Archives for posts with tag: bulker earnings

In last year’s half year shipping report, we reported on an industry that “must do better”. With the ClarkSea Index averaging $10,040 per day in the first half (up 2% y-o-y but still 14% below trend since the financial crisis) there are still many subjects (sectors) struggling for good grades as our Graph of the Week shows. But are there some that are showing a bit more potential?

Don’t Rest On Your Laurels!

A year on from record lows, bulker earnings remain below trend (defined as the average since the financial crisis) but are showing signs of improvement. Capesize spot earnings moved from an average of $4,972/day in 1H 2016 to $13,086/day (75% below trend versus 33% below trend). Indeed, based on the first quarter alone, Panamax earnings moved above trend for the first time since 2014 and we have certainly seen lots of S&P activity. The containership sector has responded to the Hanjin bankruptcy with another wave of consolidation (the top ten liner companies now operate 75% of capacity) and some improvements, albeit with lots of volatility, in freight rates. Improved volumes, demolition and the re-alignment of liner networks, helped improve charter rates and indeed feeder containerships rates have moved above trend for the first time since 2011. Although some gains have been eroded moving into the summer, fundamentals for both these sectors suggest improvements in coming years but it may be a bumpy road!

Dropping Grades!

After solid marks in last year’s reviews, the tanker sectors tracked here have moved into negative territory compared to trend, with the larger ships feeling the biggest correction as fleet growth, particularly on the crude side, remains rapid and oil trade growth slows. Aside from a small pick-up in the LNG market in recent weeks, the gas markets remain weak, with VLGC earnings 42% below trend. Some increased activity, project sanctioning and investor interest has not yet taken offshore off the “naughty step” .

Still Top Of The Class?

The only sector significantly above trend for the first half is Ro-Ro, with rates for a 3,500lm vessel averaging euro 18,458/day, 42% above trend. There also continues to be strong interest in ferry and cruise newbuilding (the 2 million Chinese cruise passengers last year, now 9% of global volumes, is supporting a record orderbook of USD 44.2bn, as is the interest in smaller “expedition” ships). We must also give a mention to S&P volumes that are 60% above trend (51m dwt, up 50% y-o-y) and to S&P bulker values which improved 25% in the first quarter alone.

Showing Potential?

Upward revisions to trade estimates have been a feature of the first half, and we are now projecting full year growth of 3.4% (to 11.5bn tonnes and 57,000bn tonne-miles). Although demolition has slowed (down 55% y-o-y to 16m dwt), overall fleet growth of 2.3% is still below trend but an increase on 1H 2016 (1.6%). While there has been some pick-up in newbuild ordering to 24m dwt (up 27% y-o-y), this remains 52% below trend. Last year we speculated on an appointment with the headmaster – still possible but perhaps this year extra classes on regulation and technology? Have a nice day.


It’s now more than a year since the tanker market took off. In mid-2014 tanker earnings picked up and since then have been in the $30-$40,000/day range. But the market remains nervous. This tanker pick-up coincided with a slump in dry bulk earnings, which is interesting because on paper bulkers and tankers both seem to have surplus capacity. So why are tankers doing so much better than bulkers?

Long-Term Premium

On an “all sizes average” basis tanker earnings generally exceed bulker earnings (the tanker “basket” contains a greater share of larger ships). For example, between 1990 and 2015 to date tanker earnings averaged $24,996/day, whilst bulkers earned $13,933/day. That gives tankers a 79% premium over bulkers. During the seven years since the Credit Crisis, the premium has remained. Tankers have earned $18,281/day, compared to bulkers’ $12,427/day, a 47% premium. So the “premium” relationship held, even during a period of deep recession.

Earnings Distribution

However, during the period of recession tanker earnings have swung from below to above “average premium levels”. To illustrate this point we have estimated what tanker earnings “should have been” over the last seven years if they had followed the “average premium” relationship with bulker earnings over the full period back to 1990. This relationship was estimated using a regression equation as a “rule of thumb”, using monthly data for the period 1990 to 2015, and then used to estimate tanker earnings since 2009 from bulker earnings, shown by the red line on the graph.

