Strongest earnings for shippers since 2008 as freight prices soar

LONDON • The global shipping industry is getting its biggest payday since 2008 as the combination of booming demand for goods and a global supply chain that is collapsing under the weight of Covid-19 drives freight prices ever higher.

Earnings are soaring for ships of almost every type. With the merchant fleet hauling about 80 per cent of world trade, the surge reaches into every corner of the economy.

The reasons are twofold - an economic reopening after Covid-19 that has spurred surging demand for goods and raw materials. Alongside that, the virus continues to cause disruption in global supply chains, choking up ports and delaying vessels, all of which is limiting how many are available to haul goods across oceans.

The shipping industry is posting its strongest daily earnings since 2008, according to Clarkson Research Services, part of the world's biggest shipbroker.

Container shipping remains the star. It now costs US$14,287 (S$19,170) to haul a 40-foot steel box from China to Europe. That is up more than 500 per cent on a year earlier and is pushing up the cost of transporting everything from toys to bicycles to coffee.

Those gains are already showing in the earnings of A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world's largest container line, which hiked its estimated profits this year by almost US$5 billion last month.

In a sign of just how profitable the industry has become, CMA CGM - the world's third-largest carrier - said it is freezing its spot rates to preserve long-term client relationships. In other words, the company is turning away profit.

While the demand for retail goods is lifting container markets, a recovering global economy is also churning through more raw materials - boosting the revenues of bulk ships that carry industrial commodities.

In that sector, earnings recently hit an 11-year high and are showing little sign of abating down the line, with consumption expected to remain firm for the rest of the year.

"Strong demand for natural resources combined with Covid-related logistical disruptions" are supporting spot and future freight rates, Mr Ted Petrone, vice-chairman at Navios Maritime Holdings which owns a fleet of bulk carriers, said on an earnings call last week.

Such is the extreme strength across shipping that some bulk carriers have even turned to carrying containers on their decks.

Golden Ocean Group is among the companies that said they are looking at the idea. While it could spur additional profits in an already windfall year for owners, its not without its risks as bulk carriers are not designed to carry the giant boxes.

"It tells a story about the special situation we are in" in the container market, Golden Ocean chief executive Ulrik Andersen said earlier this month.

While Covid-19 has brought a boom for many shipping sectors, it has meant loss-making trades for oil tankers for much of this year and owners are effectively subsidising the shipment of crude oil.

With the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus still keeping a chunk of supply offline, there are too many ships and too few cargoes, keeping earnings depressed. That has burned one of the hottest trades in the sector at the start of the year - bullish oil tanker positions in the hope of a summer surge in oil demand.

Still, with on-land oil inventories declining, analysts continue to anticipate a rebound. Rates could begin to move higher next month as stockpiles dwindle and demand for tankers grows, Pareto Securities analysts wrote in a note to clients.

But for now, the tanker market remains the only blot for an industry where freight capacity is ever tightening.

The ClarkSea Index, which tracks daily earnings across a diverse range of shipping sectors, has already posted its longest run of monthly gains on record.

"The charter rates reported in containers are crazy and it's the same for dry bulk," said Ms Alexandra Alatari, a shipping analyst at Arrow Shipbroking Group. "The fundamentals are so strong they support rates that would be the peak of any other year."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2021, with the headline 'Strongest earnings for shippers since 2008 as freight prices soar'. Subscribe