Archives for category: Panamax

It is over a year now since the opening of the new, expanded locks at the Panama Canal. The new locks have had a significant impact on a number of areas of shipping, including the gas carrier sector, but the main focus of the project in Panama was always the container trade, and the Asia-US East Coast route in particular. In that regard, how do things look a little over one year on?

Old For New

The new locks at the Panama Canal opened for transit on 26th June 2016, and the impact on the box shipping sector has been largely in line with expectations. The key area of impact was always going to be the Transpacific trade, and the Asia-US East Coast route in particular, the largest volume trade through the canal. Following the opening, the Asia-USEC route immediately saw swift upsizing of ‘Old Panamax’ containerships, being replaced by ‘Neo-Panamax’ units, with operators aiming to benefit from the economies of scale offered by running larger vessels through the canal. Regular deployment of ‘Old Panamaxes’ on the Asia-USEC route via the canal has fallen from 156 units in June 2016 to 30 today.

The total of ‘Old Panamaxes’ on the broader Transpacific trade now stands at 76, including some still operated via Suez to the USEC and from Asia to the USWC. However, there are around 35 ‘Old Panamaxes’ idle, and in total (based on a wide definition of 3,000+ TEU and ‘Old Panamax’ beam) 101 have been scrapped since start 2016. Having said all that, there are still many of these units deployed elsewhere, with, on the same definition, over 450 outside the Transpacific.

Bigging It Up

Looking upwards, the initial impact last summer was a speedy upsizing of tonnage to ‘Neo-Panamaxes’. This, as expected, basically jumped the class of sub-8,000 TEU ‘wide beam’ ships; just 22 of those serve Asia-USEC today. Instead it focussed immediately on the 8-11,999 TEU ships, and today there are 93 of those deployed on the Asia-USEC. And now even units as large as 12,000+ TEU are getting in on the act, with 9 deployed Asia-USEC, taking total deployment of new ‘wider beam’ units there to 124.

Switching Off?

This is all against a backdrop of robust growth on the Transpacific, with peak leg eastbound trade up by 8% y-o-y in Jan-May 2017. However, there hasn’t been any early sign of ‘cargo switching’ with flows proving ‘sticky’, even if USEC infrastructure constraints are diminishing (lifts at the 5 leading USEC ports as a share of lifts at the 5 major USWC ports is steady at c.80%). And interestingly the additional capacity on the Asia-USEC trade from the surge in upsizing has eroded the average Asia-USEC/Asia-USWC spot box freight rate ‘premium’ only gently, from 94% in 1H 2016 to 76% in 1H 2017.

More Time Required?

So, plenty of questions remain. Will the Panamaxes finally fully depart the trade? Will a ‘cargo switch’ eventually evolve? How will the freight market trend? One year may have passed but it appears more time is needed to assess in full the longer-term impact of the new Panama locks on box shipping. Have a nice day.

Graph of the week

After another year of extremely difficult market conditions, many would forgive liner sector players for an air of resignation. However, despite a challenging freight market, charter rates remaining firmly in the doldrums and a major corporate casualty, looking back 2016 may well be seen as the year in which the container shipping sector really started to tackle its problems head on.SIW1255

Sustained Struggles

The container shipping sector has spent much of the post-financial crisis era under severe pressure and, as many expected, 2016 proved no real exception. Box freight rates in general remained weak, and the SCFI Composite Index averaged 18% lower in 2016 than in 2015. However, by late in the year it did appear that spot freight rates might be bottoming out on some trade lanes.

Against this backdrop, charter market vessel earnings remained extremely challenged, at bottom of the cycle levels. The one year rate for a 2750 TEU ship averaged $6,000/day in 2016, 37% lower than in 2015. ‘Old Panamax’ types fared even worse, averaging $4,979/day in 2016, 58% down on 2015, with the opening of the new locks at the Panama Canal impacting vessel deployment patterns.

Fundamental Traction?

Nevertheless, sector fundamentals did appear a little more positive in 2016. Demand conditions improved, with global volumes expanding by an estimated 3% in the full year to 181m TEU. Volumes on the key Far East-Europe trade returned to positive growth and the rate of expansion on intra-Asian trades accelerated back to more robust levels. However North-South volumes and trade into the Middle East remained under severe pressure from the impact of diminished commodity prices, though volumes into the Indian Sub-Continent grew strongly.

Meanwhile, containership capacity growth slowed significantly in 2016, reaching just 1.2% in the full year. Deliveries fell dramatically to 0.9m TEU (from 1.7m in 2015) and demolition accelerated rapidly to a new record of 0.7m TEU.

Still A Surplus

However, given the level of surplus built up in the post-Lehman years, and in particular the impact of the delivery of substantial capacity, much of it in the form of new ‘megaships’, the improved supply-demand balance seen last year was not enough to generate any significant improvement in market conditions. At the end of 2016, around 7% of total fleet capacity stood idle. The financial collapse of major Korean operator Hanjin was a further illustration of the acute distress facing both operators and owners.

Getting To Grips?

So, further recalibration still appears to be necessary to generate better markets. However, 2016 might also be seen as the year in which the sector finally started to lay real foundations for a better future. Demolition hit a new record, and financial distress and regulatory requirements are expected to drive further recycling. The ordering of newbuild capacity dropped to just 0.2m TEU in 2016, a dramatic halt.

