Amid Glut, Where Will Dry Bulk Rates Go?

(Dry-bulk shipping poll updated with details from a research note on Eagle Bulk Shipping.(

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Already, a major dry-bulk shipping concern has succumbed to this month's epic collapse in the rates charged to haul raw materials around the world.

That company, a South Korean freighter called Korea Line Corp., filed for receivership Tuesday and sparked concerns of a kind of domino effect. Eagle Bulk Shipping ( EGLE), for instance, has chartered more than a dozen ships (out of its fleet of 48) to KLC. The status of those long-term charters (six to ten years in duration) is now up in the air, though the company has called its exposure "modest."

On Wednesday, FBR Capital Markets upgraded Eagle Bulk shares, saying that the selloff in the company's stock in the previous session, when it lost 11% of its value, was "overdone." Channel checks showed that the KLC bankruptcy won't have a "material negative impact" on Eagle's financials, FBR said.

>>Working Through the Glut: Dry Bulk 2011

How bad has the dry-bulk market become? A London-based ship brokerage called the Baltic Exchange, which tracks global shipping rates on the spot market, says that the going day rate for a capesize vessel, the largest dry bulkers in the world, has plunged to $8,000 as of Tuesday, very close to the so-called opex level for that class of freighter. That is, it costs between $7,000 and $10,000 per day to operate a capesize ship. Any vessel hired out on the spot market will, therefore, be a losing proposition for shipowners.

Just two months ago, in November, the going rate was $40,000 a day.

Dry-bulk stocks rallied a bit Wednesday after taking it on the chin during Tuesday's session. Eagle Bulk Shipping was the headliner. Its shares gained 3% after the sharp drop on super-heavy volume a day earlier.

Genco Shipping & Trading ( GNK), which was downgraded by Deutsche Bank on Tuesday, gained back about 3% after a precipitous drop the day before.

Other big losers from the previous session were in the green Wednesday. TBS International ( TBSI) rose about 5%; Navios Maritime ( NM) gained about the same; Excel Maritime ( EXM) was up about 4.5%; and DryShips ( DRYS), which has its own unique set of risks, added 3%.

The reasons behind the collapse in dry-bulk day rates are well known. First and foremost: oversupply. Hundreds of ships were ordered by rich shipping magnates during the last upcycle, the boom years between 2006 and 2008.

Those ships are now gliding down ramps at the major shipyards in Asia, gleaming and ready for service. More ships were ordered at the time than there were ships on the water. The binge focused on capesize ships, which specialize in carrying iron ore on some of the most lucrative routes in the world (Australia to China, Brazil to China).

True, ship owners have taken countermeasures. They're taking portions of their fleets temporarily out of service. They're selling older vessels for scrap and sending them to the ship breakers. They're delaying or even canceling orders. In 2010, 20% of the total dry-bulk "orderbook" underwent cancellation and "slippage," to use the industry argot. Still, the worldwide fleet increased last year by 17%, according to some estimates.

But many analysts and maritime experts don't believe those countermeasures will be enough to give rates a lift. There's irony here. Even as demand for raw materials from China and other emerging economies has exploded as those countries fuel their growth, driving commodities prices on a record-setting rally over the last few months, the very companies that move those materials from one place to the next -- the essence of global trade -- are unable to participate.

"Chinese and Indian commodity demand will likely be unable to match the substantial fleet growth expected to deliver in 2011 and 2012," wrote Deutsche Bank analyst Justin Yagerman in a report his firm released Tuesday. "The outlook going forward appears grim."

The analyst's 48-page study was essentially an argument for why investors ought to rotate their money from dry-bulk stocks into another beleaguered shipping sector: oil tanker shares.

Dry-bulk observers also note that Australia's vicious floods have disrupted the vital coal trade between Australia and Asia. That could also partly explain the dropoff in rates, they say.

Earlier this month, some analysts were predicting a rebound in capesize rates to $20,000 a day by next month or so -- still not great, but at least profitable for ship owners.

Meanwhile, according to trading in the freight futures market Tuesday -- these are derivatives used by ship owners to hedge against rate moves -- capesize rates for February and March are forecast to average $12,000 in the first quarter and $17,750 in the second.

With all this in mind, we ask readers of TheStreet: Where will capesize rates go in the first half of the year? Take the poll below to see the consensus of investors....

Where will capesize rates go in the first half of the year?

Doomsday Scenario: $8,000 a day or below
$8,000 to $12,000
$12,000 to $20,000
Healthy Rebound: $20,000 or above

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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