The coronavirus crisis in China has hammered many markets this month. None may have felt a bigger impact than freight.
Rates for giant Capesize ships, typically used to carry raw materials such as iron ore, plunged 90% from a September peak to less than $4,000 a day based on an index that tracks their earnings. A wider Baltic Dry Index more than halved in January to hit the lowest since 2016, as the worsening outbreak brought an already-weak freight market because of the Lunar New Year to its knees.
The plunge in shipping rates underscores just how much pull China has in global commodities markets, with the virus upending everything from oil futures to copper prices.
“Weakness is expected to persist amid uncertainty about how long the virus effects will last,” said Ralph Leszczynski, head of research at shipbroker Banchero Costa & Co. Seasonally, rates are already low in January because of the Lunar New Year and lower demand out of Brazil on bad weather, and the virus is an added bearish factor, Leszczynski said.
Iron ore is the biggest dry-bulk cargo by volume, with annual seaborne flows totaling about 1.6 billion tons as vessels carry the key steel-making ingredient from giant mines in Brazil and Australia to users in China and Europe.
Miners have downplayed concerns. Australia’s Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. said concern over the virus is impacting sentiment rather than the physical trade in iron ore. Separately, Brazil’s Vale SA said operations at Asian ports are normal.
That signals prices could recover at least partially once concerns over the virus outbreak ease or if port operations aren’t significantly disrupted. They may also get a lift after a period of seasonal weakness as the holidays draw to a close.