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Heading into the 2021 holiday shopping season (a.k.a. the strongest part of the year), dry bulk owners could already celebrate a very profitable year with the temporary factors helping the market stay strong expected to continue providing support in 2022.


The dry bulk shipping industry continued in late 2021 to enjoy a bumper year, with average earnings continuing to outshine any profits made in the past couple of years. As is often the case, Capesizes (the largest dry bulk ships) are taking the spotlight, with recent earnings peaking above $50,000 per day. A much more consistent and stable increase is recorded for Handysize and Supramax ships. These saw average earnings rise to $33,087 and $36,832 per day on Sept. 3, 2021. On the same day, a Panamax ship could expect to earn $32,445 per day.


Time charter rates underline the current strength of the market, with charterers currently paying double, if not 2.5 times as much, at the end of August compared with the start of 2021. A one-year time charter on a Capesize ship at the start of the year would have brought owners $16,500 per day. By Aug. 27, the figure was $32,750. Supramax ships have recorded the largest increase, with one-year time charter rates rising by 179.3% since the start of the year to $29,500 per day.

The high freight rates can be partially attributed to the restrictions and problems at ports due to the pandemic, which are tying up ships for longer than usual. On Sept. 1, 2021, 674 dry bulk ships had been waiting in China for two days or more. On the same day in pre-pandemic 2019, only 287 dry bulk ships had been waiting this long (source: Oceanbolt).

As an example of what this means for an individual trade, Oceanbolt data for ships sailing from Port Hedland, Western Australia, to Qingdao, China, shows that the average time for the journey (including waiting time at the load and discharge ports) has risen by 22.7%. In July 2021, it took an average of 33.5 days, while in July 2019 it could be completed in 27.3 days.

As well as congested ports, the recent pick-up in Brazilian iron ore cargoes to China has helped lift the Capesize market. In August, 21 iron ore cargoes were offered on the spot market, compared to 11 in July and the highest weekly number of cargoes since April (source: Commodore). During the first seven months of the year, Brazil exported 198.8m tons of iron ore, a 10.8% increase from 2020 and up 1.0% from 2019. However, it remains 15.0m tons lower than the record-high exports of 213.7m tons that were recorded in the first seven months of 2018.

China has received 65% of Brazilian iron ore exports during the year to date (through September 2021), with volumes on this trade growing by 6.2% over this period. Here, volumes of iron ore have grown compared to 2018, as China has taken a larger share of the total. This is clearly good news for dry bulk demand; the larger the share heading to China, the higher the ton mile due to the long distance.

There has also been strong growth in grain exports from the world’s largest exporters. Grain exports from the biggest exporters grew by 6.3% to a record 162.0m tons in the first six months of 2021. The driver of this growth was the U.S., which has seen its grain exports rise by 39.3%, jumping from 51.3m tons in the first half of 2020 to 71.5m tons. In contrast, exports from Brazil and Argentina have declined. Brazilian exports are down by 0.3% to 61.5m tons, while those from Argentina have fallen by 26.3% to 29.0m tons.

American coarse grains exports have seen the highest growth, up 19.2m tons (+67.1%) in the first seven months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. These additional volumes are the equivalent of an extra 257 Panamax loads (75,000 tons). Just behind in terms of volume growth are U.S. soy bean exports, which had a strong off-season, with exports in the first six months of 2021 amounting to 17.8m tons, a 7.8% increase from last year.

The new U.S. marketing year began in September, and exports of soy beans will have once more increased. Compared to the start of the 2020/2021 marketing year, outstanding sales are much lower, currently standing at 17.8m tons, compared with 29.4m tons on Sept. 1, 2020. While more sales will soon be added to the current level of outstanding sales, it is unlikely that volumes in the 2021/2022 season that is now under way will reach the 60.3m tons of soy beans that were exported in the 2020/2021 season.


Around three-quarters of the dry bulk deliveries expected for 2021 arrived, adding 26.7m DWT of capacity and bringing the total fleet to 934m DWT. BIMCO expected the fleet to grow to 940m DWT over the subsequent months, result in fleet growth of 3% for the calendar year.

Of the 26.7m DWT delivered so far this year, half came from the 61 new Capesize ships, of which 51 have a capacity of 180,000 DWT or more, with 10 of these exceeding 300,000 DWT.

At the other end of the lifecycle, only 4.8m DWT of capacity has been demolished. BIMCO expected demolition by the end of 2021 to reach around 7m DWT, less than half of what was removed from the market in 2020, as the earnings potential for ships has incentivized owners to keep their ships sailing. This once again proves that the strength of the freight markets has a much greater influence on demolition than steel prices.

The summer months saw the dry bulk orderbook grow by 67 ships, as 5.7m DWT was ordered in June through August. All but one will be delivered in 2023 and 2024. The orders include 2.3m and 2.5m DWT of Capesize and Panamax ships, respectively.

