As Somali pirates hold captive the Sirius Star, a Saudi ship with almost $100 million (€77.1 million) in oil on board, and Indian, British, Russian, and German ships battle pirates up and down the Gulf of Aden, one might imagine that the battle against piracy is the largest crisis faced by the merchant navy industry.
After all, since January of this year, some 580 crew members have been held hostage, according to data collected by the International Maritime Bureau, and many millions of dollars have been paid in ransom. Insurance rates are up, ships are trying to avoid the Suez Canal (which ships get to via the Gulf of Aden, along the coastlines of Somalia and Yemen), and crews from India to Britain are refusing to board ships that pass through that zone. "This sort of thing can't be shut down immediately," says an aide to Indian President Pratibha Patil, who advises her on naval affairs. India's navy has fought at least three different pirate groups in the last week. "To some extent, the world's navies have to flex their muscles, and that takes time."
But what's missing in the news reports about the modern-day pirates and the political repercussions is a simpler fact: The world's shipping industry is already on its knees and has spent the past six months in a slow-motion collapse kicked off by the . And the pirates, it would seem, are the least of the problem. Just six months ago, despite the fact that the economy in the US was already slowing down, the industry was steaming ahead. As ships of every flag, color, and size were crossing oceans, carrying in their often cavernous cargo bays the essentials of trade -- oil, steel, cement, iron ore, and coal -- shipping rates worldwide in June hit their highest peak ever. It cost nearly $234,000 a day to rent one of those large capesize vessels, the ones so big that they don't even fit through the Suez Canal.
Last week, you and your friends could have rented one of those ships for a weekend bachelor party and football game for less than $4,000, according to data collected by the London-based Baltic Exchange.
Low Shipping Costs
What happened? And what does it mean for the world economy? Not good news. Let's start with shipping rates. They are the lowest they have been in six years, as measured by a relatively obscure indicator called the Baltic Dry Index. The index, which measures the cost of shipping most commodities other than oil, has been in free fall since the middle of the year, down 93 percent from its peak of 11,793 in May 2008. As a result, daily rates for chartering a merchant ship are still down by as much as 98 percent from just six months ago.
With shipping rates so low, the first casualties, not surprisingly, are shippers. Stocks for companies that construct ships and operate container carriers have languished. For instance, Singapore-based Neptune Orient, the largest shipping carrier in Southeast Asia, on Nov. 19 announced it was cutting nearly 1,000 jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce. All of the lost jobs are in the US and Canada.
Not too many people pay attention to the BDI other than shippers, but economists trying to read the tea leaves of global trade see it as a solid leading indicator of whether the world's economy is headed up or down. There's a good reason for that: A ship leaves from somewhere in the world with a cargo load of iron ore, cement, or coal, heading most likely for China, India, Western Europe, or the Americas; two months later, when the ship finally docks, that cargo gets used for roads, dams, cars, buildings, airplanes, anything that generates economic activity. As global trade hums along, the index gains, because the number of ships in the world is pretty steady at about 22,000, so increasing demand increases shipping costs.
But when the index drops, eyebrows go up, since lower demand for commodities today means lower economic activity a few months down the line. "These rates represent the cost of shipping goods that are maybe two to three weeks from being put on a boat, and about a month or so from being delivered," says Phillip Rogers, a researcher at Galbraith's, a London shipbroker. "A falling index means fewer of these goods are actually getting shipped."
Most of the index's fluctuations are tied to the cost of shipping steel around the world. China, which makes up almost 60 percent of the index and is among the world's biggest steel consumers, has seen its annualized rate of steel production drop from 570 million tons in June to less than 475 million tons in September, according to data provided by the Chinese government. The International Monetary Fund predicts the global economy will slow the most since 1982, primarily on the back of reduced trade that's exacerbated by the credit crisis. "We really are at the point where there is no real trade," says Jon Windham, an analyst with Macquarie Securities. "The recent correction in dry bulk freight rates is very troubling for industrial production numbers over the next few months."
'Reversal of Sentiment'
But the falling demand for commodities -- and their falling prices -- is also a wait-and-watch game for manufacturers, who are delaying shipments as far out as possible to let commodities correct from the peak reached during the last bull run in commodities. Steel prices, for instance, are dropping almost every day and are down almost 20 percent globally from their July prices, mostly due to reduced demand. "The dry index has fallen for several factors, but the clearest factor is the reversal of sentiment," says Jeremy Penn, chief executive of the Baltic Exchange, which compiles the index. "But there are short-term factors, including [the drop in] the letters of credit."
Letters of credit are the second part of the equation. Before shippers can put commodities on a boat, they like to get letters of credit from the eventual purchaser -- a bank guarantee that their client is capable of paying when the cargo arrives. But since the credit crisis has tightened, manufacturers are having more and more trouble getting letters of credit. "With the credit crisis causing banks to shy away from lending to one another for much longer than overnight, there have been reports of banks refusing to honor letters of credit from other banks," said Matt Robinson, an Australia-based analyst for Moody's, in a report issued on Oct. 23.
Nearly 90 percent of the world's shipments rely on letters of credit, according to the World Trade Organization. While the drop in the availability of letters of credit is still largely anecdotal -- there is no centralized data available -- reports of shipments being stranded are doing the rounds of transportation companies. Galbraith's, the London shipbroker, said in a news release in late October that "stories [are] coming from all parts of the globe referring to early redeliveries, withdrawal by buyers from ship purchase agreements, bankruptcy of numerous steel traders, credit facilities being closed without notice to companies with previously unblemished records."
And then there's the falling price of steel. Steel prices peaked earlier this year, leveling off demand, leading to a drop in the Baltic dry index. But now, even as steel prices have dropped significantly and shipping rates are ridiculously cheap compared to a year ago, nobody is ordering more steel or iron ore. So the movement of commodities across the globe has slowed to its lowest rate in six years. The credit crisis is making it tougher for the manufacturers to import, even at a time of falling commodity prices, and steel consumption is refusing to increase, even as both purchase and shipping rates drop.