Will the increased level of competition drive this recovering sector back into recession?


Last year saw the multipurpose (MPV) fleet recover some of the optimism seen prior to 2007 but now, rates have started to firm again and the demand outlook is steady for both breakbulk and project cargo, while the fleet supply is under control – this according to Drewry Maritime Research’s latest Annual Multipurpose Market Review & Forecast.

The report states that MPV market share continued to rise over 2011, as non-containerised cargo volumes benefited from the rise in general cargo trade. Those volumes are expected to continue to rise throughout the forecast period, however Drewry expects the MPV share to drop from 2014 onwards, due to competition from both the container and handy sectors.

One of the principal contributing factors to MPV demand is general and project cargo where there was a significant increase in volumes during 2011. Although the next couple of years are expected to see stable volumes levels, this sector faces the most competition from container ships and ro-ro carriers.

Susan Oatway, author of the Multipurpose report said: “Over the past year we have heard more and more stories of this type of cargo moving in containers. A number of the major lines have invested in open-top or flat-rack containers, designed specifically to carry the heavy, awkward cargoes that used to be the preserve of the project carrier fleet. And a number of lines have told us they are aggressively marketing this service.”

While the container market is depressed, then clearly anything is being taken to fill a ship, and equally bulk rates are not significantly lower than the container rate to make that stuffing uneconomical. However, the container market is expected to recover eventually – albeit slowly and not in the near future. Equally, although bulk rates are also expected to improve there is no suggestion that they will rise to levels anywhere near those seen over 2004-08, so keeping low-value cargo in low-freight vessels. There is little incentive to put a low-value, low-freight cargo into a container – especially one that is not full, unless container rates are equally low.

Meanwhile the MPV fleet is steadily growing and is forecast to grow at about 1.9% per year to 2016. The current orderbook is equivalent to 17% (in deadweight terms) of the operational fleet, with the larger vessel sizes still proving to be the most popular for new tonnage, as opposed to replacement, which appears to be the norm in the smaller sectors.

Drewry has analysed the fleets and orderbooks of the major operators in this sector and in nearly all cases the average vessel size on order is greater than the average vessel size currently operated. An important sign in the development of the fleet is that of increased lift capacity, where investment in new ships with greater specifications enables owners to create a niche sector for project carriers.

Susan Oatway added: “I think the outlook is much more positive than it was 12 months ago, demand is picking up in the near term and even though competition from other sectors is an on-going concern it seems to be mainly on a regional level, albeit that it needs frequent monitoring. Project cargo is on the rise and much, if not most, of it depends on developing economies, which are faring much better than the old industrial nations. However the niche market for the project carriers is not impervious to the competitive threat and added value must be the way forward for many carriers.”