Tightening up

The Capes have finally joined the smaller vessels in an unseasonal rally, surging to the highest levels since last October. Cargo volumes have been solid, but inefficiencies and sentiment are also driving this rollercoaster.

The bulls are back in town

Capesize rates surged this week, late to the party that the Panamaxes and geared ships enjoyed last month. At the time of writing, the Baltic Capesize index stands at $28,056/day, almost three times higher than average for this time of year, though still shy of last October 2020’s peak. The rally has been driven by the Pacific basin. Since the start of March, our assessed TCE on an Australia – Far East round voyage (C5) has held an average premium of more than $4,000 against the Brazil – Far East route (C3), currently standing at $29,355/day ($31,982/day for a scrubber-fitted ship).

The FFA market has been even hotter, in turn fueling the physical market in a virtuous cycle. May futures hit as high as $31,600 today, more than doubling since the beginning of March. But optimism in the paper market seems to stretch beyond the front months and even contracts for the next few years have seen sizeable gains. Cal22 futures are currently trading at $18,725 gaining over $4,750 since the start of the year.

Inefficiencies mounting up

As commodity prices soar across several markets and vast amounts of stimulus is pumped into the global economy, some have taken the ongoing rally as a broader cyclical reversal in freight, while others see the recent movements as inflationary in nature. However we also see plenty of tangible short-term factors currently keeping things tight.

One of these is the minimum ballast requirement that is still in place on some trades. For example, ships must be at sea for 14 days from their last port before they are allowed to call at an Australian port. This has been in place since early last year to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the country. The result has been a sustained increase in time spent ballasting or waiting to load for ships performing C5 trades. This is the single most important route for the Capesize market, accounting for almost a third of employment last year, so inefficiencies here can have great implications for the wider market.

Since the minimum ballast requirement was imposed, Capes on C5 trades spent on average 24 days ballasting towards or waiting outside Australian ports. This contrasts a fairly stable average of 20 days in the years prior to 2020, with vessels either slowing down during the unladen trip to Australia or waiting offshore for an extra couple of days. The logistics of crew changes during a pandemic have added to these inefficiencies. Many Capes have been able to perform these changes in the Philippines, a relatively convenient stop-over on Pacific round voyages, but the visit resets the clock on the 14-day quarantine, meaning ships which have changed crew on a ballast voyage have had to wait even longer off Western Australia.

These additional days add up, artificially constraining supply. Queues of empty Capes at Australian ports have averaged 12m dwt since the rules were introduced, double what they averaged pre-Covid, while the effect of ships slowing down on ballast legs has further tightened the market.

Our demand-side modelling indicates that Capesize demand per tonne of cargo moved on a C5 trip has increased by 8% since the start of 2020, before which this metric was fairly stable. In other words, it now takes about 8% more ship capacity to move the same quantity of cargo on C5 versus before the pandemic.

Again, because of the quantities of iron ore involved, these incremental changes have large consequences. If we plot the vessel demand we have actually measured on this route against what demand could have looked like without the Covid disruption, the inefficiencies translate to an ‘extra’ 5.6m dwt of Cape tonnage required on C5 since mid-2020, about 3.5 vessels per month.

On a global level, ignoring any other inefficiencies that have emerged during the pandemic, we estimate that these effects have provided roughly a 1.5 percentage point boost to total Capesize utilisation since mid-2020.

Trade flows

Volumes of trade over the last few months have been mixed. Shipments from the major miners in Australia and Brazil have been steady, and grew by 5% YoY in March, but the pace has since weakened and they are on track to fall both MoM and YoY in April. The trades which did well in March were actually the smaller ones, and they are on track to keep growing this month. India saw record levels of Cape exports in March, as high iron ore prices drove a surge in sales to China. March was also extremely strong for Russian coal shipments on Capes, which hit a record 3.4m tonnes, more than double YoY, driven by a boost in liftings from Vanino and Taman. Meanwhile, other coal exporters also saw a jump in Capesize exports last month, with Indonesian shipments jumping by 67% YoY to 5.7m tonnes and South African volumes rising by 77% YoY to 3.6m tonnes. All of these smaller trades combined have helped to tie up fleet capacity and support rates.

Yard visits

Since the boom in scrubber retrofits in early-2020, we haven’t written very much about shipyard activity, but the volume of Capesize tonnage in yards has gradually edged upwards so far this year, constraining the fleet further. There is currently 6.9m dwt of Cape capacity in yard, up by 46% MoM and the highest since July last year. In contrast to 2019 and 2020, the vast majority of these ships are not fitting scrubbers and are instead mostly units requiring special surveys. 2011 was the biggest delivery year for the Capes, and this year, 28% of the Cape fleet turns five, ten or fifteen years old, requiring a yard visit. This amounts to 517 vessels versus 449 last year.

Looking forward, we’re expecting many of these tightening effects to remain in the short term. These should continue to provide support to the market and keep freight rates elevated.

Nick Ristic