Including all orders, the orderbook currently stands at 53.9m DWT, a significant decrease from 71.6m DWT in August 2020 and 97.8m DWT in August 2019, as ships have been delivered faster than new ones are being ordered.


In what was seasonally the strongest part of the year for dry bulk—fall/winter—the market looked promising, and operators had already been recording solid profits for the year.

While countries enforce quarantine and testing requirements, and ports face sudden disruptions due to local and regional outbreaks, the congestion that is draining the market of capacity will continue to support earnings in the dry bulk market. The market is expected to stay strong into 2022 until the factors that are currently beneficial to the market such as congestion and pandemic related delays, spill-over from the red-hot container market, stimulus driven demand and strong growth in the manufacturing sector become less so.

In the longer term, however, the underlying volumes may be less supportive. After strong growth in the first half of 2021, the Chinese government seems keen to clamp down on the steel and other heavy industries to limit emissions. One big question is how strictly these measures will be enforced and whether they will start to constrain economic growth. The two largest dry bulk goods imported by China in terms of volume, iron ore and coal, both fell year-on-year during the first seven months of 2021. Iron ore imports fell by 10.5m tons (-1.5%) and coal imports were down by 30.4m tons (-15.0%). Imports of both of these goods stood at a record high in 2020, and as government restrictions come into play, it seems increasingly unlikely that these levels of imports will be repeated.


Peter Sand had been the chief shipping analyst for more than 10 years when Copenhagen, Denmark-based BIMCO, which is one of the largest international shipping associations for shipowners, published this report in September. That same month, Xeneta announced that Mr. Sand had joined the Oslo, Norway-based market analysis company.


IANA Releases 2021’s Second Quarter Intermodal Quarterly Report

Second Quarter 2021 Intermodal Volume

Intermodal volumes improved for the fourth consecutive quarter, surging 20.4% year-over-year in Q2. This quarter’s double-digit increase was the largest quarterly gain since Q3 of 2010 and was also the sixth quarter with a double-digit growth rate in the history of the data. On a seasonally adjusted basis, total intermodal volume was 1.7% higher in Q2 than the previous quarter. This was anticipated, as inclement winter weather and service shutdowns held back volume in Q1. In Q2, all three market sectors had impressive growth. The domestic market, which consists of trailers and domestic containers, improved by 16.1% year-over-year. Trailer loads jumped 18.5% this quarter, compared to a 14.0% decline in Q2 of 2020. Domestic container traffic rose slightly less than trailers, at a pace of 15.7% year-over-year. However, domestic containers were up against stronger comparisons as this sector only lost 7.0% in Q2 of 2020. International volumes expanded by 24.8% this quarter, after declining 15.4% in Q2 of 2020.

On a regional basis, domestic container moves posted positive growth in all ten IANA regions in Q2. This was a change from the previous quarter when losses were present in both the Midwest and
Mexico. Only the Midwest and Eastern Canada increased less than 10% during Q2, rising 9.3% and 9.8%, respectively. Domestic container volumes were the best in western regions this quarter. The Mountain Central, Northwest and Southwest rose by 33.9%, 19.3% and 18.0%, respectively. In comparison, the eastern regions gained 15.0% year-over-year but were up against an almost 10% loss in the previous quarter. Stronger West Coast growth can be attributed to less trucking competition in the region and an overwhelming amount of imports flowing into West Coast ports and being transloaded. The trailer market sector surged by double-digits for the third quarter in a row during Q2. However, strong growth cannot be attributed to improving conditions but instead to weak comparisons. From Q4 of 2019 to Q2 of 2020, trailer volumes dropped 19.8% when compared to the previous year. As of Q2 2021, trailer moves were still considerably below 2018 and 2019 levels and it is unlikely that they will return to levels seen in prior years throughout the remainder of 2021. On a regional basis, this
market sector expanded in nine of the ten IANA regions. Trailers are currently not present in Eastern Canada, as the trailer lane was closed in early 2018.

Q2 is the second consecutive quarter with double-digit gains in international traffic and the third with positive improvements. Robust performance was bolstered by weak comparisons and soaring U.S. imports. As with last quarter, international volumes advanced in nine of the ten IANA regions. Mexico, the only region to decline in Q2, faltered 3.9%. However, this is one of the smallest regions, representing only 3% of the total international volume. International moves rose at comparative levels of 32.5% in the West and 32.6% in the East. And while growth rates were very close, Western improvement was more impactful as almost 30% of all international volume originates in this region.

Solid intermodal growth is expected over the remainder
of 2021. Strong domestic demand coupled with weak comparisons will bolster future gains. Intermodal volumes are forecasted to advance an estimated 9% during 2021. International traffic is anticipated to lead the annual improvement by rising almost 13% in 2021. Domestic container moves are expected to rise just above 6% over the course of the year, while trailer loads are estimated to gain between 1.5% and 2.5%.

