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Russbroker Caribbean market review

Charter market revival

Container market After a slow start into the year, the containership charter market finally picked up at the end of March. Especially the larger segments (1,700/2,500 teu) benefitted from the positive global trend.

High reefer vessels of 2,500 teu continued to fare relatively well, as they had already in 2016. In late March a number of factors also caused charter rates for standard 2,500 teu ships to rise substantially from mid US$ 5,000 to over US$ 9,000 in the Atlantic trading area. In sync with the increasing earnings, period flexibility also decreased after several ships had to accept durations of, for example, two to 12 months.

During the last six months over 20 ships of 2,500 teu had been scrapped, and another 10 or so were sold to Asian operators, thus removing them from the charter market. In addition to the declining supply side, extra demand was created by Spanish port strikes and traditional seasonal tonnage demand.

The 1,700 teu Caribbean market also cleared out towards April; compared with the 2,500 teu segment, the rates for 1,700 teu ships increased by ‘only’ 10 per cent in the first three months of the year.

Ships of 1,300 teu enjoyed decent demand and were particularly popular for high reefer trades. Charter rates consequently appreciated slightly and reached levels around US$ 8,000 at the end of March.

In the 1,100 teu size category there were always a few ships available spot, so rates thus stagnated in the mid US$ 6,000 range.

The sub 1,000 teu is becoming more and more a niche segment. Charter rates varied greatly between US$ 5,500 and US$ 7,000 depending on the specific vessel, trade and period. Currently, there are only about 20 vessels in the size range between 400 and 800 teu trading in the Caribbean, half of which are directly owned by operators.

During the last couple of months the Caribbean trading area registered a net outflow of 1,700 teu ships which were mainly replaced by a net inflow of 2,500 teu ships. As mentioned before, the market for sub 1,000 teu ships is shrinking and, accordingly, some smaller containerships left for business elsewhere.

The impact of the new expanded Panama Canal on the Caribbean and Central America intraregional trade has so far been very limited. Even with the new alliances coming into force in April, the number of direct port calls in the Caribbean from Asia to USEC main lines remain scarce. Three services are run with classic panamax dimension ships with a total of five port calls at US Gulf or Caribbean ports. Out of the 16 services employing ships of 5,000 teu plus, 10 are routed through the new Panama Canal. Another five port calls arise from those services. The only new addition has been New Orleans, which previously had not been on any Asia to USEC schedule, but has so far been served mainly by 2,500 teu interregional services. Overall, the teu-miles have thus far not been reduced significantly and demand for smaller containerships trading in the Americas has not been negatively impacted.

Sale and purchase of container tonnage in Caribbean

Sales activity had been relatively mute during the last couple of months. One 600 teu ship was sold to Asian operators and one Caribbean operator sold an ageing 1,100 teu vessel, which the new owners took to Asia for drydocking. Towards late summer this year the first 1,400 teu newbuilding vessels slated for a Caribbean operator are scheduled to hit the water. In general, though, Chinese yards have recently had difficulties to finish their building projects on time, thus the phase in 2017 still remains questionable.

Currently, second hand-purchase prices are rising as tramp owners as well as end-users are showing strong interest.

Macroeconomics

The global economic outlook for 2017 is rather upbeat; however, especially for the Americas, several perils remain. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a global GDP growth of 3.4 per cent after 3.1 per cent in 2016. For the Latin America and the Caribbean the figures amount to 1.2 per cent and minus 0.7 per cent respectively. A more impressive gain than 0.3 per cent on economic growth is the expected doubling of the trade growth rate from 1.9 per cent in 2016 to 3.8 per cent in 2017. Potentially negative for emerging markets, however, are the interest rate hikes in the US that could trigger capital outflows from developing nations.

Brazil is expected to stay on the positive course it took towards the end of 2016 and will hopefully end the recession of the last couple of years.
Mexico has so far withstood any negative economic effects from the new Trump administration. The peso has, after weakening initially, recovered to pre-election levels and new job creation beat expectations in early 2017. The growth outlook for the rest of the year has been downgraded, however, and the uncertainty about a disintegration of NAFTA or introduction of US import taxes led to weaker investment spending.

Venezuela is turning from bad to worse. The government has stopped publishing official statistics, but several estimates noted a double-digit percentage decline of the economy in 2016 with similar values expected in 2017. Inflation is forecast to reach about 2,000 per cent this year. In sync with falling economic output and dwindling foreign currency reserves, declining imports are also having an effect on regular container liner services. Of the six services currently calling Venezuela, two are dedicated solely to fruit exports; on the remaining four strings, 12 vessels of between 900 and 1,700 teu are still trading.

In line with further increasing tourist revenues Cuba’s economy is forecast to expand by two per cent in 2017 after a 0.9 per cent contraction in 2016. The shrinking supply of subsidized Venezuelan crude and the threat of once again frozen relations with the US bear negative potential to that forecast.

One country going strong is the number two economy in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic, where GDP is expected to increase by five per cent in 2017.

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Reefer

2016 was the worst spot chartering year for the conventional reefer sector since 1998. As usual, market activity stopped around two weeks prior to Christmas; however, contrary to previous years, it seems as if it has not started again in 2017. The activity levels for the spot market have fallen dramatically and only an optimizing of fleet capacity by the operators has avoided a total disaster for the owners.

Also, the small segment up to now found itself partly overtonnaged and rates softened. All parties are hoping for a bumper Falkland squid season. Prospects certainly look better than last year, but so far there’s been no need to secure additional tonnage.