Crystal ball cloudy for freight industry

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am

Doubts about China's demand for iron-ore and coal imports for the rest of this year and expectations on the impact of Russia's ban on grain exports have sent mixed signals on the future direction of freight rates.

This comes after a resurgence in freight levels for all types of dry-bulk cargo vessels, including large, 180,000 deadweight tonne capesize vessels.

Average earnings for a 10-year-old capesize ship jumped to US$28,137 per day by last Friday, up from US$12,938 per day on August 6, said London-based shipbroker Clarksons. This followed a rise in the number of capesize ships being chartered, with around 25 leased last week compared with 17 the week before.

Rates for smaller 76,000 deadweight tonne panamax bulk carriers and 52,000 deadweight tonne supramax ships have also rebounded. But the recovery has not been as dramatic, with an increase in daily rates of between US$1,000 and US$2,500 over the course of last week.

The overall impact has meant a rise in the Baltic Dry Index, a composite of rates for four vessel sizes, to 2,488 points yesterday, up from a 15-month low of 1,700 points in July.

But shipbrokers in Hong Kong and Singapore said charter rates for capesize ships, which are used to transport iron ore and coal mainly from Australia, Brazil and Africa, had started to soften this week.

They pointed out that charter rates for a voyage from Australia to China were the equivalent of US$11 per tonne last week but were down to US$9.50 yesterday for ships chartered by Rio Tinto.

Analysts and shipbrokers said the latter part of the third quarter and the fourth quarter were the traditionally strong periods for the dry-bulk markets, but questioned whether it would be the same this year.

Russia's ban on grain exports in the wake of devastating bush fires would make 'panamax rates very good' for the latter part of this year, brokers said. This is because ships would have to travel further from other grain-export markets such as Argentina and Australia to import markets, which would create a vessel shortage.

But New York-based Commodore Research questioned whether the export ban would be in force into early next year, as Russia had indicated, meaning any flurry in panamax charter rates could be shortlived.

One Hong Kong-based shipbroker said the China Iron and Steel Association reported that 40 per cent of steel furnaces were shut either for maintenance or to reduce capacity. He said that while there had been a rebound in prices for steel reinforcing bar used in construction and other steel prices, the increases 'were not very solid'.

Peter Sand, a shipping analyst with the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco) - whose ship-owner members control about two thirds of the global merchant fleet - said charter rates would come under pressure because of the large number of ships that were due to be delivered by the end of this year.

'Bimco expects rates to remain under pressure, as fundamentals indicate a clear bias in the balance towards too many ships for the available cargoes,' Sand said.