London — The bunker industry is in a fragile state as it enters its last year before tougher sulfur restrictions come into force, with several key players in retreat.
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The International Maritime Organization's lower 0.5% sulfur limit for bunkers comes into effect at the start of 2020, forcing a shift in shipping from fuel oil to cleaner, more expensive alternatives. The supply questions around fuel availability and compatibility for this change are starting to be answered, but a big question for the industry next year will be whether credit availability will be sufficient.
The bunker industry runs on credit, as shipowners typically pay for their fuel several weeks after delivery, and the amount of credit available will need to be increased dramatically from the end of 2019 onwards to cover the new requirement for more expensive fuels. The banking industry has regarded bunker traders with suspicion since the surprise collapse of OW Bunker in 2014, and may struggle to accommodate a large increase in their demands.
The industry's performance in 2018 will do little to encourage the bankers. Competition has been tough at the world's largest bunkering hubs, keeping margins under sustained pressure and forcing some to leave - in Singapore the list of accredited suppliers has shrunk considerably.
Hamburg-based global supplier Bomin Group has been one of the more prominent victims of this process. The company has undergone a wave of restructuring over the past two years culminating in its announcement late in 2018 that it would exit the Singapore physical market and sell off its Belgian operation, leaving it operating only from Houston and Hamburg.
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The case that will continue to keep credit managers awake at night in 2019 is that of Aegean Marine Petroleum as it undergoes the Chapter 11 restructuring process in the US after a year of dramatic revelations. An internal audit has determined that the company lost up to $300 million through misappropriation of assets by a former affiliate.
Trading of the company's shares in New York was suspended after it missed the deadline to file its 2017 annual report to US authorities, and Aegean in July announced an agreement with Mercuria under which the commodity trading group would provide a $1 billion trade finance facility to support Aegean's revolving credit facilities. Mercuria is now acting as the stalking horse bidder in Aegean's sale process.
The industry's focus will also be on whether the boom in scrubber orders seen in 2018 will continue all the way to 2020. Fitting a scrubber will allow vessels to continue burning fuel oil when the 0.5% sulfur limit comes into force, and 2018 saw a steady procession of shipping companies announcing investments in the exhaust cleaning systems.
S&P Global Platts Analytics forecasts as many as 2,200 vessels may have scrubbers installed by the start of 2020, with that total rising to as many as 3,000 by the end of the year. The estimated scrubber cost is $2 million-$6 million, according to Platts Analytics.
Ultimately financing these seismic adjustments will plague the industry well into 2020 when the regulations kick in.
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