Shipping companies that transport commodities such as coal, iron ore and grain face a painful year ahead, with only the strongest expected to weather a deepening crisis caused by tepid demand and a surplus of vessels for hire. The predicament facing firms that ship commodities in large unpackaged amounts - known as dry bulk - is partly the result of slower coal and iron ore demand from leading global importer China in the second half of 2015.
The Baltic Exchange's main sea freight index - which tracks rates for ships carrying dry bulk commodities - plunged to an all-time low this month. In stark contrast, however, tankers that transport oil have in recent months enjoyed their best earnings in years. As crude prices have plummeted, bargain-buying has driven up demand, while owners have moved more aggressively to scrap vessels to head off the kind of surplus seen in the dry bulk market.
Symeon Pariaros, chief administrative officer of Athens-run and New York-listed shipping firm Euroseas, said the outlook for the dry bulk market was "very challenging". "Demand fundamentals are so weak. The Chinese economy, which is the main driver of dry bulk, is way below expectations," he added. "Only companies with very strong balance sheets will get through this storm."
The dry bulk shipping downturn began in 2008, after the onset of the financial crisis, and has worsened significantly this year as the Chinese economy has slowed. The Baltic Exchange's main BDI index - which gauges the cost of shipping such commodities, also including cement and fertiliser - is more than 95 percent down from a record high hit in 2008. The index is often regarded as a forward-looking economic indicator. With about 90 percent of the world's traded goods by volume transported by sea, global investors look to the BDI for any signs of changes in sentiment for industrial demand.
"The state of the dry bulk market especially indicates that economies worldwide are likely to stay weak, much to the disappointment of central banks ... FX traders, miners, steel makers, trading houses, and commodity economies," said Basil Karatzas, head of New York consultancy and brokerage Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co Ratings agency Fitch downgraded the shipping sector to negative, from stable, this month due to slowing global trade and an economic slowdown in emerging markets, adding that dry bulk would remain under pressure.
Slowing demand and concerns over the health of the Chinese and global economies have pushed the 19-commodity Thomson Reuters/Core Commodity CRB Index, which tracks the prices of 19 commodities including oil and grains, to its lowest level since 2002. "There is no doubt that the overall macro situation is one that does not engender a lot of confidence for increased trade flows in 2016 and beyond," said Khalid Hashim, managing director of Precious Shipping, one of Thailand's largest dry cargo ship owners. Worsening conditions have already claimed casualties.
In September, Japanese bulk carrier Daiichi Chuo Kisen Kaisha filed for protection from creditors, and private equity backed Global Maritime Investment Cyprus Ltd filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States. Smaller dry bulk ship owners are expected to struggle in coming months. "There are clearly big problems for almost all dry bulk owners, certainly those who cannot subsidise dry bulk through ownership in tankers. Debt can only be serviced through reserves of capital and not from cash-flow," said Tony Foster, chief executive of British shipping asset manager Marine Capital. "Public companies will issue discounted shares. Small private companies without obvious external support will be at the most risk." Ship owners are also contending with more vessel orders, which are expected to increase oversupply further.
While the dry bulk market has been in a downturn since 2008, there have been brief rebound periods of relatively good earnings in that time that emboldened ship owners to order more vessels, which normally take up to three years to deliver. "Too many factors are against ship owners at present, and January sees a disproportionate delivery of vessels from the shipyards," said Karatzas. Analysis from Axia Capital Markets showed the cumulative loss of revenues for 13 shipping companies publicly listed in New York reached over $3.36 billion in the first nine months of 2015.
"Given the current oversupply of vessels in the marketplace that has built up over the past five years, we expect rates to remain at depressed levels for at least two more years as the market struggles to find a new equilibrium," said Robert Perri of Axia Capital Markets. By contrast, demand for oil tankers and the rates they command have surged to their highest levels since 2008 in the past three months. Dry bulk shipping markets have been hit hard by a slide in demand for coal by China, which is also trying to ease its dependence on the polluting fuel and meet environmental pledges.
But the country has been looking to boost strategic reserves of crude, taking advantage of multi-year lows in prices, which has helped the oil tanker market rally. Earlier this month China said it more than doubled the size of its strategic crude oil reserves between November 2014 and the middle of this year, a rate exceeding analysts' estimates.
Oil tanker players have been more conservative since 2008 in ordering ships as they experienced rock-bottom rates that saw earnings falling below zero as recently as last year, meaning owners clocked up losses every day. The scrapping of tankers, which picked up in 2011, has also shrunk the fleet. Average earnings for supertankers hauling 2 million barrels of oil on the benchmark Middle East Gulf to Japan route have surged to over $110,000 a day.
In contrast, average earnings for capesize ships, among the largest vessels used to haul coal and iron ore, have slumped to under $5,000 a day in recent weeks - below the basic operating cost level a ship needs to break even, which is around $8,000. "The (tanker) market is on fire," said Deutsche Bank analyst Amit Mehrotra, but added: "Owners of dry bulk ships are likely to spend the holiday break quietly reflecting on how they will further endure the worst market many have seen in their lifetimes.