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2018 was Indeed a Forgettable Year for Shipping. Is There More to It?

So far in 2018, the shipping freight markets have been proven uninspiring; current freight indices produced by the Baltic Exchange, the Shanghai Shipping Exchange and other data providers are comparable to year-old levels, give or take some “normal” volatility; and, it’s well known that shipping is capable of much more than “normal” volatility.

Product tankers specifically, and tankers in general, seem to be the disappointment of the year in terms of freight – but still, as of late, crude tankers have managed a fair recovery on the back of OPEC strong production performance and changing trade patterns for crude oil. The dry bulk market have mostly been having a respectable year with profitable cashflows, with the exception of a recent dive in the capesize freight market. The containership market had been fair in the early part of the year, especially for feeder and feedermax tonnage, although, recently. only trans-Pacific freight rates seem robust as shippers are trying to front-load their cargoes to the USA in expectation of heightened tariffs in the new year. And, the offshore market, after several years of tranquility reflecting an almost dead market, in 2018 has shown signs of hope as offshore drilling projects (very) selectively having been coming back to line.

The following chart from the Baltic Exchange, to which we are a member, depicts the Baltic Exchange freight indices for the drybulk market (BDI), and separately for the capesize market (BCI), its most important and also most volatile component; also, the Baltic Exchange freight indices for crude (BDTI) and clean tankers (BCTI) are shown in the same graph. In order to provide more perspective, the graph incorporates both 2017 and 2018 y-t-d, showing that 2018 has been marginally better than the year before, at least for dry bulk and tankers, seasonal volatility notwithstanding.

Selected Baltic Exchange Freight Indices

Likewise for the containership market with the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI):

Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (2017-2018-ytd)

All in all, on average, freight rates for most shipping assets were hovering around cash breakeven levels for most of 2018. Operating profits have been uninspiring, mostly, for the profitable sectors, while operating losses were too small to trigger fresh bankruptcies in unprofitable sectors. Most of the shipping bankruptcies in 2018 were of “legacy assets” emanating – hard to believe – from the go-go days of the last decade. A couple more of shipping bankruptcies in 2018 were triggered from other factors such as accounting fraud – including one in the fishing industry to which we have acted as Liquidation Trustee by order of the High Court of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

In a post from almost a year ago, we had argued that an uninspiring shipping market in 2018 was the best thing the industry could have hoped for. Not that we objected to outsized profits in the shipping industry, or wished ill for those that had a “long position” in shipping. We just thought that there were too many ships on the water for the cargoes available to be shipped, and, also, we did not see a great deal of growth for those cargoes. Our position for a forgettable year, truth be told, also incorporated some wishful thinking, that an uninspiring market would prevent the players in the market from fresh excesses, such as fresh waves of newbuilding vessels, more and cheaper capital in the industry, and so forth. We are pleased that our “prediction” for a forgettable market has been proven true, and we apologize for the betrayed dreams and hopes for a much stronger recovery for the shipping industry in 2018.

A forgettable year in 2018, as a “downer” as it has been for the shipping industry, it also has, at the very least, led to a) the slowest pace of newbuilding orders in almost every asset class, b) a low outstanding orderbook for many types of vessels, and the lowest for some in recent memory, c) few new capital coming to the market to ignite d) speculation and speculative transactions. There seems to be some “normalcy” in the market and a return to the basics, of supply and demand and the following of the trade and cargoes.

As shipping freight markets are concerned, probably 2019 will not be much different than 2018. But again, there are many “drivers” and “catalysts” that can make for an exciting year in shipping in the new year in other areas than shipping.

And, holding our second shipping conference in Athens on January 24th, 2019, we will aim to deliver, once again, profound insight from the Captains of the industry, literally and metaphorically, for the things to come in the near future!

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