key part in world seaborne trade. What’s the detail behind this backdrop and how might the big changes in US politics impact the trends?

In A Chinese Theatre

Looking back, in 2006, North American container imports accounted for 18% of world box trade, whilst 22% of global seaborne crude oil trade went to the US. In 2016, these figures were 13% and 12% respectively. Some of this change is relative: rapid growth in China and developing Asia has clearly reduced the US share of global trade. Nevertheless, US imports have actually fallen in many of the major categories of seaborne trade. The volume, however, is still highly significant, so changes in US trade patterns are of major importance. The import trades shown on the graph alone account for around 6% of global seaborne trade.

A Mexican Stand-Off

Looking forward, one key aspect is the clear scenario in which US policy under the new administration becomes more protectionist. The US is withdrawing from the mooted Trans-Pacific Partnership and there is the possibility of punitive tariffs. The focus is manufacturing: attempts to ‘re-shore’ production which once upon a time would have taken place in the West. This could have a negative impact on certain import trades. The US accounted for 23% of all car imports by sea in 2016. Tariffs could harm this trade, as could a more aggressive approach against alleged dumping of cheap Asian steel products (the US imported more than 30mt of steel in 2016, 8% of the global seaborne trade). Meanwhile, efforts to promote US products could imperil the c.4% pa compound growth rate of eastbound transpacific container trade since 2010, although more jobs in manufacturing might also support increased US consumer activity.

Spaghetti Western

Another key aspect relates to energy. The US economy was once driven by cowboys; more recently shale oil has taken a key role. This has reduced energy imports, the US’s largest import category. Crude and products imports fell 45% in the last decade, whilst LNG imports dropped by 86%. Pro-energy industry policies of the new administration may have some further negative effects on hydrocarbon imports, though the set-up of US refineries means that some heavy crude imports are needed to ensure a balanced refinery slate. Conversely, oil industry-friendly policies could encourage exports, although additional LNG exports will partly depend on continued expansion of high-CAPEX liquefaction capacity.

 

Coming Up Next?

So, the backdrop is that seaborne trade is less dependent on the US than it once was, with some volumes that used to “Go West” increasingly heading to Asia. But, US seaborne trade does remain highly significant, and key elements appear potentially exposed to shifts in aspects of US policy. Though there may be pros as well as cons, looking ahead it’s clearly going to be important to watch closely for the impact of the big change in the US.

 SIW1258