Tuesday, July 10, 2007

IEA Medium Term Oil Market Report - Tanker Market

IEA Medium Term Oil Market Report (MTOMR) July 2007
Implications for the Tanker Market

A crude trade forecast slightly ahead of crude demand growth (in percentage terms) should theoretically suggest an increase in tanker employment, if the trend also applies to seaborne trade. Reconciling approximate seaborne crude trade volumes with a distance matrix reveals that tanker tonne-mile demand (trade volume multiplied by distance that cargoes are shipped, an indicator of tanker demand) should rise even more steeply, by 3.5%. The principal contributors to increased tonne-mile demand are higher long-haul exports to China and the US from Saudi Arabia and West Africa, outpacing the countering effect from lower long-haul exports from Middle East to OECD Europe and OECD Pacific.

While increasing volumes of long-haul crude will essentially be shipped in two million-barrel (or larger) VLCCs, demand for million-barrel suezmax tankers should be supported by higher exports from FSU and North Africa via the Mediterranean and increased volumes leaving West Africa. Growth in Russian exports to Europe could boost employment of aframaxes, which carry around half a million barrels.

The tanker trade should be well placed to meet these challenges: there are more tankers on order than at any point since the shipbuilding boom of the early 1970s. A current orderbook of around 140 million tonnes carrying capacity compares with just 73 million at the end of 2003. Today’s orderbook implies that tankers to be delivered by the end of 2010 equate to almost 38% of existing fleet supply in cargo-carrying terms.

Orders for mid-range and smaller tankers are notably strong, alongside historically high orders for new VLCCs, Suezmaxes and Aframaxes. Massive demand, rising steel costs (plus safety requirements to use more steel in tanker design) and increased competition for shipyard space from other shipping sectors (amid a surge in orders for non-tanker ship types) have pushed tanker newbuild costs to record highs. This is despite ongoing growth in world shipbuilding capacity. A brand new VLCC constructed in Korea now costs around $133 million compared with an average $68 million in 2003. Shipyards in Korea, Japan and China are full until at least 2010.

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A brimming orderbook provides the potential to redress the prevailing vessel undersupply, prompted by weak tanker ordering early this decade, which has supported freight rates over the last three years. However, this depends on how many vessels are scrapped.

High vessel earnings have kept scrappings at record lows over the last three years. No VLCC has been scrapped since 2004. While sustained lower freight rates would prompt an upswing in scrapping, a different, clearer threat to vessel supply is the 2010 (IMO) deadline for the phasing-out of all singlehulled tankers. In the VLCC sector, this would translate into a reduction in the current operational fleet by as much as 28%, as vessels are scrapped or converted into dedicated floating storage units, offshore oil production vessels or even dry-bulk carriers. However, certain exceptions may dilute this figure (such as for vessels with double-bottoms or double sides) and some vessels may continue to operate outside IMO signatory waters. Simpson, Spence and Young forecast vessel deletions to correspond to around 3% of the current tanker fleet annually through 2010, with the most pronounced declines in VLCC tonnage. When combined with orderbook data, SSY fleet projections suggest net annual expansions of the tanker fleet of around 6% by end-2010.

Despite potential support from firm trade growth and vessel phase-outs, freight rates in the medium term face genuine downside risk from an expanding fleet. However, perhaps a greater threat to freight rates is the downside risk from oil market fundamentals. Demand dented by an economic downturn or by higher prices following underperforming supply could significantly undermine oil trade and tanker demand.

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