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‘Sizzling’ bulkers hit near nine-year high

In this week's ocean rate report, a look at dry bulk and container-shipping rates.

You wouldn’t know it from the performance of dry bulk stocks, but bulk shipping rates are on fire and reaching new heights well beyond levels seen in June and July when optimism toward the sector first flared.

On Sept. 4, the Baltic Dry Index (BDI), which tracks rates of bulkers in multiple segments, hit 2,518 points, its highest level since November 2010, almost nine years ago. Shares in the Breakwave Dry Bulk Shipping exchange-traded fund (NYSE: BDRY), which purchases freight futures to mimic the BDI, are up 127% since April.

Gains are largely being driven by bulkers in the larger Capesize category (with capacities of 100,000 deadweight tons, DWT, or more) but also by Panamaxes (65,000-90,000 DWT). The Baltic Capesize Index rose to its highest level since June 2010 – in other words, its highest level since the global financial crisis.

“Dry bulk shipping markets continue to sizzle, with spot rates at near decade highs, while the time-charter market continues to push higher,” said Deutsche Bank transportation analyst Amit Mehrotra.

According to Clarksons Platou Securities, Capesize rates reached $37,500 per day on Sept. 4, up 21% week-on-week and up 46% month-on-month. Panamax rates were $19,900 per day, up 2% week-on-week and 32% month-on-month.

During the quarterly conference call with analysts held by Safe Bulkers on Sept. 4, executives pointed to much higher levels of Brazilian iron-ore exports to China driving Capesizes and strong grain exports to Asia out of the east coast of South America driving Panamaxes.

While stocks have been waylaid by investor fears over the U.S.-China trade war, these tensions offer several potential silver linings for dry bulk.

In the agricultural sector, the cessation of Chinese buying of U.S. exports has been largely considered a negative for shipping, but this is not necessarily the case.

To the extent U.S. exports are replaced by exports from Brazil and Argentina and do not decrease in overall volume, it is a positive for shipping demand. Panamaxes picking up cargoes in South America use the eastward Cape of Good Hope route to Asia, which is moderately longer than the westward route between the U.S. Gulf and Asia via the Panama Canal. Longer average distances are a positive for freight rates because longer voyages soak up more vessel capacity.

In the iron-ore sector that drives Capesize rates, a weaker economic outlook has historically spurred stimulus plans in China – plans that favor construction and consequently iron-ore imports for steel production.

According to Clarksons Platou Securities managing director of research Frode Mørkedal, “Looking at the ferocious dry bulk rally, with spot rates now at the highest [levels] since before the financial crisis, we ask ourselves if China already pushed the stimulus button.

“While there are several reasons for the recovery since June, such as increased Brazilian iron ore driving ton-miles higher and scrubber retrofits taking ships out of service, it is not just Capesizes performing, but Panamaxes and Supramaxes as well, indicating a possible broad-based demand recovery behind the strong rates. Several indicators like steel production and housing starts are supportive [of the Chinese stimulus theory]. It is reasonable to assume that a [Chinese] stimulus program would be good news for all shipping, in particular dry bulk,” noted Mørkedal.

The counterargument is that the recent spike in dry bulk rates is not sustainable. If so, it makes sense that Wall Street investors have shied away from buying the stocks.

Randy Giveans, shipping analyst at Jefferies, said that he expects second-half rates to be “much better” than first-half rates due to higher Brazilian exports and less fleet availability due to scrubber installations (the IMO 2020 rule effective Jan. 1 requires the use of ultra-low-sulfur fuel unless ships have exhaust-gas scrubbers installed). However, Giveans said that he does not “expect rates to remain at these [currently] elevated levels for the rest of the year.”

Ben Nolan, shipping analyst at Stifel, went further, opining that “most of that rate increase [in dry bulk rates] is due to scrubber installations reducing supply,” which he believes will be “ultimately transitory in nature.”

Public companies with spot Capesize and Panamax spot exposure: Genco Shipping & Trading (NYSE: GNK), Golden Ocean (NASDAQ: GOGL), Scorpio Bulkers (NYSE: SALT), Star Bulk (NASDAQ: SBLK), Safe Bulkers (NYSE: SB), Seanergy (NASDAQ: SHIP)

Asia-Europe container rates still down

In the container shipping sector, all eyes have been on the eastbound trans-Pacific trade. After an ominous start of the peak season, rates finally surged in early September, implying normalizing levels of demand.

According to the Freightos daily index tracking the cost to ship containers between China and the North American west coast, the price per 40-foot equivalent unit (FEU) rose from $1,289 on Aug. 30 to $1,617 on Sept. 2, a jump of $328 per FEU or 25%.

Expectations toward the trans-Pacific trade are inextricably linked with the U.S.-China tariff issue. But what of the even larger Asia-Europe box trade, where the concern is not tariffs but the shaky health of European economies?

The Freightos index for the China-North Europe lane (SONAR: FBXD.CNER) has been considerably more stable over the longer term than the trans-Pacific. Today’s China-North Europe box shipping price, at around $1,500 per FEU, is close to where it stood five years ago.

In the near term, the Asia-Europe indices showed more strength in August than the trans-Pacific trade. However, rates to Europe are still down year-on-year – not a positive market signal. The price to ship a box from China to Northern Europe is down 24% year-on-year, and the rate to ship one to the Mediterranean (SONAR: FBXD.CMED) is down 9%. More FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Greg Miller

Public shipping companies with exposure to spot box shipping rates: Maersk Line (Copenhagen: MAERB.C.IX), Hapag-Lloyd (Frankfurt: HLAG.D.IX), Matson (NYSE: MATX), Evergreen Marine (TWSE: 2603), Hyundai Merchant Marine (KS: 011200)

Editor’s note: Freightos has a business agreement with FreightWaves that includes editorial coverage.

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.