Is the Dry Bulk Tramp Shipping Industry at an Inflection Point?

As punishingly brutal as the shipping industry can be in bad times, it’s fulfillingly rewarding in good times. Who can forget the days from a decade ago when capesize bulkers were earning $250,000 per diem and the ships themselves were changing hands in excess of $150 million? We are a long way from those good old days but memories of and even hopes for prompt arrival of great times keep many a shipowner persevering in this business. It’s known that sweet memories and often hopes have on occasion been used to spruce up many “investment theses” in investment presentations.

The dry bulk tramp trade – whereby ships do not sail on a fixed schedule or published ports of call – has long been considered a textbook case of perfect competition in economics with its low barriers to entry and exit, minimal government and regulatory interference and taxation, an international market of price-takers for an un-differentiated product where no individual player – whether shipowner or charterer – has controlling influence on the market.

In such an individualistic market environment, fortunes have been made – and occasionally lost – when independent shipowners took timely risks and positioned their companies favorably on the dramatic upswing of the business cycle. Now that the dry bulk market is closer to the bottom than the peak of the cycle, there are calls to take risks for a market upswing.

Probably the timing is opportune for buying bulkers in expectations of an upswing in the market but one has to consider whether the dry bulk tramp market still is a market adhering to the rules of a perfectly competitive market. The last decade has seen many fundamental changes in the market that one has to wonder whether the old playbook is still working.

The greatest barrier to entry the shipping industry has been capital, given that this is a capital intensive industry. However, in past times shipping banks were providing generous financing in terms of financial gearing (leverage) and covenants, and even there have been cases of “name lending” and financing agreed on a handshake. Now that shipping banks have been departing the industry, and with the capital markets veering away from project finance and commodity shipping, private equity and other institutional investors have been depended upon to provide capital to shipping but at a much higher cost of capital, tighter terms and covenants and often for a share of the economics. The barriers to entry in terms of accessing capital have definitely been affecting the industry in an adverse way, in this respect.

In reference to government interference and regulation, for vessels having open registries (flags of convenience), the burden is still low in comparison to other onshore industries, but one can see the writing on the wall of higher regulation (and higher costs.) Emissions and the quality of bunker fuel have been making headline news in the last year resulting in both a higher financial component to the business and also technological and regulatory risk. Likewise for ballast water treatment plans, past the official deadlines, technology and approvals only now are getting sorted out. Likely, there will be higher risks for safety and security and ensuring that ships and the seaways supply chain are supported by hack-free systems (ransomware NotPetya have cost Maersk a few hundred million in losses in their last quarterly report, while the possibility of “hacked” ships became a prominent scenario in a recent wave of collisions involving US Navy ships in the Pacific.) And, while offshore registered vessels are taxed on the so-called “tonnage tax” system, many revenue-challenged jurisdictions and taxpayers have been taking a second look on the substantial differential in taxation in reference to domestically registered shipping companies and the potential loss of revenue. Taxation is a risk routinely mentioned in the prospectuses of all publicly listed companies in the US-capital markets and that the current favorable treatment by the IRS cannot always considered to be “a sure thing”. Thus, in an increasingly burdensome era of regulations (environment, safety, security, etc) and taxation, another of the legs of perfect competition seems challenged.

In theory, the “product” that dry bulk shipping companies “sell” is a “commodity” and “interchangeable” as all dry bulk shipping companies offer the service of transporting cargoes in bulk over the sea; as simple as that. And, although there are many charterers who only care for the basic good of cheap transport, an ever increasing number of quality charterers demand more than the “basic” service of transport: they demand quality ships and proper management systems and real time reporting and accountability, and also solid shipowners and managers free of financial risk of default. Thus, the “product” of the tramp dry bulk shipping slowly becomes less commoditized and more of a “service” whereby now ships and shipowners are not exactly interchangeable. Quality ships run by quality managers are preferred by charterers, but they still earn market price; and, in order to be profitable at market prices, critical mass of a fleet is required in order to access capital and also spread the overhead among a larger number of vessels. Thus, another tenet of the perfect competition model that dry bulk is a “commodity” good is slowly challenged.

At the end of the day, dry bulk shipowners in the tramp trade are “price takers” and will take what the market pays as there is little pricing power; again, a perfect competition characteristic. However, the case of just buying cheap ships and wait for the market to recovery will not necessarily hold true in this new market environment. One has to wonder whether the tramp dry bulk market, as a precursor to other asset classes – is slowly approaching an inflection point where “value added” services would be a differentiating factor.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”, as the quote goes, but one may has to start thinking that just hope alone of a market recovery similar to recoveries in previous business cycles may not be the case.


Article was originally was published on The Maritime Executive under the title “Is The Dry Bulk Tramp Market at an Inflection Point?” on December 1st, 2017.


Dry bulk vessel about to go under a bridge. Image credit: Karatzas Images

© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

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New Market Landscape to Question Commodity Shipping

In a recent article in the Splash 24/7, a debate was initiated on whether shipping is a “commoditized” business. We define “commodity business” as any business or industry whereby there is little pricing power and the product can be procured from many different suppliers with little effort or additional cost (interchangeable product.)

