Archives for posts with tag: Bulk

It has been a grim start to 2016 for the bulkcarrier market, with the Baltic Dry Index sliding to new record lows on almost every day of the year so far. With a nearly constant stream of negative news continuing to emerge across each of the key dry bulk cargo sectors, it is almost as if Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, has with his powerful trident launched a three-pronged attack.

Down To The Ocean Depths

The current depression is indeed severe. The Baltic Dry Index, a daily indicator of bulkcarrier rates, fell to its 19th consecutive record low of 317 points on 29th January. This is far below the average of 718 points in 2015, which itself was the second lowest annual average on record, and represented a year in which bulker earnings averaged around $7,000/day, little over estimated operating costs.

Surprise Attack

Of course, difficult market conditions are nothing new. Bulker earnings have been under pressure since 2011, when more than 100m dwt of deliveries kept fleet growth in double-digits. Whilst fleet growth eased to 2.4% in 2015, the slowest pace in 16 years, new demand-side pressures emerged, with dry bulk trade remaining flat last year. In Greek mythology, Poseidon’s trident had the power to cause earthquakes on earth, and there has certainly been evidence of a shake up recently. But where have each of the three prongs hit, and how sharply?

Strikes To The Core

The first earthquake is being felt in the iron ore trade, which accounts for around a third of dry bulk trade. Following rapid growth of 15% in 2014, Chinese imports eased in 2015, and expansion in iron ore trade slowed during the year (see graph). Overall, global iron ore trade is estimated to have grown by only 2% in 2015, and continued weak Chinese steel demand and the temporary closure of several major iron ore ports in January has done little to reverse this trend into 2016 so far.
The second shake up has hit trade in coal, which accounts for a quarter of dry bulk trade, very hard. Volumes declined by an estimated 5% in 2015, and the decline in volumes on the top 100 coal trade flows neared 10% y-o-y in Q3 2015, as Chinese and Indian imports fell. With several countries looking to increase reliance on clean energy sources, a major improvement in volumes seems unlikely.

Shifting The Currents

Finally, whilst the third earthquake has perhaps been less obvious than the first two, it has still had a significant impact. Growth in minor bulk trade, a diverse cargo grouping that accounts for more than a third of dry bulk trade volumes, was limited to 1% last year, owing in part to lower Chinese demand for imports of forest products, steel products, nickel ore, and various other smaller cargoes.

Stem The Tide?

So, the seas have been exceedingly stormy in the dry bulk sector. The impact from China’s economic transition is still resonating, and as yet there are few signs of an imminent improvement. As distressed conditions take their toll, hopes will be that the power of Poseidon’s trident will eventually start to ebb.


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.