Ethylene Freight Rates Head For Collapse

Business, Company Strategy, Economics, Middle East, Olefins, Polyolefins, Projects, Singapore

“If I didn’t care what happens to you….”

Flyingpig.bmpSource of picture:


By John Richardson

AS many as 25 new ethylene vessels could be in operation by 2013 as a result of what one shipping industry source told the blog was “irresponsible shipping brokers and consultants talking up the market”.

He predicted that the end-result would be a steep fall in freight rates if anywhere close to this number of ships actually ends up in service.

The good news is that some of the vessels on order represent options that can be cancelled if the market starts to turn pear-shaped well before 2013.

Those who have taken out the options might alternatively demonstrate a little vision if the immediate outlook for rates remains firm. Pigs could also take flight – or is that a tad too cynical?

Right now, as we have reported  several times during the last few weeks, ethylene freight rates are high as a result of a shortage of ships and repositioning problems.

“The shortage is the result of some orders for vessels being cancelled at the height of the recent economic crisis,” the source adds.

And he further helped explain the repositioning problem as being the result of a greater amount of tonnage being tied-up on long-haul journeys due to increased surpluses in the Middle East.

Numerous difficulties with starting-up new complexes in a coordinated fashion and last month’s steep rise in exports from Iran – a consequence of the knock-on effect of diverting benzene into gasoline production – have added to Middle East volumes.

As a result, more ships are plying the Middle East-to-Asia and Middle East-to-Europe routes than was the case before. This is creating longer lead times to get ships back in place to work short-haul routes – for example, Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.

So the brokers and consultants have been conducting road shows on the wonderful long-term returns that the ethylene freight market promises based on what are only short-term issues, says the source.

Eventually the new complexes in the Middle East will fully stabilise production by sorting out technical problems, reducing volumes from the region, he adds.

Restructuring at SABIC might also encourage greater internal use of ethylene (perhaps more of this later when we have asked more questions).

Feedstock shortages in Saudi Arabia resulting from the OPEC oil quotas are also likely to last for several more years, maintaining downward pressure on shipments out of the Al-Jubail site. We will discuss this in detail in another post later this week.

It also seems inevitable that project announcements will be made in Singapore sooner rather than later which will consume some, if not all, of Shell Chemicals’ 150,000 tonne/year surplus. This might include a 200,000-300,000 tonne/year metallocene linear-low density PE (LLDPE) plant by Japan’s Prime Polymer.

And the Ras Laffan Olefins Co cracker in Qatar, currently long by an estimated 100,000-150,000 tonne/year, is set to become balanced when a low density polyethylene (LDPE) project starts-up. The plant is due to be brought on-stream in Q1 2012, according to ICIS Plants & Projects.

And in a further post this week we will explore opinions on future ethylene trade from Iran as new sanctions are more rigorously applied. There is a significant risk of a sharp fall in exports.

But even if all of the sources we have spoken to on the merchant ethylene trade are wrong and volumes do not dip in a big way, our shipping industry sources makes the point that 25 ships would still be far too many.

It would represent around 125,000 tonnes of additional tonnage into a market, which, we think, totals very roughly 450,000 tonnes (sorry, but this is very rough: Our estimate is based on 90 ships in service at maybe an average of 5,000 tonnes each – please correct us if we are wrong).

So why is the ethylene shipping industry in this position?

“As I said, it is irresponsible brokers and consultants who have persuaded mainly fund managers with big resources to place orders for new ships,” continues our source.

“The managers have been tempted not only by high freight rates but also the fall in the cost of building vessels because of the financial crisis – from $55-60m each to around $40m.

“The theory is that they order the vessels and re-sell them at a profit before delivery.”

The money is a drop in the ocean (sorry for the horrible pun) for these managers of sometimes multi-billion dollar funds.

But the impact on the relatively tiny ethylene trade – and on any owners who buy these vessels – could be quite nasty.

“The petrochemical industry might have had a good year but owners across all the sectors – liquids, gases, dry bulk and containers – are struggling,” he says.

Rates have only gone up 3-4% since the steep rises in bunker-fuel costs on higher oil and in labour costs on the shortage of qualified crew, he adds.

“Most owners are already defaulting on their original repayment terms. The banks have been willing to reschedule many of their loans because some repayments are better than none and, if they foreclose, they wouldn’t get anything.”

The arrival of these new ethylene ships runs the risk of making a bad situation even worse.


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