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LNG shipping rates now far exceed crude-tanker rates

LNG carriers are achieving much higher spot rates. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“Crude-tanker rates at historic levels!” blared the recent headlines. Lost in the media storm: Spot rates for liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers are now higher – much higher – than for crude tankers. Stifel analyst Ben Nolan dubbed LNG carriers “the forgotten tanker.”

On Oct. 11, rates for very large crude carriers (VLCCs, tankers that can carry 2 million barrels of crude oil) were assessed by brokers at just over $300,000 per day, which would have marked a modern-day record if it held.

It didn’t. These assessments were based on contracts “on subjects” or “on subs,” i.e., agreed but not finalized. Over the subsequent days, all of the ultra-high-price deals on subjects collapsed.

As Hugo De Stoop, CEO of Euronav (NYSE: EURN), explained on a Deutsche Bank client call on Oct. 17, “Subs were invented to make sure ships were vetted and were technically OK [but] more and more, we see subs being used as an option.”

The highest amount actually agreed, De Stoop confirmed, was around $200,000-$220,000 per day. VLCC spot rates have since fallen back into the high five figures. As of Oct. 22, Clarksons Platou Securities put average VLCC rates at $96,600 per day, down 66% week on week.

As crude rates temper, LNG flares

Meanwhile, LNG spot rates are going in the opposite direction and are now almost 50% higher than VLCC spot rates (with the caveat that LNG carrier break-evens are higher than VLCC break-evens and thus the comparison is somewhat “apples and oranges”).

“With all the action in the crude and refined product tanker markets, it may have gone overlooked that spot LNG tanker rates are quietly climbing to similar levels that were reached last winter,” Nolan said.

As of Oct. 22, Clarksons Platou Securities estimated that spot rates for tri-fuel diesel engine (TFDE) carriers were $130,000 per day, up 27% week-on-week and 91% month-on-month. Rates for two-stroke-engine carriers – known as MEGI or XDF carriers – were $145,000 per day, up 26% week-on-week and 68% month-on-month. Older steam-turbine LNG carriers were at $90,000 a day, according to Nolan.

The LNG shipping market is “catching fire,” said Amit Mehrotra, transportation analyst at Deutsche Bank.

“LNG spot shipping rates have now moved higher for six straight weeks, with the magnitude of weekly gains increasing. Rates are currently above mid-October 2018, just before the market surged to record-high levels of $190,000 per day last November,” he said.

U.S.-Asia arbitrage

A significant driver of LNG spot shipping rates is the spread between the U.S. LNG commodity price – Henry Hub – and the Asian spot price, known as the Japan/Korea Marker (JKM), and how that spread compares to the U.S.-Europe spread. As the arbitrage gap with the JKM becomes more attractive, more LNG ships take the longer voyage from the U.S. Gulf to Asia via the Panama Canal versus the shorter route to Europe. Longer average voyage distances lower effective supply and increase spot freight rates.

This dynamic propelled LNG shipping rates to historic highs in November 2018. This year, sentiment toward shipping rates has been more bearish because the JKM price has been weak.

“We attribute much of the weaker sentiment to a softer LNG commodity price in 2019, however, we note that the commodity has rallied 50% since September,” Mehrotra said. “While the LNG price is seasonal, the recent rebound has far outperformed the forward curve expectations. A stronger commodity price is a tailwind for LNG shipping, as it promotes inter-basin trading and opens arbitrage windows.”

According to Frode Mørkedal, analyst at Clarksons Platou Securities, recovering Asian LNG prices bode well for improved demand before winter.

“Increased arbitrage opportunities and floating storage are driving demand higher,” he said. “In Europe, natural-gas inventories are reportedly close to being filled up, meaning downward pressure on regional prices, improving the economics to move volumes further to Asia instead.”

COSCO sanctions, looming pipeline

Two additional market issues, both involving China, could affect LNG shipping spot rates.

The first – a positive – involves U.S. sanctions against the shipping company COSCO (Dalian) on Sept. 25 for alleged carriage of Iranian crude oil. Those sanctions ensnared a joint venture (JV) between COSCO (Dalian) and Teekay LNG (NYSE: TGP) that operates a fleet of ice-breaking LNG carriers. These vessels transport LNG from the massive Yamal LNG project in the Russian Arctic, bringing cargoes to Asia via the North Sea Route.

Both Mehrotra and Mørkedal cited the sanctions restriction as being potentially supportive of recent rate strength, to the extent that it removes vessel capacity. “U.S. sanctions on Chinese shipping entities provide a supply disruption just as peak demand nears,” Mehrotra noted.

Such disruptions have turned out to be short-lived, however. Novatek, the Russian operator of Yamal LNG, announced on Oct. 22 that Teekay LNG-COSCO (Dalian) JV “is no longer considered a ‘blocked person’ under the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control rules” and that the JV is now “conducting LNG shipments for the Yamal LNG project in the normal course of business.” Teekay LNG confirmed the resolution, as well.

As of mid-day on Oct. 22, the stock of Teekay LNG had surged over 17% higher on the news.

The second China-related issue, which is a negative for LNG shipping, is the imminent debut of a major natural gas pipeline from Siberia to China.

Nolan pointed out that for LNG carrier owners, “locking in firm [spot] rates may be important because the northern section Power of Siberia pipeline between Russia and China was completed this week and is scheduled to begin delivering gas Dec. 1.

“The initial impact is likely to account for just 1.5% of Chinese gas consumption but rising to nearly 10% in 2023. Consequently, Chinese LNG demand growth is expected to slow, although now off a very large base,” said Nolan, who added that the pipeline debut “is also expected to keep LNG prices from rising too far this winter, with JKM futures prices not forecasted to reach much beyond $7.50 [per million British thermal units] this year.”

LNG stock performance lags

Unlike stocks of crude-tanker owners – which have experienced a significant run-up in pricing as spot rates have surged – stock performance of LNG carrier owners has been relatively lackluster.

As of mid-day on Oct. 22, all LNG carrier owner stocks were down versus 52-week highs: GasLog Partners (NYSE: GLOP) was below its high by 1%, Teekay LNG by 7%, Golar LNG Partners (NYSE: GMLP) by 32%, GasLog Ltd (NYSE: GLOG) by 39%, Golar LNG Ltd. (NYSE: GLNG) by 51% and Dynagas LNG (NYSE: DLNG) by 74%.

On one hand, this can be viewed as a buying opportunity, on the theory that LNG shipping stocks are poised to rise.

But on the other hand, in LNG shipping, there is a heavy focus on long-term time charters that can be more than a half-decade in duration. These contracts are often in the vicinity of $70,000 per day and unlike spot rates, they are not volatile. The listed companies have most of their tonnage on long-term charters, and thus, their exposure to the daily ups and downs of the spot market is limited. Listed crude-tanker owners have a much higher percentage of their fleets on spot. More FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Greg Miller

Greg Miller

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.