23-12-2021 Dry bulk in 2021: bulker owners are laughing all the way to the bank, By Holly Birkett, TradeWinds
Bulker spot rates hit some of the highest levels in around 13 years this year as pent-up demand unwound, following the depressed markets of mid-2020. Discussion in early 2021 focused on whether we could be starting a commodities “super-cycle” as nations around the world — notably China, a major importer of dry commodities — announced stimulus packages.
The question for exporters was: can you get a ship? In addition to high demand, bulkers have been stuck for long periods in port congestion, quarantine or while waiting to change crews. Enquiry sprang from surprising places in 2021, especially as commodity prices rocketed. This was the year we saw logs loaded on capesizes and smaller bulkers being retrofitted to be able to carry containers. Markets decoupled as the year went on. Rather than capesize utilization filtering down and helping the smaller segments, this year handysizes led the charge, buoyed by breakbulk cargoes that would have otherwise been containerized.
But 2021 was not without its shocks and surprises. Just as rumors of $100,000-per-day capesize fixtures were hitting the market in September, the Chinese government intervened to cool down raw material prices. Sentiment in dry freight markets took a big hit as China’s steel production plunged and property developer Evergrande suffered a debt crisis. But 2021 overall has been an incredible year for bulker owners. For proof, just look at what they did with their cash. Star Bulk Carriers, for instance, began the year with a $219m war chest that it said it wanted to keep on hand in what it perceived to be a riskier commercial environment. It need not have worried. The shipowner has used its cash to pay out the highest shareholder dividends of its peer group and most other public bulker firms have kick-started distributions too.
But despite the upturn, bulker stocks continued to trade at below net asset value during 2021, showing there is still some disconnect in the underlying strength of the business and the interest shown by investors. Bulker owners have also plundered their cash reserves to buy vessels — the canniest buyers acquired their ships early in the year before asset prices jumped up.
Some forward-thinking firms have even invested in technology and decarbonization initiatives. But spending in the dry cargo sector has not been limited to ships, shareholders, and special projects. Sources have heralded “The Return of The Long Lunch” — many of which have extended past dinner time — recalling the good old days of hot markets and high spirits. And then, of course, this year’s performance-related bonuses should be a nice Christmas present too.