The dry bulk market had a great run from the fall of the last year until March this year when the BDI reached 1,338 points on March 29th. While freight rates still have been hovering at just above break-even levels, the improvement of the market has been impressive in relative terms; freight rates have quadrupled in the last year, admittedly from abysmally low levels.
While still the freight improvement has not been strong enough to justify popping champagne bottles, it has worked miracles in terms of improving the mood and bringing soaring enthusiasm back in a market that was relentlessly bleeding cash for the last few years. The enthusiasm has been so strong that recent sale & purchase activity (s&p) has been the strongest in the last two years, while there are a couple of cases of shipowners doubling their money on ‘asset play’ transactions within the last year.
The market has given up some of its recent earnings as the BDI is now back to approximately 900 points, but the improved mood is still abundantly present. And, given that we are heading into the summer, a seasonally weak season for shipping, there have been some concerns on the direction of the market. And, now that the market seems to be taking a breather and there is some time for introspection, there is some head-scratching on the real reasons for the market bouncing back so strongly in the last year as fundamentals did not seem to justify such a strong (fourfold) freight improvement. All in all, while the market is still decent and the mood is buoyant, one has to be more cautious at present.
Shipping asset prices have improved since last year when ships, especially when non-modern dry bulk ships were selling at a multiple of their scrap value, irrespective of quality and pedigree. Probably the “easy money” has been behind for those looking for an easy “asset play”, but shipping asset prices are still low by historical standards. And, there has been serious interest for acquisitions of dry bulk shipping assets whether in the secondary or the newbuilding market.
But again, it’s hard for a buyer or investor to enter aggressively the market. Prices have doubled for a great deal of assets while the freight market barely covers their daily operating expenses. And, there are risks looking forward to justify an aggressive approach. Trade volumes are still anemic to imply a strong market recovery. And, shipbuilders are getting more desperate by the day at building up their orderbook. Lack of competitive shipping finance keeps a dumper on the market, but any export credit incentive or other catalyst would have a tremendous (even catastrophic) impact on the market.
While asset prices look tempting by historical standards, whether for tankers or dry bulk vessels, it’s hard making the argument that the market is in a full recovery swing and buying ships, whether for operating profits or for asset flipping in the future, can b a great strategy. The risks still lurking in the market cannot be ignored. And, in our opinion, the “irrational exuberance” we have seen earlier in the year make us believe that there is still lots of froth in the market.
The article was first published in Seatrade Maritime on June 6th, 2017 under the title “Dry Bulk Ships: To Buy or not to Buy“.
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