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.
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.
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…