Rock bottom or a time of opportunity?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

14 January 2016


Yesterday (January 13) was not a good day for pessimists looking for an end to the continuing economic gloom. The Baltic Dry hit a record low and crude oil prices dipped briefly below $30 per barrel and to add to all that a Standard Chartered analyst even said $10 per barrel might not be out of the question. With two economic indicators hitting rock bottom simultaneously it is understandable that some forecasters might be drawing parallels with events a century ago and raising the spectre of the great depression of the 1920s. For some bulk operators the BDI drop might well hint at a catastrophic future but it should not be forgotten that the record low is for an index that is only just over 30 years old and which has been changed and restructured several times in that period. Since it is heavily weighted to the Capesize sector and coal and iron ore cargoes in particular it does not apply to all bulk operators equally. Even that portion that is based on smaller classes of bulk carriers is limited to particular routes. The make up of the newbuilding bulker fleet has for some years now been skewed towards the larger vessels and this alone may have had a distorting effect. For most of its life the BDI has been relatively stable until in 2002/3 it rose rapidly for a period of around six years followed by a rapid drop and return in 2008/9 and then an almost continual fall ever since. It may be at a record low now but that is marginal and we are probably just seeing a return to normality much as is happening with shipbuilding which has followed a similar course. Optimists will be looking for the new opportunities that may be on the cards as their weaker compatriots exit the field. There may be another upside to all of this for one thing that has been notable in the history of shipping is that there are two drivers to shipping innovation. One is more recent and is regulatory change, the other is the reaction of operators to adversity. Periods of low profitability force ship designers and operators to find ways to maximise the efficiency of their assets. Turbochargers, bow thrusters, containerisation and improved engine efficiency leading to lower fuel consumption all initially appeared in a period of downturn. It will be interesting to see what changes the latest downturn might bring.