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Tankers to Lose Money on Saudi-U.S. Through ’12: Freight Markets

Frontline Billionaire Bets Tankers Collapsing
Frontline Ltd.'s supertanker 'Front Shanghai'. Source: Frontline Ltd. via Bloomberg

Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is importing the smallest amount of Persian Gulf crude in 14 years as demand weakens and domestic production climbs, signaling that tankers on the route will lose money for at least another year.

The world’s biggest oil consumer bought 1.7 million barrels a day from Saudi Arabia and six other Persian Gulf states in the first half, the least since 1997, according to the latest Department of Energy data. Daily U.S. output averaged 5.58 million barrels, the most since 2004, the data show. Some owners have paid clients to charter their tankers on the route since March and will probably have to keep doing so until at least the end of 2012, Arctic Securities ASA in Oslo estimates.

The U.S. is boosting output of oil, shale gas and ethanol as President Barack Obama seeks to cut the nation’s dependence on foreign fuel. Fewer cargoes from the Middle East to the U.S., the world’s second-biggest tanker route, mean an expanding vessel glut. There are about 25 percent more supertankers than cargoes available in the Persian Gulf, the most since October, according to Bloomberg surveys of shipbrokers and owners.

“The U.S. is awash with domestic oil and increasingly divorced and less reliant on foreign imports,” said Andreas Vergottis, the research director at Tufton Oceanic Ltd. in Hong Kong, which manages the world’s largest shipping hedge fund. “Not only is end use of oil shrinking, but domestic production of crude oil is rising rapidly.”

Maritime Routes

Returns for owners of supertankers hauling oil from Saudi Arabia to Louisiana were last at a negative $14,946 a day, according to the Baltic Exchange in London, which publishes daily rates for more than 50 maritime routes. Owners will pay that amount because customers still cover some fuel expenses, cutting costs for shipping companies wanting to move vessels into more profitable regions. A supertanker travelling at full speed burns about $65,000 of fuel a day.

The Baltic Exchange’s measure will probably stay negative until at least the end of next year, said Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an analyst at Arctic Securities. His recommendations on the shares of shipping companies would have returned 17 percent to investors following them in the past six months, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Owners’ returns from the voyages may be higher than the bourse’s measure indicates because they can cut their speed and reduce fuel costs, Stavseth said.

Frontline Ltd., the world’s biggest operator of supertankers, says it needs $29,800 a day to break even on the vessels. The Hamilton, Bermuda-based company will report a loss of $67.6 million this year, the worst since 1999, according to the mean of 20 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Its shares fell 78 percent in Oslo trading this year.

Building Program

Rates that reached $105,000 in July 2008 spurred shipping companies to create the biggest-ever building program for new oil tankers of all sizes. The global fleet of supertankers, each capable of carrying about 2 million barrels of oil, expanded by 10 percent to 550 since the end of 2008, with outstanding orders at ship yards equal to 17 percent of existing capacity, data from Redhill, England-based IHS Fairplay show.

While the Persian-Gulf-to-Japan tanker trade is the world’s biggest by volume, the route to the U.S. takes about 13 days more. That ties up ships for longer, decreasing competition for new cargoes and supporting freight rates.

U.S.-bound shipments from the Middle East need to reach 2 million barrels a day to absorb the global glut of vessels, Jens Martin Jensen, the Singapore-based chief executive officer of the management unit of Frontline, said on a conference call Aug. 26. Frontline isn’t competing for orders to deliver cargoes to the U.S. from the Persian Gulf because of the slump in returns for owners, Jensen said.

Freight Agreements

Forward freight agreements, traded by brokers and used to bet on future transport costs, are anticipating rates no higher than $17,613 a day through 2013, according to data from Imarex ASA, which handles the contracts. The accords are based on the Saudi-Arabia-to-Japan route, which was last at a negative $3,624 a day, according to the Baltic Exchange. Returns on the route reached $177,000 in July 2008.

Other types of shipping are also suffering from a glut of capacity. Rates for capesizes, typically hauling coal and iron ore, slumped 88 percent since June 2008, Baltic Exchange data show. The container-shipping industry is contending with the longest stretch of near-zero rates in its half-century history on the Asia-to-Europe route, the world’s second-busiest, according to Morgan Stanley.

About 90 percent of world trade is transported by sea, the Round Table of Shipping Associations estimates. Supertankers carry about a fifth of the world’s oil, according to McQuilling Partners Inc., a New York-based consultant to the industry.

Oil Demand

The trend in U.S. oil demand suggests the glut in shipping will persist. The country’s consumption of oil and other liquid fuels will drop to 19.01 million barrels a day in the fourth quarter, about 220,000 barrels less than a year earlier, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its September report. First-quarter usage will be 19.03 million barrels a day, 60,000 barrels less than in the first three months of this year.

As demand weakens, domestic oil output is surging as energy companies drill the most wells in a generation, spurred by crude prices trading more than 40 percent above their 10-year average. First-half production of 5.58 million barrels a day was about 2 percent higher than a year earlier, according to Energy Department data. There were 2,819 wells being drilled for exploration or development in July, 84 percent more than a year earlier and the most since 1986, the data show.

Crude traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange averaged $96.32 a barrel since the beginning of January, heading for the highest annual average since 2008. Oil for October delivery closed at $87.24 on Sept. 9.

Oil Imports

Obama said in March the U.S. should cut its oil imports by one third by 2025 and in May pledged to stimulate domestic oil production with measures including encouraging drilling in Alaska. The president announced an agreement with automakers to double the fuel economy of vehicles in July and the following month an investment in biofuels of as much as $510 million.

The need for seaborne shipments is also being curbed by record imports from Canada, which uses pipelines and smaller vessels to make deliveries. The U.S. bought 2.1 million barrels of Canadian crude in the first half, about 7 percent more than a year earlier, Energy Department data show.

Shipping companies are also contending with weaker-than-expected global demand for oil. World crude consumption will average 89.48 million barrels a day this year, 60,000 barrels less than previously forecast, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in a report last month.

“You need pretty heady economic growth to get the tanker market moving, and in this environment, it’s unlikely to happen,” said Doug Mavrinac, a shipping analyst at Jefferies & Co. in Houston. “We thought that how bad things were could have turned given a certain set of circumstances, which now appears to have been pushed out to 2012.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Sheridan in London at; Alaric Nightingale at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alaric Nightingale at

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