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Zombies or revenants: Who will roam the shipping market in 2020?

Now, if someone, who was long considered dead is suddenly walking around, it is not necessarily a miracle of biblical proportions. So before you raise your hands in joyful prayer for the holy revenant, make sure he's not shambling, growling and craving for brains, as you might be looking at a zombie.

Let's take an example of a shipping market that kicked the bucket all the way back in 2008 after being run over by the steamroller of tonnage oversupply and the global economic downturn.

Since its tragic departure the shipping market was still showing some awkward signs of life, in terms of occasional rallies in freight rates, but usually infrequent and short-term — like flashes of light in a long abandoned house or scraping sounds from beneath the gravestone.

Surprisingly, all that penny dreadful material still found quite a few fans. Investors kept being drawn in towards the haunted resting place of shipping, hoping to reap the legendary riches it seemed to possess before its demise.

Zombies or revenants: Who will roam the shipping market in 2020?

"BRAAAINS!" - is the shipping market one of the walking dead?

As a result, despite quite poor supply and demand fundamentals and drastic underperformance by shipping companies, the tonnage kept being ordered in the first half of the decade, across pretty much all major shipping sectors like tankers, dry bulk and containers.

That, of course, did not work out too well  for everyone. Buying big ships is quite capital intensive. So, you tend to borrow a lot of money. And high leverage in a depressed market is a usual premise for a sad finale. If in doubt, ask shipping company Hanjin.

However, the times, they are a-changing. At least, that is what some analysts started preaching. Shockingly enough, after years of low earnings, dropping share prices and bearish forecasts, many shipowners reconsidered their investment strategies. Banks helped them to make that decision by saying that they would not be giving out money as easily any longer.

What this means is that the pace of tonnage growth is projected to slow down drastically in the next few years. For example, ordering was particularly low recently in the dry bulk sector, which could even result in the fleet actually shrinking rather than growing by 2020.

A lot of hope here is placed on scrapping, especially with the new IMO regulations like the Ballast Water Management convention that is coming to force in September this year and the global sulfur cap upcoming in 2020. Both are likely to raise costs for running older ships and, as  many believe, encourage more demolition. In other words, with a drop in orders, the hope is that fewer new ships will be coming into the market and more will be leaving it, hence lower supply and potentially higher freight.

So, there is a firming belief that shipping may rise in the third year, around 2019-2020. And there are already some signs of that, like a particularly strong end to 2016 for the dry bulk market. Shall we start singing psalms then?

Maybe not just yet.

If this market, which seems to be pulling itself back from the great beyond, is indeed a messiah, then it would have the wisdom to make it all better. For the shipping revenants, this would mean staying away from ordering new ships and continuing to scrap existing ones, even if it means decreasing the demolition age, and concentrating their sale and purchase portfolio on second-hand tonnage. It is a  simple concept, but the shipping market has failed to grasp it over and over again.

And we are yet to see firm proof that this time is any different. The fault lies  with an eternal zombie-like craving that many shipping players have for ordering new ships. It is like hunger that can be suppressed, but never contained for long. And just as before, it may be the ruin of any positive signs in the freight market, if shipowners surrender to it too early.

"Better forecasts for 2020? Cheap asset prices and desperate shipyards today?"

"Let's see what cash we can find and order some vessels now!"

"They will hit the water by the time the market recovers."

"We'll make loads of money and pay off our debts then. Maybe others won't do the same thing."

"It will be great!"


Next thing you know, the horde mentality kicks in and you have the Z-day of tonnage oversupply once again.

And as we all know, most zombies end up being shot. Some of them never to rise again. In this case that would mean new companies going bust.

This year may be the key one in determining the freight industry's near future. If shipowners and other investors do remain disciplined and demonstrate a long-term strategy aimed for supply reduction, the zombie plague may be avoided at the start of the next decade. Then, maybe, this market will indeed drop the rags of a living corpse and walk proudly on water once again.