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VLCC freight hits 6-month low on slack Asian crude demand, sending fuel oil east

London — VLCC freight has hit a six-month low on fuel oil cargoes loading out of Rotterdam due to weak crude demand from Asian buyers in West Africa, encouraging charterers to move more fuel oil east.

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VLCC freight rates were last assessed for a voyage from Rotterdam to Singapore, basis 270,000 mt, at lumpsum $2.65 million. They were last assessed lower on August 22 last year at $2.5 million, according to S&P Global Platts data.

North sea VLCC freight rates have dropped at the same time as the leading West Africa market, which is limiting the demand that shipowners can make of charterers in the North Sea, sources said.

The WAF market is suffering from a lack of demand due to the wide Brent-Dubai split, which has meant that an increasing volume of crude cargoes are being moved into refineries in Northwest Europe rather than being exported East.

Indeed, there have been 20 cargoes fixed from WAF to the East so far this month compared with 32 for February, according to shipbroking sources.

Cheap freight rates have encouraged an active fuel oil arbitrage for 2018 from the largest blending hub in Europe, ARA, to the largest bunker hub, Singapore.

Charterers have jumped at the opportunity to shift fuel oil stems east at a time when the European market is struggling with oversupply and slack demand.

The HSFO market has been weighed down by the overload of product available and the market has maintained contango structure since mid-January.

The 3.5% FOB Rotterdam barges physical to paper structure was last assessed at minus $0.75/mt, mimicking the pattern of early 2017.

Six VLCCs carrying fuel oil were fixed from Rotterdam to Singapore in January, five sailed in February and a further four have already been booked for March loading.

Nonetheless in an oversupplied market structure traders have struggled to make a profit on cargoes and some companies have resorted to Iranian VLCCs owned by the National Iranian Tanker Corporation for arbitrage shipments between Europe and Asia, sources said.

"The arbitrage only really works with Iranian flyers," a broker said last week.

Fuel oil traders and shipping sources have said Iranian VLCCs can typically be fixed at up to $500,000 below the standard rate for arbitrage routes between Europe and Asia.

Iranian vessels typically carry a hefty discount to other ships as many majors will not fix them, since some of the vessels are older and they have typically been more difficult to insure.

--Peter Farrell,
--Eleni Pittalis,
--Edited by Maurice Geller,