In May 2015, the average confidence level expressed by respondents in the markets in which they operate was 5.3 on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), down from 5.5 in February 2015. This equals the lowest figure recorded in the life of the survey, which was launched in May 2008 with a confidence rating of 6.8.
Charterers were the only category of main respondent to record an increase in confidence, albeit from the all-time survey low last time of 3.9. But their rating of 4.2 was still the lowest in the latest survey.
A number of respondents expressed the view that an upturn in market conditions was some way off. One said, “after eight years of misery, rates must go up if shipping companies are to survive. Another remarked, “boom / bust cycles in the shipping industry usually last about seven years, which is sufficient time for any money lost to return to the market, with interest rates at, say, 6 percent. But now, because of excess liquidity in the markets and low interest rates, there is a feeling that any recovery will be a very long time coming.”
The depressed state of the dry bulk sector and the effect of the entry into the market of private equity were the subjects which dominated responses to the survey, neatly encapsulated by the respondent who noted, “the remarkable acceleration of scrapping of larger bulk carriers and the conversion of many newbuildings into tankers will have a positive effect on the dry bulk market sooner than had previously been anticipated – provided, of course, that suicidal private equity has learnt its lesson and accepts that this is not an opportunity to make a quick fortune.”
Demand trends, competition and tonnage supply featured as the top three factors cited by respondents as those likely to influence performance most significantly over the coming 12 months. The numbers for demand trends and competition were each down on last time by one percentage point, to 23 percent in the case of the former and to 20 percent for the latter. Tonnage supply, meanwhile, was up by one percentage point to 15 percent, one percentage point ahead of finance costs. Operating costs, down by one percentage point to 11 percent, featured in fifth place, followed by fuel costs, down by one percentage point to 6 percent, equalling the lowest figure recorded in this category since February 2010. One respondent said, “Only the big owners can make investments in order to be ready with good tonnage, and not be displaced by competitors, when the market recovers.”
Turning to the freight markets, there was a fall in the number of respondents anticipating higher rates in the dry bulk sector, but expectations of improved rates in the tanker and container ship trades were up on the figures for February 2015. Overall net sentiment, based on the difference between the number of respondents who expected rates to improve and the number who thought they would deteriorate, was positive in all three main tonnage categories covered by the survey.
Richard Greiner, Moore Stephens Partner, Shipping Industry Group, explained “the fact that shipping confidence has revisited the low point recorded twice before in the seven-year life of the survey underlines both the current volatility of the markets and the fragile nature of confidence itself in an industry where, little more than 12 months ago, it was at an all-time high.
“The nature of the concerns expressed by respondents to the survey comes as no surprise. Familiarity in this case breeds continuing uncertainty rather than contempt. There are no quick fixes for the likes of overtonnaging and low freight rates. The solutions, like the problems themselves, are long-term in nature, and will undoubtedly involve some pain along the way. Moreover, there is a not a one-size-fits-all solution for the industry as a whole. What is good news for some sectors is quite the opposite for others.
“Lower oil prices might be helping smaller operators to compete by virtue of reduced bunker costs, but in many respects they are bad news for the bigger players with whom they are competing. Access to finance for newbuildings in either the traditional or private equity markets is good news for owners with an eye on expansion, but bad news for those seeking investment to upgrade existing tonnage.
“Shipping has enough problems to occupy itself for the foreseeable future. But it must not take its eye off the ball when it comes to the incipient costs associated with achieving regulatory compliance, or indeed of properly managing the increasing risks which it faces on a daily basis, encompassing everything from the financial stability of counter-parties to cyber security threats.
“It is not all bad news. The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) has started to nudge upwards after an extended period in freefall. The tonnage supply / demand imbalance, although still unsatisfactory, is improving rather than deteriorating. There will always be a demand for shipping. Moreover, given the high operating and regulatory costs involved, and the fact that the economic and industry downturn has already claimed significant numbers of weaker companies, the shipping industry is likely to be stronger than it has been for many years once the recovery does get under way. In the meantime, it is just a question of holding one’s nerve.”
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.