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Is a Falling Greenback Leading to Smooth Sailing for Shippers?

September 18th, 2009 Michael McDonough

I have received several inquiries regarding the recent divergence between the BDI and my dry bulk shipping index (DBSI), and thought I should touch on the subject.  First and foremost I believe that a large portion of the divergence can be explained as a US dollar story.  Also, recent weakness has been mostly isolated to larger capesize vessels, which means shippers with low or no exposure to that sector have been somewhat buffered.  Prior to the global financial crisis, a weakening dollar helped lead to an unprecedented surge in commodity prices and shipping rates, this had a direct positive impact on shippers’ asset values and rates.  As the crisis hit investors around the globe became more risk averse and flocked into US government debt.  This liquidation of risky assets caused a massive retrenchment in commodity prices and a significant rally in the US$.  Now however, as investors again grow less risk adverse, the value of the greenback has begun to depreciate, and with it we are again seeing a rally in commodity prices and flows back into riskier assets.  However, unlike the prior example we have not seen, and are unlikely to see, any significant appreciation in shipping rates over the near-term, more on this later.  But, speculation over what some believe may be a V-shaped recovery have potentially over-valued some assets that could experience a possible sell-off, leading to a interim increase in risk aversion and an appreciation in the dollar.  Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the overall global economy is improving, however, I feel it will be at a more measured pace with some volatility, and in this context I believe some debt spreads and equity markets could be overvalued.  This is especially true in the shipping sector.

Source: Bloomberg & Capital Link

Source: Bloomberg & Capital Link

The chart below overlays my DBSI with the inverted US$ index, and as you can see the correlation over the last few months has been very significant.  This relationship also explains why the DBSI has largely been ignoring declines in the shipping rates.  At least over near-term, it appears that a bet on the sector essentially equates to a bet against the US$.  As I mentioned yesterday, another reason the temporaneous breakdown in the relationship between shipping rates and the DBSI is shippers’ higher proportions of fixed long-term contracts, reducing the sensitivity to the BDI, however, this also limits upside.  In conclusion, an appreciating greenback will only move shippers’ stocks up so far, without a corresponding increase in shipping rates, which is not on the horizon.  Therefore, with the bleak outlook for shipping rates combined with the potential for what I believe could be another market correction before growth returns on a more measured pace, I would be hesitant to place any long positions on the sector at current values.

Source: Bloomberg & My Calculations

Source: Bloomberg & My Calculations

As an aside:  FBR Capital Markets, this morning published a bearish report on the dry bulk sector due what they believe will be relatively few order book cancellations.  The company said, “After our recent meeting with the largest and most advanced shipbuilder in China, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), in Beijing, China, we reiterate our Underweight position on the dry bulk industry. CSIC confirmed our thesis that there will be fewer-than-expected order book cancellations.”  My DBSI returned some recent gains yesterday falling -1.1%.  The index is still realizing a weekly return of 9.1%

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