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The Shipfix Blog: Is the Capesize Recovery Sustainable?

By Ulf Bergman on September, 20 2022

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Ulf Bergman

Senior Economist and Market Research Analyst @ Shipfix 25 years XP in finance, shipping and commodities

Under normal circumstances, a three-quarter gain in freight rates for the Panamaxes during the first half of September would have been considered a sterling performance for the tonnage segment and dominated the headlines. However, in the post-pandemic world, with rising geopolitical tensions and the global economy potentially on the verge of a recession, circumstances are anything but ordinary, and the segment’s performance pales compared with the Capesizes.
 
As one of Shipfix’s previous market blogs highlighted, the past summer’s performance for the Capeszes is probably best forgotten. Between the high of the year set in late May and the low at the end of August, the Baltic Exchange’s index for the segment dropped by a staggering 93 per cent. Daily time charter spot rates for the Baltic’s basket of five Capesize routes, the C5TC, fell by nearly 36,000 dollars to a meagre 2,505 dollars. Hence, as suggested, the old equity market adage of selling in May and going away, with the luxury of hindsight, would have been good advice for anyone with long positions in the Capesize freight market. However, the first half of September has seen the index surging by almost 450 per cent. The positive momentum has also been maintained into the month’s second half, with the Baltic’s indicator for the segment surging by another 31 per cent as the markets reopened following a three-day weekend due to the Queen’s funeral in London.
 
Despite the impressive recovery since the end of August, daily C5TC earnings at the end of last week had only returned to the levels last seen in the early parts of August. At just above 13,500 dollars following such a recovery, it highlights the extensive force of the market rout. The freight rates also remain well below last year’s levels, with the daily earnings on the fifteenth of September 75 per cent below what was seen on the same date the previous year.
 
The healthy daily rates a year ago also preceded additional gains that eventually saw the C5TC breaching 80,000 dollars per day in early October. Hence, it begs the question if a similar surge in rates could be on the cards for the coming weeks, albeit from considerably lower levels. 
 
Events in China have contributed to the recent strong showing for the largest vessels, with severe weather conditions providing some disruptions to discharging in Chinese ports and tying up tonnage for longer. News that construction projects in the country’s troubled property sector were restarting have also contributed to the surge. In addition, last week’s stronger-than-expected Chinese economic data for August could provide some longer-term support for the current freight rate levels.
 
The outlook for the Chinese economy nevertheless remains uncertain, as new Covid restrictions remain a real threat, and the Chinese statistics authority warned last week that the challenges ahead might be more significant than in the early stages of the pandemic back in 2020. Still, the continued fragility of the Chinese growth rates could, ironically, benefit dry bulk shipping and the commodities markets, as Chinese authorities may launch additional stimulus measures to provide more support for the economy. The usual path for such actions is through infrastructure and other construction projects. Hence, it could support demand for industrial commodities and seaborne transportation despite flagging growth rates.
 
Global cargo ordering activities for Capesizes have been trending higher since the lows observed during the first half of July, when volumes were at the lowest levels since the end of December 2020. Still, the volumes recorded by Shipfix in the past two weeks have failed to maintain much of the momentum that was evident during the latter parts of August. While weekly cargo orders in the segment appear to have stabilised and the last week could still be adjusted higher as some data may be delayed, volumes remain well below the levels seen in the last two years at the same time of the year. However, the current order volumes are reasonably similar to what was seen in September 2019.
 
#17 Capes gloabl cargo order volumes
 Source: Shipfix
 
The fortunes of the Capesize freight markets have become increasingly associated with those of the Chinese economy, as iron ore and coal shipments to China have occupied a large part of the fleet. Hence, the slowdown in demand from the Chinese buyers that began with Beijing’s clampdown on pollution levels some fifteen months ago and accelerated with the problems in the country’s real estate sector has weighed on global aggregate demand levels. The nature of much of the seaborne transportation of commodities to China onboard Capesizes does not allow it to be captured through cargo order data, as contracts are often long-term. Still, the number of public orders for cargoes bound for China has nevertheless been picking up in the last three weeks following a dip in early August. 
 
#17 Number of capesize orders for discharge in China
 Source: Shipfix
 
Despite the meagre charter rates seen in the latter parts of last month, the recovery started to build momentum in August as the markets started to absorb excess tonnage. For example, the ordering activities for Capesizes loading in the Atlantic basin picked up sharply in the middle of August and remained elevated into early September. However, in a potentially ominous development, the recovery has run out of steam in the last two weeks.
 
#17 Capes loading in the Atlantic
 Source: Shipfix
 
The continued strength of the Capesize recovery raises the question of how much further it can run. While in a historical context, there is still considerable upside compared to previous years, the rising headwinds for the global economy could weigh on the demand for iron ore, and by extension Capesize freight rates. Still, falling global availability of Capesizes could continue to support higher freight rates in the short term, even if demand is showing signs of stabilising. Beyond that, freight rates are more likely to be influenced by developments on the macro level, with additional and extensive stimulus measures in China likely to be on top of many shipowners' wish lists. A continued robust global demand for thermal coal will also provide some support for the charter rates in the segment.  
 

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