Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
When the world economy tanked last year and global trade juddered to a halt, nothing fell further or faster than freight rates in the world shipping industry. And within that mix of container lines, tankers and dry bulk cargoes such as iron ore, it was, not surprisingly perhaps, this last one that fared worse. In little more than six months, it fell by more than 90 per cent.
Now, however, it is well off the bottom. Iron ore is moving again, as are other bulk commodities, as global industry picks itself up off the floor and begins a tentative restocking.
But don't get too excited. Most of these cargoes are heading for Asia as China, in particular, benefits from a massive and unprecedented domestic economic stimulus.
It is an encouraging sign, but after a long cold winter any sign of spring is encouraging and we know from long experience in this country that warm spring is no guarantee of a decent summer. That said, you would expect the shipowners and charterers at least to take comfort from what is going on.
But if that is what you expected you would be wrong. At the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco) shipping conference in Athens this week, where owners, users and builders meet, the mood was one of continued gloom. It turns out that of all the industries in the world facing problems of overcapacity in the face of declining demand, none is in worse shape than shipping.
The motor industry may be on its knees, the airlines flying half-empty and the leisure industry wondering where the next customer is coming from, but shipping has an overcapacity problem worse than anything in the past 50 years. Even in bulk freight they are gloomy.
Rates have indeed hardened, they say, but in a few months' time there will be so much new capacity launched that they will fall back down again.
This may not happen, of course, but it is easy to see why they might think it would. In that brief period of ultra-low interest rates and rocketing world trade which seems from another age but was only two years ago, freight rates went through the roof. This sparked off a collective loss of reason in the industry, which led to a rush of new ordering the likes of which the world has never seen.
Whereas before the decision to order a ship was a laboriously thought-through process, with owners all too aware of their vulnerability, the cyclicality of the industry and the scarcity of finance, this time the new entrants thought it would be different.
Shipping to them was just another asset class, a bet on the world economy and an income stream the financial models said could only go one way. The result was an over-ordering of all kinds of ships, all to be paid for some time in the future with credit from the limitless pockets of the banks.
Even in containers, where the freight-rate boom was far more muted, the collective insanity took hold.
Container ships currently on order will add 50 per cent to global capacity, at a time when half the existing fleet is under five years old and therefore too young to consider scrapping and when, for the first time in living memory, freight rates have turned negative.
In tankers, where new rules will demand an end to single-hulled vessels in the belief that double-hulled ships will be less vulnerable to oil spillages in an accident, the picture is similarly bleak.
All the single hulls in the world could be scrapped this year and there would still be overcapacity. And don't set your hopes too high on the recent fillip in the oil price indicating rising demand. Oil stocks currently are so high it will take two years of Opec cuts, if it can make them stick, just to work through the surplus.
And now, slowly but relentlessly, by the millions of tons, ships are being built in the yards of China, Korea and Japan, often financed by government bailouts. There is no market for them, no cargo for them, no money to pay for them and nobody wants them, but the build goes on and will continue for the next three years unless someone loses their nerve, faces up to reality, and cancels.
Yet it does not happen. Collectively the industry is waiting for someone else to make the first move or for world trade to bounce back and the banks to start lending again.
Instead we have a limbo, a phony reality, with ships sailing at half speed round the world to spin out journey times, with oil tankers acting as mobile storage vessels, and with 500 container ships already laid up with nowhere to go. The industry will surely soon have to face restructuring, bankruptcy and pain.
If no one moves to take the hit and cancel the orders already placed in the world's shipyards, new deliveries will shortly add between 30 per cent and 40 per cent to capacity in bulk carriers, in tankers and in container ships.
What on earth will they do with them?
Ships are slowly being built but there is no market for them, no cargo for them, no money to pay for them and nobody wants them.