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.
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