While it will hardly come as a surprise to many, especially those who have followed the historic collapse of the Baltic Dry index to levels which, all else equal, signify a global depression of epic proportions...
... and which led South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilder, to report a $3 billion loss in 2014, the recent comments of the CEO of the world's largest container-shipping group, Maersk Line, should put things into perspective, especially for those who say that the Baltic Dry is no longer indicative of anything but massively dry-bulk ship overbuilding and excess supply (some 8 years after the past cyclical peak).
Unfortunately, as Søren Skou, Maerk's CEO, admitted when he warned that global trade growth could slow this year from recent 4% growth ratnes, as Chinese, Brazilian and Russian economies disappoint, the Baltic Dry is still not only relevant and accurate but telling the real story of global growth, or lack thereof.
As the FT reports, container demand rose by about 4% in both 2013 and 2014 and Maersk Line, the Danish group that ships about 15% of the world’s seaborne freight, expects it to increase 3 to 5% this year. Actually make it 3%. Or lower.
“I’m personally more towards the low end of that,” Søren Skou, Maersk Line’s chief executive, told the Financial Times. “Growth from a historical perspective is quite sluggish. It has a huge impact for us as an industry.”
Furthermore, in the ongoing debate whether the collapse in crude prices is due to excess supply or a global contraction, this is what the world's biggest shipper thinks: Mr Skou called the halving of oil prices in the past year “a net positive for container growth” but nonetheless said the opposing forces were potentially greater.
In other words, yes supply isn't helping, but it is the lack of global demand that is pushing equilibrium levels lower, aka global deflation.
“The economies in Europe are still very sluggish. Brazil, Russia and China: those three economies used to drive a lot of growth, and right now we are not really seeing that to the same extent. The only real bright spot is the US, and even the US is good but not great,” he added.
Well, yes, because as even economists finally figured out, it is once again snowing in the winter.
February Chicago PMI plunges to 45.8, its lowest reading since July 2009. Bad weather and West Coast labor strife are cited.
— Joseph A. LaVorgna (@Lavorgnanomics) February 27, 2015
Back to the Maersk CEO whose comments are seen as a good indicator of global trade as it carries goods and products between Asia, Europe, the US, Africa and Latin America: we learn that following what was supposedly the "hottest year on record" it snowed pretty much everywhere too, and what we, and Goldman, both said about the world being in contraction now is validated when looking at trade volumes:
He said that it was always hard to interpret the first quarter because of the Chinese new year but added: “To my mind volumes were sluggish. There is nothing in container volume numbers that suggest that the global economy is just on the verge of starting a new growth trend.”
Why is 4% growth (and certainly lower) important? Because just like 7% is roughly the growth number that China needs to hit every year to avoid social "disturbance", anything below this and suddenly you are talking mass corporate bankrutpcies due to oversupply, and a race to the pricing bottom by companies all of which are massively levered (in fact, as we have shown on numerous occasions, corporate leverage is the highest in history once more):
"Before if you acquired too much capacity you could kind of work your way out of it. In a 4 per cent environment capacity decisions take on a different perspective if you get it wrong. The good old days aren’t coming back,” he added.
And yet the biggest paradox, or perhaps most logical outcome, of all this is that just as margins are about to be squeezed across the entire global supply chain, the healthier companies are now rushing to do what the oil driller are doing, and overproduce, in the process pushing prices even lower in hopes of putting marginal companies, and those which don't have access to cheap and easy funds, out of business. Call it the Amazon effect, only here one is dealing with net debt leverage of 3x, 4x or higher. To wit:
Despite the warning, Maersk is about to order new ships for the first time since 2011 when it bought 20 Triple Es, then the world’s largest vessels capable of transporting the equivalent of 18,000 20-foot containers.
Mr Skou said a decision would be made between April and June with the likelihood that more Triple Es would be ordered, possibly slightly modified to take up to 20,000 containers. Maersk has said it needs the new ships to help it maintain its market leadership up until the end of the decade.
So with global demand lower as a result of slowing trade, and with Maersk about to boost ship supply even more, the result will be an even more aggressive drop in cargo and haulage prices as the deflationary wave hits yet another industry, in the process forcing seaborne transportation to be the latest to succumb to deflation, which for the highly levered sector means even more defaults are imminent now that China no longer is pumping nearly $4 trilion in total new credit every year.