The Global Shipping Halt
Is The Great Unwind Disrupting The Freight Market?

London, UK - 19th November 2008, 23:04 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

Freight shipping prices for transporting dry raw materials have collapsed in November 2008. The Great Unwind is like a Tsunami that is engulfing and halting the shipping world at an accelerating rate. The Baltic Dry Index sounds like a weather report, but what it really does is track the price of shipping bulk cargo -- such as coal, iron ore, cotton and grain. Recently, the Baltic Dry Index has fallen through the floor. It has slumped by nearly 95% over the past five months. In real dollar terms, at the peak of the market in June, a 170,000-tonne Capesize bulk carrier cost USD 233,988 to rent. Recently, it was available for USD 4,793 - that is a crash of 98% and is below the cost of paying for crew, insurance, maintenance and lubricants. Why?

1. Of the USD 13.6 trillion of goods and materials traded worldwide per annum, 90% rely on letters of credit or related forms of financing and guarantees such as trade credit insurance. International shipping works on "letters of credit." These financial guarantees are issued to buyers of bulk cargo by their banks. This system has greased the wheels of global trade for the last 400 years by transferring payments internationally from buyer to seller once shipments have been delivered. With the collapse of the credit market - and banks now sitting on their hands, refusing to lend - the fast-moving wheels of global shipping have come close to halt.

2. There is a collapsing demand for credit driven expensive product purchases like cars and as a consequence, the transport of associated raw materials and sub-assemblies. Auto sales are falling in double digit percentages across most of the G7, ie, the US, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy and Canada. The pace of car sales growth is slowing down across most of the remaining G20 nations as well, including China and India.

This is a massive disruption in the freight market with asymmetric consequences for world trade, which poses systemic risk for many nation states. Liquidity has to return because if there is insufficient money to provide standard finance, world trade is being sharply cut back and economic growth is not only stalling but likely to implode. If cargo trade stops, a whole lot of supply chain disruptions start. For example, if the iron ore does not go to the refinery, there is no plate steel. If the plate steel does not get shipped, there is nothing to fabricate into components. If there are no components, there is nothing to assemble in the factory. If the factory closes the assembly line, there are no finished goods. If there are no finished goods, there is nothing to restock the shelves of the shops. If there is nothing in the shops, the consumers cannot buy. If the consumers cannot buy, there can be no sales!

On a more sobering note, if bulk shippers cannot buy cargoes, then a lot of US and world grain could end up rotting in warehouses while big portions of the world go hungry. For example, the Saudis are the biggest importers of food in the Middle East. They probably have the money to pay cash for their food shipments and may not therefore need letters of credit. But for the approximately 2.7 billion people in the world who spend 80% of their income on food, a disruption in the global shipping trade could mean the difference between quiet poverty and going hungry day-in, day-out. That will not last for long before there is social disorder on a massive scale.

The Baltic Exchange based in London is the world's leading maritime marketplace. Their dry index, a measure of shipping costs across different ship sizes, hit a record high of 11,793 points in May but has since fallen by 93% to 815 points last week. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has said that the financial crisis had begun to affect international trade, noting sharp falls to key shipping indices. Much lower shipping costs mean national markets are more contestable by foreigners, which should limit the ability of domestic firms to raise prices and therefore this should reduce the possibility of inflation. We can safely conclude that the majority of The Great Unwind's forces moving through the markets now seem to be deflationary, and not inflationary.

The ravaged worldwide demand for cargo ships is due to the chronic global financial crisis affecting credit availability, an unprecedented synchronised economic downturn across most of the major national economies in the world caused by massive demand destruction, and the resultant collapse in commodity prices. At the same time, container rates in the Asia-Europe routes have plummeted by around 75% this year and a price war between companies seems to be driving rates lower and lower, destroying the profitability of container shipping and placing huge stresses on companies struggling to meet their commitments. A significant component of the dramatic decline in shipping indices has been due to the difficulty in arranging trade finance during the credit crunch. Demand has been slashed because the global credit squeeze has made it very difficult for buyers to attract funding. At the same time, perceived counter-party risk in the physical markets has slowed trading to a trickle, exacerbating the freight slide. Many big players involved in the shipping of dry commodities and goods cargo are unwilling to trade with some parties fearful of their financial footing. There are big chains of owners of the chartered ships in the supply chain, so if someone goes bankrupt half way through the chain, it has a knock-on domino effect for everybody else. Another problem is that there are quite a significant number of players walking away from cargoes at present. So anyone who has taken cargoes to hedge the vessels they have chartered is now finding themselves with the ship without the cargo to carry.

ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steelmaker, on November 5th said its global output will decline by more than 30 percent. Cia Vale do Rio Doce, the world's biggest iron-ore producer, said last month that it will cut production.The fall in demand for many raw materials, which began at the beginning of June, first squeezed the profit margins of producers since they faced fixed high raw material costs and falling prices for their finished products. This was followed shortly by a squeeze of freight costs as they tried to pass the pressure from the profit margins to the freight market. One could be forgiven for not noticing what the world has experienced in recent years by way of an unprecedented growth in shipping and shipbuilding, fuelled by cheap imports from Asia and the seemingly unstoppable rise of economies such as China and India with their insatiable demand for raw materials. For some time charter rates went through the roof and reached a zenith in May/June this year and demand for new ships out-stripped supply. A different picture is now emerging. Companies are starting to struggle with too many ships chasing ever decreasing rates.

This slump not only means a fall in revenues but also less revenues to service debts. In turn, the current 'credit crunch' means extreme difficulties for struggling shipping companies seeking to raise capital. UNCTAD revealed in its annual maritime transport review that the world's merchant fleet had expanded to a record 1.12 billion deadweight tons, with the order book for new vessels reaching a peak of 10,053 ships in 2008. However, from mid-2008, companies were cancelling new ships on order, even when they were losing their 10% deposit in tens of millions of dollars. Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), Japan's largest bulk shipping company is said to be considering laying-up and even scrapping vessels as revenues collapse. MOL may mothball some of its largest vessels. The company is considering scrapping seven of its Capesize dry bulk ships from its fleet of a 100 vessels. This suggests that MOL may be getting ready for a protracted down turn lasting several years. Reports are already filtering through of companies seeking sheltered waters to lay up their giant vessels to weather the financial storm. Just as in the days following the oil crisis in 1973, we could see the same happening with the great lumbering bulkers and container vessels, which now seem less and less attractive as they ply the waters with their great bellies less than full. In the space of less than half a year we have seen the shipping world ride the crest of a massive globalisation expansionary wave and then plunge into a financial storm that could sweep most vessels off our oceans, and with them, companies who cannot weather the crisis caused by The Great Unwind.


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Best wishes

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