Owners of supertankers, losing money for a sixth consecutive quarter, will probably idle the most ships in more than two decades as they contend with a glut that drove charter rates to the lowest in at least 14 years.
The combination of too many ships and slowing demand growth for oil means that about 6 percent of the fleet will be anchored in a year from almost none now, according to the median in a Bloomberg survey of eight brokers and analysts. That may not be enough to end the slump. Forward freight agreements, traded by brokers and used to bet on transport costs, anticipate rates no higher than $13,819 a day through 2013.
Frontline Ltd. (FRO), the biggest operator of the vessels, says it needs $29,800 to break even. The Hamilton, Bermuda-based company will report its biggest annual loss in 12 years in 2011, analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg show. While owners can cut operating costs to as little as $2,000 a day from $12,000 by anchoring ships, it also means no income, said Andreas Sohmen-Pao, chief executive officer of the oil and gas shipping unit of BW Group Ltd., which is idling three vessels.
“When it’s this bad, eventually it wears people down a bit and some do get out of the market,” said Martin Stopford, the London-based managing director of Clarkson Research Services Ltd., a unit of the world’s biggest shipbroker. “To lay the ship up, you would eventually have to totally lose confidence in the market improving for some time.”
The global fleet of very large crude carriers expanded about 9 percent to 570 ships in the past two years, the most since 1983, Clarkson data show. Owners ordered the greatest number of new vessels since the 1970s between 2006 and 2008, when charter rates surged to as much as $289,000. Those tankers started joining the fleet just as global demand for oil fell by the most in 27 years, data from London-based BP Plc show.
Demand for oil tankers will match fleet capacity by the Northern Hemisphere’s next winter, lifting charter rates, Peter Evensen, the CEO of Teekay Corp. (TK), said in an interview in London on Oct. 6. The Hamilton, Bermuda-based company is the largest U.S.-listed owner of the ships.
Owners are also responding to the slump in rates by sailing slower to reduce fuel costs. Speeds averaged about 10 knots in the past three months, compared with almost 11 knots a year earlier, vessel-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Shipping may be “relatively close” to a bottom, Wilbur Ross, the billionaire chairman of private-equity firm WL Ross & Co., said in an interview in August. He was part of a group who spent $900 million on oil-product tankers last month.
Rates on the Saudi Arabia-to-Japan route, the industry’s benchmark, were at negative $5,041 a day today, according to the Baltic Exchange in London, which publishes daily rates for more than 50 maritime routes. Shipping companies are effectively paying customers to charter vessels because clients pay for some of the fuel, cutting costs for owners moving vessels into regions with better returns.
Rates have averaged less than Frontline’s breakeven since the third quarter of 2010, according to bourse data and an Aug. 26 statement from the company. Daily returns from the vessels in the spot market averaged $11,372 in the third quarter, the lowest since at least 1997, according to Clarkson.
Prospects for a surge in global oil demand that would erode the glut in tankers are weakening as growth slows. The International Energy Agency, the Paris-based adviser to 28 nations, reduced its forecast for 2012 crude demand by 0.4 percent to 90.7 million barrels a day last month. It was the biggest cut since April 2009.
Growth in oil demand will slow to 0.5 percent this quarter and 0.1 percent in the following three months, compared with 2 percent in the third quarter, the IEA estimates. Crude fell 6.2 percent this year to $85.67 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, reaching a one-year low of $74.95 on Oct. 4.
The International Monetary Fund lowered its global growth forecasts to 4 percent for this year and next on Sept. 20, from earlier estimates of 4.3 percent for 2011 and 4.5 percent in 2012. That compares with the 5.2 percent contraction the World Bank estimates took place in 2009.
The IEA still anticipates record demand next year. China’s economy, the world’s largest energy user, will expand 8.7 percent in 2012, compared with 9.3 percent this year, according to the median of 10 economists’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Growth in the U.S., the biggest oil consumer, will accelerate to 2.2 percent from 1.6 percent, the estimates show.
Oil is the single biggest commodity transported by sea, according to Clarkson. Trade will total about 1.9 billion metric tons this year, compared with 1.1 billion tons of iron ore and 921 million tons of coal. The shipping industry handles about 90 percent of world trade, according to the Round Table of Shipping Associations.
As many as 168 tankers of all sizes were removed from the fleet in 2009 to store oil for companies seeking to profit from longer-dated energy futures trading at a premium to contracts for immediate delivery. Idling 6 percent of global supertankers anticipated in the Bloomberg survey would be equal to about 34 vessels.
Owners can still make money by locking their ships into longer-term charters. Rates for a three-year accord are at $32,955 a day and those fixed for five years at $32,000, both above Frontline’s break-even, according to London-based Clarkson Plc. Tying ships up for that long would mean owners missing out on any rally in the single-voyage market.
The glut extends across most of the fleet. Capesize vessels carrying iron ore are earning 88 percent less than they made in 2008, Baltic Exchange data show. Container ships delivering goods to Europe from Asia made almost nothing in July and August, according to Morgan Stanley.
Frontline will report a loss of $85.8 million this year, compared with profit of $161.4 million in 2010, according to the mean of 20 analysts estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The company will also be unprofitable for the next two years, the estimates show. Its shares fell 82 percent in Oslo trading this year, on track for the biggest annual decline in 13 years.
Every company in the six-member Bloomberg Tanker Index will lose money this year, analysts’ estimates show. The gauge slumped 53 percent this year, compared with an 11 percent decline by the MSCI All-Country World Index of global equities.
The shipping industry’s fragmentation means few owners have big enough fleets to idle vessels. That decision can only be taken by those in a “position of strength,” BW Group’s Sohmen-Pao said in an interview on Oct. 3. His company has two supertankers idling and a third mothballed for a longer period.
“The tanker industry is too fragmented to remove the necessary capacity,” said Jonathan Chappell, an analyst at Evercore Partners Inc. in New York. “There needs to be more.”
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