Historically, a prime characteristic of the shipping industry has been that when one sector is performing weakly there is generally another that is strong, and that even when most of the markets are down there is often one which provides at least some counterbalance by performing more robustly. Today’s market climate suggest that it’s worth taking a look at this interesting element of the industry’s make-up.
One way to examine this is simply to look at the performance of the key sectors over time. The graph shows six-month moving averages of indices representing earnings in the four major volume sectors, with each index based on the 100 mark being equivalent to the historical average. This allows a quick view of the relative health of each sector in historical terms compared to the other key sectors at any point in time. Today, the bulker and containership earnings indices are at a low ebb. Yet, though not quite at last year’s heights, the tanker market continues to perform robustly with the index above 100, and gas earnings, though sliding, still look strong in historical terms.
Looking back, this type of landscape is not new. In the 1990s, for 60 months in a row, the containership index stood above 100 whilst the other market indices lingered below the 100 mark. For over half of the period between May 2001 and March 2003, the tanker market index stood above 100 whilst the other sectors experienced earnings below historical averages. In the aftermath of the credit crunch, in 17 of the 18 months between May 2009 and October 2010 the bulker market index stood above 100 whilst the other indices remained below that level.
This behaviour should not be unexpected. Only some market drivers are common across sectors. On the demand side, although macroeconomic factors can prove general, commodity-specific trends are often key. On the supply side, whilst shipbuilding, finance and steel industry developments can have a common impact, sector-specific building and demolition trends are very important too.
To some extent this can be measured in statistical terms. The ‘correlation coefficient’ measures the strength of the relationship between two series (+1 represents the most positive correlation, 0 no correlation and -1 the most negative correlation). The average coefficient between the pairs of indices here is just 0.26, implying little correlation. Removing the more ‘niche’ gas sector index from the comparison, the average coefficient between the remaining three series is 0.52, still not really indicative of a particularly significant positive correlation.
Helpfully Out Of Sync?
So, shipping markets are highly cyclical but the cycles are not always in sync. In less than 20% of the period here were earnings in all four sectors concurrently below historical averages. With some sectors today looking fragile and demand growth sluggish overall, history might offer some reassurance if the brighter spots start to fade, by suggesting that something else might eventually have its time in the sun.