The approach of US energy independence has becalmed an
important part of the global maritime industry: the business of
hauling crude oil across the oceans. What's worse for investors
is that the trade winds likely won't pick up any time soon.
Here's why, and what it means for investments in the
International Energy Agency forecasts that the US will overtake
Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer in
seven years and will become a net oil exporter around 2030.
"Increasing US crude-oil production...directly limits the
need for US crude-oil imports," says shipping analyst Douglas
Mavrinac in a recent report from Jefferies investment bank.
"Continue to expect crude-oil tanker market conditions to
remain weak," he says.
The problem for the tanker sector is this: The
economics rest not just on the amount of oil hauled by
ship, but also the distance traveled. The longer the distances,
the more tanker capacity is needed, and vice versa.
US-bound crude traditionally traveled more than 10,000
nautical miles from the Arabian Gulf. As America imports less
energy the pumped oil will still go somewhere, it just won't go
as far. The trip from the Gulf to China is around 6,000
nautical miles and to India it's even shorter, at less
How (or even if) the demand gap will be filled is a big
question for the industry.
"If China sources its oil from Venezuela and West Africa
that will help, " says Natasha Boyden, a New York-based
independent shipping analyst. "Whether it will be enough to
replace the US remains to be seen."
It's not as if the tankers can just switch cargoes. Crude
tankers are specially constructed to carry unrefined oil. They
would need to be converted to haul products such as gasoline or
Over the past two years the changing tide of the industry
has caused a collapse in crude freight rates. The Baltic Dirty
Tanker Index, which measures the cost to move oil across the
sea, has sunk to around 638 recently from 1,077 in January
2010, even as the global economy has improved.
At the same time, the global tanker fleet hasn't adjusted to
the reduced haulage demand. This year, the total capacity of
tankers in the global fleet is likely to grow 4.6%, and next
year tanker supply is expected to rise 1.9%, according to a
January-dated report from Clarkson Capital Markets. That far
surpasses Clarkson's projected demand growth of 2.3% for
2013 and 1.5% for 2014.
"There is such an overhang with supply that to say that
freight rates will increase in the out years is premature,"
says Urs Dur, a shipping analyst at Clarkson.
So what? It means a poor outlook at best for the stocks in
Jeffries says Frontline Ltd., which operates a large fleet
of very large crude tankers (VLCCs), will lose $2.33/share this
year in earnings and $2.09 next. Both estimates were slashed
earlier this month based on the weak outlook. The firm says the
stock is worth $2, a hair above the recent price of $1.93.
Global Hunter has an even worse view for the stock, with the
price headed to 50 cents.
Similarly, Jeffries says Nordic American Tankers Ltd.,
which operates a tanker fleet, is expected to lose money this
year and the next. The stock was recently trading at $9.16, but
Jeffries expects it to head to $7.
Dow Jones Newswires