The largest drop in Japanese oil consumption since last year’s earthquake and tsunami may cause tanker rates to plunge 42 percent next quarter, threatening the biggest rally in shares of shipping companies since 2005.
Demand in Japan, the second-largest destination for supertankers after China, will drop 19 percent in the second quarter from now, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris. Daily rates for the 1,000-foot-long ships will average $17,000, compared with $29,280 now, the median of nine analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg show. Investors may profit by buying forward freight agreements, traded by brokers and used to bet on shipping costs, which anticipate $10,883.
The six-member Bloomberg Tanker Index, including Frontline Ltd., rallied 11 percent this year on prospects for daily crude demand to surpass 90 million barrels for the first time ever. That’s masking the slump in Japanese consumption and the weakest annual gain in Chinese oil buying since at least 2006. Shipowners are relying on both nations to help curb a capacity glut as the fleet expands to a three-decade high.
“Owners need all the help they can get,” said Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an analyst at Arctic Securities ASA in Oslo, whose recommendations on the shares of shipping companies returned 36 in percent in the past year. “Such a big decline in Japanese consumption is really negative because it is still such an essential source of demand.”
Frontline, based in Hamilton, Bermuda, reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $343.7 million on Feb. 17 after reorganizing to withstand the worst rout in rates in 12 years. The most modern vessels and outstanding orders at shipyards were sold to a new entity called Frontline 2012 after the company said in November it risked running out of cash.
Just one of 27 analysts covering Frontline recommends buying the shares after they jumped 22 percent this year in Oslo trading. The stock will decline 34 percent to 20.53 kroner ($3.66) in the next 12 months, according to the average of 19 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
Rates for very large crude carriers, or VLCCs, fell 7 percent this year. They averaged $22,137 in 2011, the lowest level since 1999, according to data from London-based Clarkson Plc, the world’s largest shipbroker. A decline to $18,000 may make tanker rates unprofitable once more after this quarter’s gains. Frontline, until last month the biggest operator of the vessels, says it needs $23,900 to break even.
Crude rose 10 percent to $108.68 a barrel in New York this year amid mounting concern that international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program will disrupt oil supply from the Middle East. Fewer cargoes from the world’s biggest producing region would further weaken demand for tankers.
While the projected second-quarter average would still be unprofitable for many owners, it’s better than several months last year. Rates were below that level from July to October, Clarkson data show. A measure of the combined losses of the members of the Bloomberg Tanker Index will narrow by 50 percent this year, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
China is taking steps to accelerate growth. The People’s Bank of China said Feb. 18 lenders would need to set aside less cash for reserves, the second such easing in three months. Exports and imports fell for the first time in two years in January and new lending was the lowest for that month in five years, government data show.
The IEA doesn’t expect Japanese oil demand to return to the depths seen after last year’s natural disaster, when consumption plunged 19 percent to 3.92 million barrels a day in the second quarter. This year’s projection is for a 19 percent decline to 4.15 million barrels.
Japan’s economy will expand 2.1 percent in the three months ending in June, compared with a 1.5 percent contraction a year earlier, the median of 18 economist estimates shows. The temblor and tsunami shut about 90 percent of Japanese nuclear capacity, leaving it more dependent on fossil fuels.
Global oil demand will rise 0.9 percent this year as gains in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East exceed declines in North America and Europe, the IEA estimates. Seaborne trade in oil will swell 3.1 percent, Clarkson projects. That’s still less than the 6.5 percent expansion it anticipates for the VLCC fleet.
The shipping industry has been contending with a capacity glut since 2009 as the biggest global economic contraction since World War II coincided with the start of the largest shipbuilding program in about four decades. Owners ordered more vessels in 2007 and 2008 when daily rates rose as high as $229,484, and those carriers are still leaving yards across Asia now.
Outstanding orders for VLCCs equate to 12 percent of current capacity, with 21 new vessels being built, according to figures from Redhill, England-based IHS Fairplay Ltd. Each ship can haul about 2 million barrels of oil, more than France consumes in a day. The VLCC fleet already expanded 15 percent since the middle of 2008 to its biggest since 1982, with a combined carrying potential of 1.4 billion barrels of crude, or more than two months of U.S. demand, the data show.
There are similar gluts across the industry. The Baltic Dry Index, a measure of costs to haul coal and iron ore, fell 58 percent this year, according to the Baltic Exchange in London. A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, owner of the largest container line, said Feb. 17 it was cutting capacity from Asia to Europe, the second-biggest international trade route, after rates tumbled. About 90 percent of world trade goes by sea, the Round Table of International Shipping Associations estimates.
While the second quarter tends to be the weakest as refineries carry out maintenance, the projected drop this year would be the biggest since 2006, excluding the slump in Japanese oil demand caused by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Growth in the nation’s economy will slow for at least three consecutive quarters from June, the median of as many as 18 economist estimates compiled by Bloomberg showed.
Compounding that will be weaker gains in China’s net crude purchases, with state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. anticipating a climb of 5.9 percent. China’s economy, the world’s biggest energy user, should grow 8.2 percent this year, the slowest pace since 1999, the International Monetary Fund forecast in January. Chinese refineries may be using 77 percent of capacity by May, 7 percentage points less than now, according to Oilchem.net, a Shandong, China-based researcher.
About 15 percent of laden VLCCs are bound for China at any one time, with about another 9 percent going to Japan, ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show. The Asian countries’ distance from producing regions in the Middle East and West Africa ties tankers up for longer relative to European destinations, increasing income for owners and reducing the number of available vessels.
Teekay Corp., located in Vancouver and up 6.7 percent in New York trading this year, and Hamilton, Bermuda-based Nordic American Tankers Ltd., ahead 23 percent, have the biggest weightings in the Bloomberg Tanker Index. Neither company operates VLCCs. Each will report a third consecutive annual loss for this year, analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg show.
“A big drop in demand from Japan and China would be a significant negative for oil shipping,” said Marius Magelie, an analyst at ABG Sundal Collier in Oslo. “The market is already very, very challenging, because there are just too many vessels.”