Shipping confidence hits 15-month high as freight market optimism rises


Overall confidence levels in the shipping industry have risen to their highest levels for fifteen months, according to the latest Shipping Confidence survey by Moore Stephens. The survey revealed that owners, managers and charterers were all more confident of making a major investment over the next 12 months, while there was a noticeable rise in the numbers of respondents expecting to see an increase in freight rates in the tanker and container ship sectors.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the average confidence level expressed by respondents in the markets in which they operate was 5.9, compared to 5.7 in the previous survey in November 2009, which itself equalled the highest recorded level for 12 months. The overall confidence level achieved in the first Moore Stephens survey in May 2008, meanwhile, was 6.8. Ship managers expressed the most significant increase in confidence over the latest three-month period, up from 5.8 to 6.2, the highest score recorded by any category of respondent since May 2008. Confidence was also up during the period among owners (from 5.7 to 5.9) and charterers (5.6 to 5.8), while brokers were the only category in which confidence dropped, from 5.7 to 5.5. Geographically speaking, confidence was up in the four main regions covered by the survey – Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America. Europe is the only region which has reported increased confidence in each of the last five surveys, during which time it has risen from 5.2 to 5.8.

A number of responses to the survey exhibited continued confidence in shipping’s ability to bounce back in line with the traditionally cyclical nature of the markets, pointing to significant growth trends in emerging Asian, Indian and African markets as a springboard for recovery elsewhere, principally in Europe and North America. But many respondents still exhibited a high level of concern about the state of shipping and the economy in general. One noted: “There are too many ships trading, too many ships delivering, and too many owners stumbling blind into delicate markets, upsetting the fragile status quo that had previously existed”. Another emphasised: “The situation is very unsure. There is too much tonnage and too little finance”. One respondent, meanwhile, predicted a slump in the appetite for pure shipowning, pointing out, “More and more vessels will be put out for third party management.”

Expectations on the part of respondents of making a major investment or significant development over the next twelve months were up overall to their highest level since May 2008, at 5.3 out of a possible maximum of 10.0. Managers recorded the highest level of expectation, their score rising from 5.0 to 5.7, while charterers and owners also reported increased expectations. The increase was evident across all four main geographic regions, but was most pronounced in Asia, where it rose from 5.0 to 5.6.

Despite this, one respondent said: “The low rates in the market are putting a lot of pressure on owners, some of whom are trying to cancel new tonnage. There are also other casualties involving shipping companies (i.e. Chapter 11 or liquidation). Neither have the banks yet disclosed the full extent of the losses under their shipping portfolios”. There was also concern on the part of some respondents that it will be the smaller companies that suffer most as a recovery gets under way. One noted: “The next eighteen months will be the time for people with money. The shipping world will look very different after that. Huge companies will merge, and smaller companies will disappear, making it impossible for newcomers to get started.”

For the fifth survey in succession, respondents identified demand trends (27% overall) as the single most important factor likely to affect their business performance over the coming year, although it was noticeable that both managers and charterers considered it of less importance than at the time of the previous survey. In their view, competition had assumed increasing importance over the latest three-month period. And it was once again competition (18%) and the cost and availability of finance (17%) which figured as the two other most significant factors likely to affect the performance of respondents overall. Tonnage supply and operating cost continue to assume increasing importance in the thinking of respondents over the life of the survey to date.

Owners, charterers, managers and brokers all expected finance costs to rise over the next twelve months, the overall figure for all respondents in this regard rising five percentage points from 48% to 53%. While the overall expectation was at its highest level since October 2008, there was a difference of opinion geographically, with more respondents in Europe (50% from 44%) and North America (69% from 58%) expecting an increase in costs compared to last time, while such expectations decreased in Asia (55% from 58%) and Latin America (36% from 50%).

So far as the markets are concerned, there was a noticeable turnaround in opinion, with a rise in the number of respondents who believed that rates in the tanker and container ship sectors were likely to be higher in twelve months’ time, in the latter case by almost 20 percentage points, while the overall expectation of improved rates in the dry bulk trades remained unchanged. Despite the increased level of optimism, there was still a high level of concern about the current state of the markets. “Newbuildings being delivered this year or next are still being fixed at lower rates than have been reported in 2009,” said one respondent.

In the tanker market, the number of respondents overall who expected rates to go up rose from 42% to 46% this time, with the most significant shift in opinion being expressed by charterers, where there was a 37 percentage point rise (to 59%) in the number of respondents who thought rates would increase over the coming year – this following a 13 percentage point fall in the previous survey on the August 2009 figures. Expectations of higher rates, on a more modest scale, were also expressed by both owners and managers.

In the dry bulk market, meanwhile, expectation of rate increases was pegged at 38% overall. Charterers were alone in anticipating that rates would increase significantly, rising by 9 percentage points to 42%. A number of respondents felt that the bulk sector was overbuilt far beyond demand. One quoted unofficial figures suggesting that between 30 and 50% of bulker newbuilding orders had been cancelled and suggested that, if that was the case, and given continued demand from China for tonnage, the market would be strong and healthy.

It was in the container ship sector, however, that the biggest changes were to be found. There was a 19 percentage point increase overall to 45% in the number of respondents expecting rate increases over the next twelve months. All categories of respondent were agreed on this point. In the case of charterers and owners, the increases compared to the previous survey were 22 and 21 percentage points respectively at 45% and 46%, and, in the case of brokers, no less than 26 percentage points at 48%.

Moore Stephens shipping partner, Richard Greiner, stressed: “The increase in confidence in shipping markets worldwide is excellent news for everybody in the maritime sector. The hope is that the industry can build on this and start to put the past eighteen months behind it. When more people are starting to think about making new investments, as this survey suggests, that is a sure sign that things are beginning to improve. And there is reason to believe that those companies which have viable expansion plans will find that the banks and others will be willing to listen.

“Of course serious concerns persist about the business climate for the international shipping industry. Being optimistic about rate increases is not the same thing as rates actually going up, but it is a start. Confidence breeds more confidence, which in turn can breed success.”