Date: 17/03/2023

Interesting period seen ahead for  breakbulk shipping: Analysis

Breakbulk shipping is coming off the back of a very good eighteen months as 2023 starts. Across several market indicators as charter rates, newbuild prices and low rates of scrapping, the sector’s fortunes are looking promising, says a Dynamar analysis.
However, its ongoing health and stability cannot be guaranteed by looking at such metrics. Given the inherent opaqueness in this particular sector and the interplay with other forms of shipping, most notably container and vehicle carriers, the outlook remains far from certain. Since the previous edition of Dynamar’s Breakbulk Analysis, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, which broke out in 2020, put a huge brake on industrial activity. In response to the first Covid wave, with demand falling, container shipping operators cut their costs by scrapping vessels and reducing service coverage by skipping sailings and/or ports. However, when the container shipping market fairly bounced back in 2021, there was a shortage of not only container shipping capacity but also container box equipment. With these shortages, the multipurpose shipping fleet, with its box-shaped holds in particular, formed a ready reserve of handily placed tonnage. This pool of vessels acted as a stopgap until more suitable cellular vessels became available, contributing to strong financial returns and vessel utilisation. 
As of the fourth quarter of 2022, there were over 5,350 breakbulk ships in service. Ninety-six per cent of those were multipurpose ships, the rest classed as heavy-load. The combined fleet could carry over 78 million deadweight tons, with 93% of that, on this occasion, coming from the multipurpose sector. On the cargo side, the estimated global merchandise trade in products suitable for breakbulk shipping exceeded 1,015 million tonnes in 2021. This figure was nine per cent more compared with 2020, which itself was impacted (-3%) by the COVID pandemic. The figures for 2021 represent a six per cent growth over the pre-pandemic 2019. 
Regional share
When looking at the exporting regions, Europe/Mediterranean generated the largest share of these cargoes with 450 million tons, or 44%. The Far East was the next largest exporter at 289 million tons and 28%. There was a big gap to numbers three, four and five with North America exporting 70 million tons (7%) now overtaken by the Middle East/Indian Subcontinent 76 million tons (8%). South America was a little way behind with exports of 65 million tons (6%). The trade figures have been further separated into five broad cargo categories that are typical for breakbulk shipping markets. By weight, the most important cargo segment is metals and associated products, including structures, which totalled 411 million tons in 2021, a global share of 41%. It was in front of forest products which amounted to 371 million tons and 37% of world trade. Almost all of the rest was taken up by fertilisers at 205 million tons. This worked out at 20% of the global total. Machinery and rolling stock/light vessel categories accounted for around two per cent, by weight, combined. 
Looking forward from 2021, Dynamar has made a broad projection as to how global merchandise trade in breakbulk cargoes might develop in the short term. Although the upward trajectory of 2021 is unlikely to be sustained, the subsequent years could still show higher levels of trade than the 2015-2020 period at the very least. This is even with a static situation in 2023 and marginal decline the following year. Considering the low orderbook for multipurpose and other specialist tonnage, and in contrast to what is expected for the container sector, say, it seems that breakbulk shipping might avoid the worst of any overcapacity issues. However, as or if other sectors start struggling, breakbulk might see itself having to fend off increasing competition from outside as they seek cargoes from all over. This could be the marginal difference for breakbulk between ‘just about reasonable’ and ‘struggling’. 
Operators & fleet
All the fleet and cargo summaries above are covered in greater detail within the study. Alongside, it provides a comprehensive account of the operators within the breakbulk market. Dynamar looks at the 25 largest multipurpose operators and 15 largest heavy-load carriers. These forty commercial operators of breakbulk tonnage controlled just short of 970 vessels (fourth quarter of 2022). Their combined fleets could lift well over 23 million tons deadweight. Demonstrating the fragmented nature of the breakbulk shipping sector, though, the number of ships approximated to 18% of the global fleet. For deadweight, the share was more significant, but still in the minority at 30%. Outside of the leading forty carriers, a further 26 carriers have been profiled in summarised form. These smaller operators are more widespread geographically than the forty main carriers, who come almost exclusively from Europe/Mediterranean or the Far East regions. These 26 are spread around fifteen countries, three more than are represented by the entire top forty. However, despite their relative national diversity, they are virtually all still located in either Europe/Mediterranean, the Far East or North America regions. 
With the breakbulk sector playing such an integral role in the global economy through the transportation of a wide range of cargoes such as industrial components, plant, machinery, cranes, wind turbines, forest products, aluminium rolls, iron and steel, agribulk and minerals, to name but a few, the current uncertainty in the global economic outlook makes for an interesting period to come for breakbulk. Building on the hugely successful previous editions of the study, this ‘Breakbulk Analysis 2023: Multipurpose, Heavy-Load, Markets, Fleets’ presents an updated structure, new analyses and even more data. It delivers a profound insight into the background, characteristics, and present status of the worldwide breakbulk shipping market and its most relevant players, as per a release.
source: Exim News Service: Amsterdam, March 16