BIMCO: Flooding in Australia affects dry bulk shipping

The flooding in the north-eastern Australian state of Queensland is primarily affecting important coal exports from Australia. Iron ore, which is exported out of Western Australia, is not directly affected yet, though that area has also received much rain. Lower steel production and thus also lower seaborne volumes of these two key dry bulk commodities is set to impact the market negatively over the coming months.

Australia is the world's largest overall coal exporter, number two in thermal coal exports after Indonesia but second to none in coking coal exports. Australia is a key global coking coal supplier, accounting for 60 percent of global seaborne exports. Within thermal coal, Australia accounts for 20 percent. Thermal coal is used for power generation and heating, while coking coal is used in the production of steel.

As we have already seen, coal customers will try to find other ways to satisfy their demand for thermal coal but the real trouble is coking coal, as it is very hard to get from elsewhere. A shortage of Australian coking coal means that the world's steel producers, primarily located in Asia, may be forced to cut the production of steel and with it also the demand for iron ore.

Impact on commodity prices and steel production

A slowdown in steel production and iron ore demand is toxic to dry bulk shipping in general and for the larger vessels (Capesize and Panamax) in particular. The iron ore contract prices for Q1-2011 have already been set at seven percent higher than the previous quarter – but spot iron ore prices can still fluctuate and will move south on lower demand. China imports 40-50 percent of its coking coal from Australia. Japan, the world's largest coking coal importer, is heavily impacted also. The flooding may see contract prices for coking coal hiking significantly due to spot prices going sharply up as a result of the tight market. Partly affecting contract prices is the spot price development. This may result in coking coal prices increasing from US$225 per tonne in Q1-2011 to US$270-300 per tonne, according to several commodity analysts.

When the mines call force majeure, the steel mills must go to the spot market for coking coal – at a much higher price than the contract price for this important steel production ingredient – if they can get it at all. Alternative sources of coking coal are the US and Canada, but reports are that the tight market has impacted prices there also, leading to higher commodity prices. So if coking coal spot goes up on tight supply, iron ore spot price can go down as a consequence of lower demand. A price hike in coking coal will increase the production cost for steel in a market already running on low margins.

Impact on freight rates

All in all, the worst flooding in Queensland for more than 50 years is not only bad for Australia, it's also bad for shipping, as volumes on coal and iron ore go down considerably and more vessels are free on the market, putting pressure on the spot market for vessels.

The Baltic Dry Index is currently down at 1,480. Such a low level has not been seen since April 2009, when the market was moving away from the initial trouble as a result of the financial crisis. The average Capesize time charter rate, which has been falling since the end of November, is now down to US$11,266 per day, trading lower every day.

Where will it go from here?

It is a string of events that has caused shipping demand out of Australia to go down. Moreover, the market is plentifully supplied with tonnage, so the fact that some of the commodities will be supplied from sources further away will only have a very limited impact on the market.

The first quarter of 2011 does not hold great prospects for the dry bulk market, mainly because the oversupply of vessels is getting too heavy even for the "normal" inefficiencies of the market to make an impact on the freight rates. The Australian situation is set to affect the market for at least a of couple months, meaning that the situation outlined above will remain a drag on the overall market and freight rates for some time.

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