For the first five years tankers underperformed compared to the long-term “average premium” versus bulkers, with the blue line, showing actual earnings, below the red line. But in 2014 they started to exceed the expected premium as bulker earnings dropped and tanker earnings increased. Currently tanker earnings offer a significant “bonus” above the estimated “norm”, at levels about six times higher than bulker earnings.

More Than One Answer

So what’s going on? The first answer is that tankers are playing “catch up” for the bad run early in the recession. But there are other answers to the question. One is that in 2015 oil trade has grown much faster than expected, increasing by 4% compared with only 2% expected earlier in the year. Another is the oil price collapse from over $100/bbl to close to $40/bbl, creating an opportunity for arbitrage by holding oil in ships, in anticipation of a price increase. Additionally, of course, bulkers have suffered from an absence of demand growth this year.

The Usual Suspects?

So there you have it. The tanker boom has gone on longer than many might have anticipated and tanker earnings are outperforming their long-run relationship with bulker earnings. But a “fundamental” surplus remains and investors might be right to be cautious. Scrapping has almost stopped, ordering has picked up and supply growth is set to increase. So, enjoy it while you can, and remember that it’s partly a game of catch up. 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.

In the last four months dry bulk orders have fallen to 0.4m dwt per month, the lowest level since the 1990s. This is a massive 98% reduction from the 23m dwt peak in orders in December 2007, and probably the sharpest decline in recent decades. Not really a surprise in a market where Capesize bulkers are struggling to earn $4,000/day, but a timely relief to investors with ships on the orderbook.

Investment Fever

This investment collapse marks the end of a remarkable phase of bulkcarrier history. During the last decade, 724m dwt of new bulkers have been ordered, around 70m dwt/year. Just to put that in perspective, during the previous decade ordering averaged about 20m dwt/year.

The 5 years from 1996 to 2001 were disappointing to investors, who ordered only 1.2m dwt/month. At the time this was seen as normal, and included a spike in 1999, when investors snapped up Panamax bulkers for $19-$22m. These were probably the most profitable bulkers ordered in the industry’s post-war history. Upon delivery they sailed straight into the bulk shipping boom. Proof that “crazy investors” are not always crazy.

Softly, Softly

The next phase from 2002 to November 2006 was quite restrained, considering the rise in freight rates. Ordering edged up, averaging 2.8m dwt/month. As earnings eased in 2006, many assumed the boom was over, but they were wrong and what happened next was unprecedented. As earnings escalated owners threw caution to the wind, and the big bulker cash machine drew investors from outside shipping. In December 2007, ordering peaked at 23m dwt, and in 2007 to 2014, investment averaged 6.8m dwt/month (81m dwt/year), an astonishing number for a period mostly in global recession.

Carry On Investing

Despite the onset of the global downturn in 2008, two more bulker investment spikes followed in 2010 and 2013. With surplus bulker capacity, and China’s growth engine easing off, it’s hard to explain this investment on strictly economic grounds. Easier, perhaps, to understand the change in expectations. The memory of spectacular bulker earnings had been fresh in the minds of some investors, but a decade later and that dream is fading.

The collapse in bulkcarrier investment is a particular problem for shipyards. Many builders in China and Japan surfed the wave of bulkcarrier investment and bulkers still account for around half of tonnage on order globally. In today’s sluggish world economy, that is going to be a difficult gap to fill. The fact that bulker prices are around 5% down this year, and ordering has virtually stopped tells its own story.

Big Bulker Investment Boom

So there you have it. The spectacular run of dry bulk investment which kicked off in early 2003 has finally ended. Then China’s imports were growing at 27% a year, a big difference from the 3% growth in 2014. This is disappointing, but as serious shipping investors know, in good markets and bad, there’s still an awful lot of cargo that has to be moved around the world – it’s just a matter of who moves it. Have a nice day.