Lucrative times for oil shippers
The oil price crash is not proving to be an unmitigated disaster for all sections of the oil service industry.
On the contrary, for ship operators and owners it is proving to be a lucrative time, and things are looking rosy for at least another year.
While oil prices tumbled 35 per cent last year, the average earnings for shipping firms involved in hauling oil, for all sizes of tanker, was $67,366 per day, the highest it had been in six years. While this is expected to slip to around $46,000 this year, that would still make it the second best year for daily rates since 2009.
According to analysts estimates compiled by Bloomberg, carriers’ earnings will double to bring an additional $5 billion in revenues across the entire world fleet this year.
That is good news for major oil tanker companies, such as Bermuda-based Teekay Tankers, Nordic American Tankers and Frontline Management.
Of course, there is always the danger of unexpected events trashing expectations, such as an outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East involving a major oil producer. But all things being equal, the oil tanker industry appears to be heading for another bumper year for revenues.
“A steadily growing demand for the transportation of oil meets more or less stable capacity, leading to a remarkably strong increase in charter hire rates,” said Jens Alers, group director of Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (Bermuda), which has offices in Par-la-Ville Road. The maritime services company manages a global fleet of more than 674 ships, which include a number of oil tankers varying in size up to very large crude carriers (VLCC).
When asked for his observations on why the sector is up despite the oil price collapse, Mr Alers said one factor was the continuing glut of oil as producers pump at record levels. That has resulted in the price of Brent crude oil falling from more than $100 a barrel to around $37 in the space of the past 18 months.
“Consumers have taken advantage of low oil prices. As a result demand for oil has risen steadily, yet not dramatically. Increased consumption in India and China has more than made up for reduced consumption in Europe,” said Mr Alers.
Coupled with this, there has been only marginal growth in the size of the world tanker fleet since 2011, due to older ships being scrapped and deliveries of newly built ships being subdued. However, that favourable situation could soon come to an end, warns Mr Alers.
“Shipowners are betting on a strong tanker market for 2016, but I would be cautious beyond that,” he said.
“The number of newbuilding orders placed at shipyards for large crude oil tankers — suezmaxes and VLCC’s — in the course or 2015 is quite high. These ships will be delivered in 2017 and lead to a reduction in charter hire levels for these types of vessels, unless there is a significant change on the transportation patterns leading to higher ton miles.” A year ago, shipping operators were benefiting from a market structure known as “contango”, where tankers were filled with crude oil and used as floating storage in the expectation that the oil, bought at a low price, would be sold at a later date when oil prices had rebounded, therefore capturing a profit.
The continuing oil rout has made this a riskier bet, although it is still an industry play, particularly as many storage facilities on land reached their maximum capacity. Tankers are being used by some investors as floating storage.
Mr Alers said oil traders exchanged in contango in order to speculate on a significant increase in the price of oil over a period usually around six to nine months. But if the oil price stayed flat or goes down further, the oil trader faces a loss on the value of the oil and the expense of chartering the tanker for a long period.
“At this time the economic parameters alone won’t be sufficiently strong for a successful contango play,” said Mr Alers.
Another benefit of lower oil prices is the reduction in the cost of bunker fuel — the dense oil used to power vessels.
Everything appears to favour another bumper year for tanker firms, to the point that Nikolas Tsakos, the chief executive officer of Tsakos Energy Navigation said in an interview with Bloomberg: “The stars are aligned for us right now.”
However, Mr Alers said the possibility of a “black swan” event; a phenomenon that occurs even though it had been thought to be impossible.
“We shouldn’t ignore black swan events, such as a shooting war between Saudi Arabia and Iran leading to a closure of the Strait of Hormuz, or a catastrophic event at the Suez Canal resulting in the closure of the waterway and requiring ships to divert around the Cape of Good Hope.
Either of these events would lead to a dramatic increase in the charter hire rates for larger tankers,” said Mr Alers.