Moore Stephens reports second successive quarterly rise in shipping confidence

Richard Greiner
Richard Greiner

Shipping confidence, notably on the part of charterers and managers, improved for the second successive quarter in the three months to end-August 2016, according to the latest Shipping Confidence Survey from international accountant and shipping adviser Moore Stephens.

In August 2016, the average confidence level expressed by respondents was 5.4 on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high). This is an improvement on the 5.1 recorded in May 2016, and the highest rating for the past nine months of the survey, which was launched in May 2008 with a confidence rating of 6.8.

Although confidence on the part of owners was down this time from 5.7 to 5.3, charterers (up from 4 to 4.8), managers (up from 5.1 to 6) and brokers (up from 4.3 to 4.5) were all more optimistic than in May 2016. Geographically, confidence was up in Asia, from 5.2 to 5.5, and in North America from 5 to 5.8, with sentiment in Europe unchanged at 5.2.

Overcapacity was the dominant theme of comments from respondents to the survey. “Scrapping is still not sufficient to cope with newbuilding deliveries and the general supply-side overhang. Every new order will prolong the crisis,” said one, while another noted: “If we all stay away from ordering relatively cheap tonnage today, supply and demand will soon recover.”

Conditions in the dry bulk market also occupied the thoughts of large numbers of respondents. “Implementation of the Ballast Water Management Convention will most likely solve overcapacity,” said one, “but it will also cause a bloodbath among owners.” Another remarked, “Growth is non-existent, so there is no hope there,” while another still simply said, “We have lost confidence in the dry bulk market.” Other respondents were slightly more optimistic, with one noting, “We expect the dry bulk markets to improve significantly during the course of 2017.”

Concerns about the global economy were uppermost in the minds of a number of respondents, one of whom neatly encapsulated a number of the main issues currently impacting the shipping industry by noting, “Brexit, Trump, supply overhang, consolidation, demolition, bankruptcies, and the low risk appetite of banks for shipping and shipping stocks seem to be the main topics to follow for the next 12 months or so. We would be pleasantly surprised if this were to change.”

The likelihood of respondents making a major investment or significant development over the next 12 months was unchanged on the previous survey, with a rating of 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. The confidence of charterers in this respect was up significantly, from 4.1 to 5, while brokers also recorded a small increase, from 3.5 to 4.1. Owners and managers, however, were less confident in this regard than they were three months ago, dropping from 5.7 to 4.8 and from 5.4 to 5.3 respectively.One respondent said, “Massive investment, mainly from inexperienced funds and private entrepreneurs, has resulted in an oversupply of funding in some trades.”

The number of respondents who expected finance costs to increase over the next 12 months was down by six percentage points, to 35%. There was a noticeable fall in the numbers of owners (down by six percentage points to 31%), managers (down by 19 percentage points to 30%) and charterers (down by two percentage points to 27%) anticipating higher finance costs. One respondent said, “Shipping banks need to be more realistic about pricing if they want to sell debt as a means of reducing their exposure to the sector.”

Demand trends, competition and tonnage supply featured again as the top three factors cited by respondents as those likely to influence performance most significantly over the coming 12. Demand trends, which were up by two percentage points to 26%, remained in first place, with competition (down by three percentage points to 20%) in second. Tonnage supply, unchanged at 16%, occupied joint-third spot with finance costs, which were up by one percentage point. Operating costs, up by one percentage point to 10%, featured in fifth place, ahead of fuel costs (5%) and regulation (4%). One respondent said, “We have read many, many times that we have reached the bottom of the cycle, only for a lower offer to appear in the market a few hours later.”

The number of respondents expecting higher charter rates in the tanker market over the next 12 months was unchanged at 23%, while the numbers anticipating lower tanker rates rose by three percentage points to 37%. Meanwhile, there was a five percentage point drop, from 43% down to 38% in the numbers of like mind in the dry bulk trades, and a one percentage point increase, to 12%, in the numbers anticipating lower dry bulk rates. In the container ship sector, the number of respondents expecting higher rates was up by one percentage point to 22%, while there was a fall, from 20% to 16%, in the numbers anticipating lower rates.

