Dry Bulk Shipping - will coal make up for the dissapointment in wheat exports?


Last year, US coal exports seized all the headlines as they were up by 31%, showing the flexibility of the producers to seek overseas opportunities as higher gas production, followed by lower gas prices, turned the tables in the domestic US market.
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Wheat disappoints and coal is creating opportunities, while erosion of ship values is causing problems.

Last year, US coal exports seized all the headlines as they were up by 31%, showing the flexibility of the producers to seek overseas opportunities as higher gas production, followed by lower gas prices, turned the tables in the domestic US market. The production of gas, including shale gas, has stayed high and prices low in 2012, opening up for strong US coal exports in 2012. Ninety-eight million tons of coal was exported during the first nine months of 2012, making annual exports head for an all-time high, surpassing the highs of 1981.

Will this venture stay strong? It’s unlikely, if you ask the US Energy Information Agency, who predict US coal exports will decline in 2013 but remain above 100 million tons for the third straight year. The case is this: as long as US coal exports go to Europe as a substitute for Australian exports, the lower ton/-mile represents a bad bargain for shipping. But if US exports are heading for the Asian markets, it may become a positive story for the dry bulk market. Arguing in the other direction may be that gas-prices stay low in the US and relatively high in Europe, leaving demand for thermal coal low in US domestic markets but higher in Europe, as coal is the preferred fossil fuel for electricity generation in Europe. Finally, a supply disruption in a major export country may increase US exports.

The steel sector, and thus also the Capesize sector, has enjoyed some tail-wind in recent months from China’s proactive approach to seeking higher growth. The September stimulus package immediately affected iron ore prices and Chinese imports positively. As Indian exports to China experienced new lows in Aug./Sept./Oct., the imports had to come from Brazil (longer distance as compared to Indian exports) or Australia (shorter distance). Strong Brazilian exports meant that the dry bulk market saw a solid upside from this surge in demand.

US wheat exports in 2012 have been weak all year. Export volumes during the “peak season” months of August and September were particularly disappointing. The shortfall of an accumulated 23% of the total wheat exports as compared to same period last year highlights the fact that many owners experienced a fierce fight for too few cargoes.

Russia’s Agriculture Ministry now expects the drought to cause a drop in harvesting this year as high as 25% compared to the 2011 harvest. Russia, a huge exporter of mainly wheat, said total grain exports were down by 17% compared to last season. The shortfall in seaborne grain exports from both the US and Russia has further and negatively impacted the shipping markets.

Following an immensely hectic delivery pace during the first two quarters of the year at 30 and 33.5 million DWT respectively, things were back at “normal” in the 3rd quarter at 20.34 million DWT. Now, as we know the year-to-date numbers at the end of November coming in at 92.3 million DWT, the slowdown is considerable and happening across the board and not exclusively in China. Out of 1,118 dry bulk carriers launched so far in 2012, 579 have been delivered from Chinese shipyards (51%).

Despite the recent slowdown, deliveries are forecast to go higher towards the end of the year, bringing the deliveries tally beyond the 100 million DWT mark for the second year in a row.
Going forward, 2013 deliveries are “front end loaded”, with 52% in the first six months and 32% in the final six months, leaving 16% without a fixed delivery month.

The demolition of commercially obsolete tonnage has reached 517 vessels of 31 million DWT. This has positively reduced the active fleet, which nonetheless has grown by 9.8% since the turn of the year.

In respect of demolition, 2012 has been just as good as the freight market has been bad. Despite disruptions at major demolition sites, the total demolition yard capacity has proved sufficiently large. India, followed by Bangladesh, took the lion’s share in that market.

The effect on asset prices stemming from the large inflow of new tonnage is felt across the board by all owners. Lately, the pressure on second-hand values has been so severe that the correlation with newbuilding prices is off. What once was a rather strong early indicator (correlation above 90%) of where newbuilding prices were heading, is now derailed, as Clarkson’s Bulkcarrier Secondhand Prices Index is exposing a price change of -29% as compared to the end of November last year. During the same period, the Bulkcarrier Newbuilding Price index is down by no more than 8%.

Clearly, the erosion of vessel values is causing problems for ship owners and for the providers of finance. Balance sheet assets and liabilities are stretched at length, which puts even more strength in a positive and fairly predictable strong cash-flow to back the business. Q4 has brought about some optimism, with the BDI now at 1,022 driven primarily by strong Capesize demand. Leaving a disastrous 2012 behind, a stronger 2013 is most likely in the making, but don’t expect a lightning strike.

To sum up, our forecast for the coming 6 weeks: BIMCO holds the view that Capesize TC average rates are expected to stay elevated around USD 9,000-16,000 per day. Panamax is expected to be found in the USD 6,000-10,000 per day interval. For the Supramax segment, BIMCO forecasts freight rates to remain in the USD 7,000-9,500 per day interval, whereas Handysize rates are forecast to stay at the interval of USD 6,000-9,000 per day.

Peter Sand
in Copenhagen, DK


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