Archives for posts with tag: Shipping Cycles

Shipping is a cyclical industry and for shipyards the current trough in newbuilding orders has put further pressure on capacity. While the scale of the current surplus appears huge, this is not the first time that the shipbuilding industry has grappled with excess capacity. Looking back to the past, and specifically the shipbuilding cycle of the late 1970s, what can be learnt from previous experience?

Enjoying The Highs

The shipbuilding industry has a habit of ramping up production capacity rapidly. In 2010 shipyards broke all previous delivery records, outputting 53.2m CGT (in dwt and GT terms deliveries peaked in 2011). Compared to 2004, early into the most recent ordering boom, this was a 122% increase in deliveries. Looking back to the mid-1970s, there was a similar burst of activity as strong newbuild demand saw yard output double between 1972 and 1976 to 10.2m CGT.

What Goes Up…

As in the late 1970s, economic downturn and its impact on the shipping markets led to a significant fall in yard deliveries after their peak in 2010. The initial decrease in output was faster and sharper in the 1970s, with deliveries declining by 64% between 1976 (Year 0) and 1979 (Year 3). The current cycle has seen a more gradual fall in deliveries, declining 34% between 2010 and 2014 with 178 yards reported to have completed delivery of their orderbooks in 2012 (Year 2).

…Must Come Down

Shipyard output is still in decline. Though the surge in ordering in 2013 has helped support delivery volumes, current estimates are for an 18% fall in shipyard output in 2018. Many anticipate that the current delivery cycle will dip around 2019 (Year 9), suggesting a shorter cycle than before. It also seems unlikely that delivery levels will fall by as much as in the late 1980s, as the same pattern would imply a further 47% reduction in output from 2018 estimates to around 15m CGT.

Time To Recover?

After the 1970s crash, it took over a decade for shipbuilding output to recover. Today, following one of the weakest levels of newbuild contracting on record in 2016, the overcapacity which has characterised the global shipbuilding industry in recent years is even more prominent. While 353 shipbuilders currently have a vessel (1,000 GT or above) on order, almost half of these shipyards have failed to win a contract since the start of 2016.

If the current shipbuilding cycle were to follow the same pattern as in the 1970s, we would only be 7-8 years in, with a full recovery still some way away. However, the situation will improve if contracting levels increase. Trade growth, the replacement of older, less efficient ships and stricter environmental regulation could support yard capacity in the future through a recovery in newbuild demand.

Looking back at the shipbuilding cycle of the 1970s, it is clear that the industry has faced similar challenges in the past. It seems unlikely that we have reached the bottom of the current cycle, and pressure to remove capacity remains. Shipbuilders will be hoping that newbuild demand drivers come through quickly to stem the duration of this particular downturn.

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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…

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