In Q2 of 2021, total IMC loads rose significantly again, up 29.8% from last year. Q2 2020 volumes were down for IMCs, falling 10.0%, as COVID-19 slowed almost everything. Highway loads were up slightly more than intermodal loads, but both surged during the current quarter. Highway loads rose 33.4%, and intermodal loads grew 23.9% during Q2. Also, highway loads were up over 30% for all of the last three months, while intermodal loads slowed a bit as both April and May increased nearly 30%, but June was up only 11.5%. Total revenue rose in Q2, climbing 59.5% from 2020. Most of that surge was in highway activity that jumped 93.4%, reflecting the 45.0% rise in average revenue per highway load. Intermodal load revenue rose 29.2%, just a bit higher than volume because the average revenue per intermodal load was up just 4.3%. The normal growth from Q1 to Q2 happened again in 2021 with total loads up 6.7%, and total revenue increasing 9.7%. Part of that was due to intermodal volume and revenue slowing down significantly in February 2021 because of the weather.

Trucking Industry Outlook

Trucking posted modest quarter-over-quarter volume growth in the second quarter of 2021. Seasonally adjusted tractor-trailer loads were up 1.1% quarter-over-quarter. While dry van loadings had led growth in Q1, it was the only segment to experience a small decline in Q2 of 0.3%. Refrigerated loadings increased 1.4% q/q while all other loadings were up 2.1%, which is a reflection of the industrial sector’s recovery after lagging the consumer sector.

Short-haul tractor-trailer loadings were the only length of haul to decline in Q2, easing 1.3% quarter-over-quarter. Short-haul had also been the only drag in volume in Q1. The strongest quarter-over-quarter growth was in the super long haul which was up 2.2% quarter-over-quarter. Long-haul rose 1.6%, and medium-haul was up 0.9%.

Trucking volume was 14.0% higher in Q2 than in the same 2020 period. Comparisons range from being up 8.2% in short-haul to a 19.4% differential in long-haul. Dry van was 18.8% higher. refrigerated was up 7.8%, and all other segments were 11.6% above Q2 of 2020.

Active truck utilization – the share of seated trucks engaged in hauling freight – stood at 100% in Q1, basically in line with the extreme tightness seen in late 2017 and early 2018.

Hiring in for-hire trucking finally showed some signs of strength at the end of Q2 as payroll employment rose by 6,400 jobs, seasonally adjusted. The sector remains 38,300 jobs, or 2.5%, below February 2020 on a seasonally adjusted basis, although on an unadjusted basis, for-hire employment has essentially recovered to February 2020 levels.

While June’s job growth was the strongest since November, the first half of the year remains relatively weak with the addition of just 7,600 jobs, seasonally adjusted. By comparison, for-hire trucking in Q4 of 2020 had added nearly 29,000 jobs – the most in any three-month period in 25 years.

It is unclear how much loosening, if any, trucking has seen in the headwinds for adding drivers. Although the licensing of new drivers presumably has improved since the heights of the pandemic, hard data is lacking.

Net orders for Class 8 trucks are finally coming back down to normal levels. After orders of 40,000 or more in each month of Q1, they decreased to nearly 35,000 in April and moderated further to the mid-20,000s in April and June. However, one clear factor in the decline is that order boards for 2021 have been filled and manufacturers had not yet opened the boards for 2022.

Truck freight has not shown any signs of weakness, though it is showing indications that growth might have peaked. Total spot market volume by the end of June was off the peak in May, although the flatbed sector was mostly responsible. Dry van and refrigerated volumes through June were holding at near-record levels if the year’s two big spikes – February weather and the International Roadcheck inspection event in May – are excluded. Moreover, spot rates might also have peaked, but they have not moderated significantly yet.

Freight volumes are expected to slow but experience steady q/q growth into 2022. For 2021 as a whole, truck loadings are forecasted to be 7% higher than 2020 levels.

Freight demand pressures are becoming more complicated. Automotive sales are starting to slide based on low production due to the semiconductor shortage. This bottleneck could keep demand high for an extended period. The large infusions of consumer stimulus that the economy saw in January and March appear to be over but advance payments of a child tax credit started in July and run through December could extent consumer spending. On the other hand, a $300-a-week supplement in unemployment payments to around 14 million Americans has already ended in nearly half of U.S. states and probably will not be renewed nationwide beyond early September.

The sunset of generous unemployment benefits could have some near-term implications for trucking capacity as well if it turns out that those benefits have been a constraint on drivers returning to work. Active truck utilization is forecasted at 100% through Q3 and an easing to only about 99% in Q4. However, this forecast does not assume a significant increase in driver employment as generous unemployment benefits end. Therefore, the forecast risk would seem to be mostly on an easing of active utilization rather than a hardening of it.

Another issue that bears watching is the ongoing surge in small new trucking companies since the middle of 2020. However, if the spot market begins to cool, many of these mostly one-truck operations might rush back to the security of employment with larger carriers.

Intermodal remains highly competitive with trucking due to very high rates and tight driver supply. This situation will likely continue at least into early 2022, however, could be affected by a quicker stabilization in the trucking market, as reflected by a peak in truck spot metrics.