Meanwhile, further significant steps in the consolidation of the sector were taken in the form of merger and acquisition activity involving major operators; the top 10 now deploy 70% of all boxship capacity, a figure set to rise to around 80%. Building blocks only these factors may be, but many will hope that at last container shipping is starting to build towards something more positive than the gloomy conditions that perpetuated in 2016.

Looking at the ratio between newbuild and secondhand prices is a classic method of examining the state of various shipping sectors. But the metrics can be just as revealing at the older end of the market. Trends in the ratio between scrap values and secondhand prices for elderly vessels can shine further light on the health of the shipping markets, and can also have implications for fleet dynamics.

Health Check

Particularly stark signs of the current ill health of the key shipping sectors are apparent in the market dynamics for older units. With global steel prices determining ship scrap values (effectively the ‘floor’ for elderly secondhand vessel prices), the ratio of prices for older ships to estimated scrap values varies in line with market conditions. When markets are weak, investors may attribute little premium to the short-term earnings potential of elderly vessels, and secondhand prices for these ships can fall close to the scrap value.

On Life Support?

In the bulker sector, the ratio between assessments of 15 year old prices and scrap values has fluctuated dramatically. At end August 2016, amidst a depressed earnings environment, the price for a 15 year old Capesize stood at $8.0m, only 1.3 times the estimated Capesize scrap value of $6.2m, with the 20 year old price close to scrap value. These ratios have fallen in recent years as the market outlook has deteriorated, but even a 15 year old/scrap price ratio of over 2.0 in mid-2014 was a far cry from 2005-08 when 15 year old Capesize prices averaged more than 5 times scrap value, with ‘boom’ bulker earnings inflating asset values.

A similar trend has emerged in the containership sector. With charter rates largely in the doldrums since start 2012, the 15 year old price for a 2,000 TEU boxship has remained close to scrap value. Particular stress is also evident in the ‘old Panamax’ sector, with the price for a 15 year old 4,400 TEU ship now assessed at $5m, in line with estimated scrap values. In contrast, ratios in the tanker sector have generally risen in recent years. The 15 year old VLCC price was 3.5 times scrap value in early 2016, up from 1.3 times in early 2015. However, the ratio has recently dropped in line with weaker tanker earnings.

Elders On The Edge

As well as illustrating market trends, these ratios also influence fleet developments. Weaker markets and lower price ratios typically lead to more ships being scrapped rather than sold secondhand, as the ‘market mechanism’ helps to reduce oversupply. Across the bulker and containership sectors, over 70% of transactions of vessels 15+ years old since start 2012 have been accounted for by demolition sales, compared to just 11% in 2005-07. Increasingly young vessels are also being scrapped as a result.

Looking Poorly?

So, price ratios for older units can prove a useful indicator of the state of the markets. For assets generally expected to have a lifespan of 25 years or more, the historically low ratios of even 15 year old vessel prices to scrap values in some sectors is a clear and sobering reminder of the challenges still being faced.


Back in early 1999 the price of a 5 year old Panamax bulkcarrier dipped to $13.5m, and ever since analysts have hailed purchase decisions made at that time as some of the most lucrative shipping deals ever seen. Today, with the price back at $13m, perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on how successful investors were back in 1999 and whether there are similar opportunities once again.

What Was The Deal?

The graph shows for each year since 1990 the return that would have been generated by the purchase of a 5 year old Panamax bulkcarrier at the start of the year, the subsequent operation for ten years at the prevailing one year timecharter rate and then the sale of the unit at the end of that period as a 15 year old (for units purchased in 2007 and later, disposal at start 2016 was assumed). At the end of 1999 investors could pick up a 5 year old Panamax bulker for $14m. Trading that vessel at the start year one year timecharter rate for 10 years would have generated estimated earnings of $66.5m (after opex), and then as a 15 year old unit in 2009 the vessel could have been sold for $12.5m. That’s a small loss of $1.5m on the asset but still a total return of $65m, and an impressive internal rate of return (IRR) of 26%.

Playing Snap

A few years later, 5 year old Panamax bulkcarrier purchases did perhaps even better. Buying a 5 year old in 2002, once again at $14m, trading at the timecharter rate and selling as a 15 year old would have generated total returns of $73.2m and an IRR of 41%, whilst the equivalent project in 2003 would have generated $66.1m and an IRR of 44%. These vessels would have generated boom earnings earlier in the project period, subject to a heavier weighting in terms of the internal rate of return calculation.

Not Always A Good Hand

However, not all investors are so lucky. In this example, 5 year old ships purchased since 2008 (and sold this year, so admittedly with less time to hit upon a period of boom earnings) generated negative returns, and those purchased pre-1995 an average IRR of 7%. Buyers in 2008 would have lost a whopping $82.1m on the asset. Nevertheless, there was clearly a golden period; in the years 1998-2006 investors would have achieved an IRR ranging between 20% and 44%.

Unlucky (Or Lucky) 13?

So for those who have had the stomach to buy in at difficult times, there have been more than ample rewards. Today the price of a 5 year old Panamax is back at $13m. Dry bulk fundamentals, particularly on the demand side with the Chinese economy maturing, don’t look helpful at all (see SIW 1207), but with the 5 year old price at almost half that of a newbuild, who really knows what the longer-term opportunity might be?

Fortune favours the brave, but they also say that fools rush in. The outlook seems scary but investors might also have half an eye on their peers who invested at low points in the price cycle in the past. That’s the beauty of volatile and cyclical sectors, but it’s tricky food for thought for shipping investors. Are they willing to party like it’s 1999? Have a nice day.


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.