Overall confidence levels in the shipping industry rose in the three months ended August 2015 to their highest level this year, according to the latest Shipping Confidence Survey from international accountant and shipping adviser Moore Stephens.
Respondents to the survey were concerned predominantly about low freight rates and overtonnaging, with continuing doubts also expressed about private equity funding.
In August 2015, the average confidence level expressed by respondents in the markets in which they operate was 5.9 on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high). This compares to the 5.3 recorded in May 2015, which equalled the lowest figure recorded in the life of the survey, launched in May 2008 with a confidence rating of 6.8.
According to the survey, all main categories of respondent recorded an increase in confidence this time, most notably charterers (up from 4.2 to 6.5) and owners (up from 5.1 to 5.8). The confidence of brokers, meanwhile, was up from 4.8 to 5.2, and that of managers from 6.1 to 6.4.
Geographically, confidence was up in Asia from 4.9 to 5.8, in Europe from 5.3 to 5.9, and in North America from 6.0 to 6.3.
While some respondents were confident that the shipping markets would improve in line with economic developments, others were more cautious.
One said, “The shipping markets have been over-stocked, and there has been far too much interest from non-traditional shipping sources with no real clue how these intricate markets work. Once built, the ships are there! The low oil cost means the drive for alternative fuels and cheaper propulsion is not being followed as diligently as one might have expected.”
Increased regulation was another recurring topic, with one respondent complaining, “Regulations are going to kill us!”
The likelihood of respondents making a major investment or significant development over the next 12 months was up on the previous survey, on a scale of 1 to 10, from 5.0 to 5.3, equalling the highest figure over the past 12 months. All main categories of respondent were more confident in this regard than they were three months ago, most notably charterers (up from 4.5 to 6.1).
One respondent noted, “There is concern about over-investment in tonnage in the wet trades by private equity houses, which has the potential to create a significant drop in rates and a further long run of below-opex returns for owners.”
The number of respondents who expected finance costs to increase over the next 12 months was up by eight percentage points, from 40% to 48%. The shift in sentiment in this regard was most notable in the case of owners (up from 35% to 53%) and charterers (up from 33% to 50%).
Competition, demand trends and finance costs featured as the top three factors cited by respondents as those likely to influence performance most significantly over the coming 12 months.
The numbers for competition were up 5 percentage points on last time to 25%. There was a one percentage-point drop (to 23%) in the numbers citing demand trends in this regard, and an increase of 4 percentage points (to 18%) for finance costs. Operating costs, unchanged at 11 %, featured in fourth place, ahead of tonnage supply, down 8 percentage points to 7%. Fuel costs, crew supply, regulation and port congestion occupied the remaining places.
“ Perversely, the main reason for the improved level of confidence revealed by our latest survey may be the same as that which saw the industry’s perceived fortunes equalling a seven-year low in May of this year. Volatility works both ways,” Richard Greiner, Moore Stephens Partner, Shipping Industry Group says.
“One respondent highlighted a perceived trend towards the so-called bureaucratisation of shipping, with smaller players losing out to their bigger competitors. Few would argue that there has ever been a tougher time for the smaller operator than in today’s industry. Yet such businesses can, and do, survive. To do so, they need to identify a niche role in the market, one in which they can add value and provide a level of service superior to that offered by their competitors. Moreover, in common with even the biggest players, they need a sound business plan.”
“Another observation concerned the way in which some traditional trades are in danger of disappearing as the EU increasingly becomes a destination for imports from the Far East and India, rather than a producer of goods. This is not a new phenomenon, but it does underline how important it is for shipping businesses to keep pace with and adapt to change, or even anticipate it where possible. Information, and the ability to disseminate it, together with the timely identification of risk, has never been more important.
According to Greiner, as world GDP growth is predicted to climb to almost 4.0% by 2020, this is good news for shipping.
“The World Trade Organisation forecasts that growth in the volume of world trade will rise from 2.8% in 2014 to 4.0% in 2016. Again, that is good news for shipping. World trade carried by sea is also on the increase and, despite the current difficult economic climate, the longer-term outlook for the industry remains positive as emerging economies continue to increase their requirements for seaborne goods and raw materials.
“So the long-term outlook for shipping offers encouragement to existing and new investors alike. Those who are not attracted by the longer-term prospects, meanwhile, will doubtless exit the industry, and in the process may help solve some of its problems.”