The net sentiment in the tanker markets was -14, as opposed to +26 in the dry bulk markets and +6 in the container ship trades.

One respondent said, “Too many dry cargo ships have been built, and we are not confident that the freight market will improve sufficiently to justify investment, especially from people who have no previous experience of shipping.” Another remarked, “A whole class of container ships is essentially obsolete following the opening of the widened Panama Canal.”

Respondents were asked a stand-alone question about the perceived barriers to women playing a greater role in the shipping industry. Overall, 31% of respondents placed ‘workplace attitude or corporate culture’ in the top five factors in this regard. ‘Travel implications in day-to-day roles’, meanwhile, was a top five factor for 21% of respondents, while ‘lack of career progression’ was placed third, at 19%. One respondent said, “There are no barriers. It is up to the individual to pursue her career with determination and strength of character.” Another, however, complained that, “The culture in the industry is male chauvinist.”

Richard Greiner (pictured), Moore Stephens Partner, Shipping & Transport, said: “Given the challenges currently facing the industry, the continuing uncertainty surrounding the worldwide economy, and the ongoing level of global geopolitical instability, it is encouraging to see an increase in shipping confidence for the second successive quarter. Confidence is now at its highest level for nine months, which says much for the resilience of the shipping industry.

“Concern persists about too much tonnage and not enough recycling. Restoring the correct balance to tonnage supply and demand is a long-term undertaking, the complexities and diverse nature of which are arguably well captured by the respondent who noted, ‘We have divided interests. For our customers, we hope that nobody orders any vessels for the next 12 months. For us, we hope that people do, because we need newbuildings’.”

“Given the pace of technological development, the continuing imperative to improve the industry’s environmental footprint, and the exigencies of escalating regulation, the industry will always need newbuildings. The trick is to make sure that there is room – and work – for them in a market which encourages responsible competition and allows a sensible margin for profit. That requires, among other things, an increase in ship demolition levels which, given the recent decline in dry bulk recycling and the perceived impossibility of recycling enough container ships, seems unlikely.

“The maintenance of sensible levels of competition is also a prerequisite for a healthy and profitable shipping industry. Since the survey was launched in 2008, respondents have consistently identified competition as one of the main factors likely to influence their performance most significantly. All trade sectors thrive on responsible competition, which works as an incentive to progress and profitability. But irresponsible competition can have the opposite effect, witness the respondent who referred to ‘those who focus on how to trick, treat and corrupt under the broad term ‘competition’.”

“Perversely, the collapse of Hanjin Shipping Co, which occurred after our survey was concluded, may have a positive effect on overtonnaging, although nobody would have been looking for such an extreme solution. Hanjin’s collapse has sent shockwaves through the industry which will continue to reverberate for many months to come. It may also give pause for thought to those who see the future of container shipping as ever bigger and more diverse alliances.

“Equally perverse is the very real possibility that final ratification of the Ballast Water Management Convention may have a positive effect on overcapacity. It might not be correct to say that this development has sent shockwaves through the shipping sector, because the industry has known for some time that it has been coming, and has been pondering how best to meet its requirements and how to fund the considerable cost of so doing. It matters not whether it was the ratification by Finland which finished the uncertainty about implementation, or whether it was Panama’s huge fleet which activated the green light. A shock is no less shocking for being expected, and the fact is that the convention will enter into force in September 2017. It will be instructive to see how shipping deals with the issue, and from what level of preparedness, the extent of which will become clearer over the coming months.

“A stand-alone question in our survey asked respondents to name the biggest barriers to women playing a greater role in today’s shipping industry. More than 65% identified ‘workplace or corporate culture’ as the number one barrier. James Brown famously sang, ‘This is a Man’s World’, although not everybody remembers that the self-styled Godfather of Soul went on to say, “but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl’. It is beyond any reasonable measure of doubt that shipping will need the efforts of every man and woman working within the industry today to tackle both current challenges and those which lie in wait.”