Certain sectors of shipping, such as the cruiseship business, have positioned themselves as far from “shipping” as possible, and their relevance to the shipping industry is limited to the loyalty and romance and affinity they can offer on behalf of the differentiation of their cruiseship fleet to their guests and passengers. For those who have talked with vacationers who are frequent cruiseship passengers, we all have moved by their affection for the cruiseships individually and their loyalty to the brand collectively and the type of cruiseship they cater to. The cruise-line industry has managed to create a clear image for the industry and individual cruiseship companies have created a “brand” and appeal to a certain segment of the market, ranging from the luxury and discerning high-end of the market to the “cattle class” segment of cruising appealing to the younger crowd on a budget. The cruiseship industry is a clear example of a sector in shipping that has not been a commodity and it has created a brand and has charging a premium pricing for its product.

The dry bulk market, however, with the very long tail of charterers – with some of them trading in obscure ends of the globe and the freight cost being of paramount importance, is a highly commoditized business. As long as a dry bulk ship can transport a certain amount of cargo from port A to port B, price is the only differentiating factor: the age of the ship, the quality of the vessel management, the financial strength of the shipowner, and several more factors could easily be sidestepped. A ship with a shiny, bright smokestack would get almost exactly the same freight revenue as a ship with a heavily darkened-from-smog smokestack; and given that the former ship has a higher cost basis (the cost of the fresh paint, at the very least), the owner of the latter dry bulk vessel was enjoying better overall economics. Dry bulk is the least regulated of the shipping sectors and the sector closest resembling what economists call “perfect competition” and staying closest to a commodity business model has made sense. Charterers objectively would barely differentiate vessels besides pricing, and pricing was set by the market, not a shipowner or a ship.

But again, the last few years forced the shipping industry to take quickly many steps at a time: the freight market crashed and controlling vessel operating expenses became critical, new regulations came to effect (whether for emissions or ballast water, etc), bunkering costs could not be neglected by the charterers, etc Therefore, some differentiation started entering the market in an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, large charterers and trading houses, under the luxury or pretense of a weak freight market, have been pushing for higher vessel and vessel management standards in terms of safety, performance, security, accountability, predictability, efficiency, consistence, etc which further allowed some shipping companies to differentiate their “product”.

The tanker industry, having to live with higher standards ever since the tanker MT ‘Exxon Valdez’ became a household name three decades ago, has forced shipping companies to be more cognizant of their “brand” and reputation. The tanker industry is also driven by a group of select charterers (oil majors, etc) who themselves are held to high standards and a few minimum standards we established for the tanker market (i.e. OCIMF, CFR, etc) Still the tanker market is far away from a “branding” strategy when tanker owners can differentiate themselves, but nevertheless there is a higher level of “name recognition” in this market sector.

The shipping industry is a “price taking” industry where the shipowner has to take and accept what price the market offers at any time. Unlike the yacht industry where the customer invests in a “I want” or desire product, in the shipping industry, the customer invests in a “I need” or mandatory product. In the first case, the level of desire can be graded and the optimal product and pricing can be found. In the latter case, the product is a basic need (transport of cargo) which by itself doesn’t allow for price differentiation. However, for shipping companies that have a strategy of differentiating the product at any market price, likely to be more successful in the future.

Since 2008, there have been tectonic changes in the shipping industry. What worked in the past likely will not work equally well in the future. There are many reasons for that and the fact that the landscape of shipping financing has changed is just one of them. It’s hard to create a brand in a commodity-driven market and charge a premium price, but charterers and financiers and the rest of the stakeholders will want to see distinct companies with a quality product. “Me too” shipowners of a handful dry bulk vessels will be pressed hard to stand out in a new market. Setting a shipping company apart from the competition will eat into earnings (once again, shipping is a “price taker” industry) and shipowners will have to deliver more value for every dollar earned.

It’s hard to create a “brand” in a commodity world, and there is little in extras one can offer for a basic need of transporting raw material (hard to abuse most of the time, never complains, doesn’t have any demand for comfort and pampering, etc). The only way really to differentiate and build a “brand” would be by providing the charter with the offering of a better product: a ship with good performance with tight ranges of consistency, performance, etc, by optimizing voyages and minimizing downtime and damage, by having a solid balance sheet and not jeopardizing vessel and cargo arrests, etc. And, in order to be able to offer these and any more attributes that would define their “brand”, they would need a critical mass of a fleet in order to be able to spread SG&A and overhead across many ships, and also being able to obtain competitive financing in a world where shipping finance is tough to be found.

Shipping is a B2B (business-to-business) model where the end consumer has little saying. It would be impossible to have an “Intel Inside” marketing campaign to differentiate the product and drive demand via “pull” by the end-consumer (except possibly in the containership sector), but still, charterers and financiers and stakeholders would like to see a product that stands out in terms of quality and value. Probably such a model may not offer the best profitability that the competition over time, but most likely, it may ensure survivability when the market takes another dive. Charterers likely to “fly to quality” and shipping companies that have moved away from a commoditized world with a better product have better odds of survival.


Article originally appeared in the Splash 24/7 website under the title: “New Market Landscape to Question Commodity Shipping”. 


The containership terminal of the Port of Piraeus: trying to get more efficient with commodity shipping under new ownership. Image credit: Karatzas Images


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.