A year ago, a handful of senior executives from a major container line, a shipowner and a panel of research analysts were meeting to discuss market prospects and planning. One of the bolder analysts offered a view that in 12 months’ time, the market would not just be strong; it would be booming. He was practically laughed off the Zoom call. He was right, they were wrong, but the shipowners made the money and are still laughing. It’s a tough gig making predictions, especially about the future, and nobody was seriously anticipating today’s markets during the abyss of the global pandemic. Yet here we are. China has delivered for dry bulk and the US consumer has delivered for the box trades.
More than three billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide as we write this mid-year outlook and the analyst telling tanker owners that they will be reading about improved rates in the next edition of the outlook will no longer be laughed off the call. Without wishing to jinx it, this half-year health check on the state of the market finds shipping in a good place — albeit with all the usual fears of tipping points that could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On the dry side of the markets, the party may be less exuberant, but it is still the biggest blast the sector has seen for several years — and it is not slowing down any time soon. With commodity prices regaining pandemic-related losses, and some reaching highs last seen a decade ago, the inevitable speculation of a new commodity super-cycle has been keeping financial journalists busy.
They are wrong, of course. The recent price spikes were due to reduced supply plus a quick recovery in industrial production and robust global monetary and fiscal stimulus measures have increased demand. However, the super-cycle is over-egging the situation. That said, this commodity market has some way to go yet. We have seen Beijing trying to take the heat out of the market earlier in the year, with attempts to cool prices of steel, iron ore and other commodities. Yet even if China starts to take its foot off the domestic accelerator, demand from the rest of the world is not going to peak until later this year, or more likely not until 2022.
And if previous seasonal patterns are any guide, the bull run has some way to go yet for dry demand. Meanwhile, the bulk carrier fleet is unlikely to grow very much this or next year. The orderbook-to-fleet ratio has followed a downward trajectory since the end of 2018. While owners in other segments are investing in vessels propelled by transition fuels, dry bulk owners seem to be more hesitant. This is one factor keeping the orderbook low for the moment, but the situation will change as the push for greener shipping increases, contracting activity. Herein lies the somewhat cheerless final thought to an otherwise positive half-year outlook (if you side-step the current tanker rates and focus on the vaccine-led recovery).
If the past 12 months has taught us anything, it is that demand is predictably unpredictable. The fact that the current upturn has hit after a period of low orders in most sectors is more luck than judgment on the part of an industry with a pathological tendency toward self-harm. The question of how the industry invests this current windfall is going to determine the direction of the next editions of Lloyd’s List outlooks.