ITCM Shipbrokers develop innovations to create a unique team spirit despite the pandemic.
One of the main tasks of a successful & capable shipbroker is to guide more precisely his clients for the appropriate
and right timing they want to invest either on the second hand market or the newbuilding sector.
Despite the pandemic, ITCM Shipbrokers has achieved to create, to enhance the standards of its services based on the blend of its people and innovative meeting and valuation tools.
Spyros Alexandropoulos, Managing Director of ITCM Shipbrokers, explains the functionality and advantages of the company’s software tools and platforms and describes the company’s strategy towards the latest market development such as IMO GHG abatement policy and remote technological advancements.
- Describe the challenges and adversities that our company has coped with due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Did we develop further your digital infrastructure to meet our client's needs?
The outbreak of Covid-19 - apart from the obvious consequences of the human cost and the slow down of the economy - has changed our way of working.
Governmental measures imposed on corporations to introduce the concept of remote working for the first time ever in such a scale. As a result, we, at ITCM, had to comply with the ongoing directives and to find an efficient and "rewarding" way to keep up our daily routine on a remote basis.
For some companies, "remote working" has just been an alternation to the members’ weekly covered miles since not much had to change in order to adapt accordingly. For a shipbroking office of our efficiency and calibre - whose culture is about teamwork, collaboration, sharing/filtering information and team brainstorming - this was not an easy transition.
Not only we had to make use of software and other features remotely that would allow full access to ITCM database for our team, but - most important - we had to find a way to replicate the unique team spirit environment that makes us efficient and unique. For that purpose, we created virtual chat places and e-meeting rooms where we still pass a great part of our day.
What is more, soon enough within the above described environment, we figured out that although we replicate some aspects of our normal way of conduct and working, to share important information via our chatrooms could be easily "blended" with other exchanges, lose the row of communicated and eventually endanger a missing out on a potential deal.
To tackle this, we opted to use our mail manager/database provider’s built-in chatting platform which allowed us to link companies, people and most importantly vessels to the messages we exchanged. In this way we managed to stay on top of our dealings at all times and to maintain our usual efficiency and accuracy towards our clients.
- Describe the commercial advantages of our shipbroking services that can offer to a shipowner added value (data analytics, accurate advice etc.). Have we developed innovations that our competitors were not able to match?
It is widely accepted that individuals are the competitive advantage of any shipbroking firm and its individuals determine their level of success . We, at ITCM have taken a further step by accepting that the "blend" of our people may enhance the standards of service we provide. A closer look at the CVs of our team may prove the wide range of the academic and professional backgrounds of our personnel. In this respect, we are in a strong position to provide insight and "up-to-date" analysis to various aspects within the shipping industry spectrum.
What is more, we have concluded that along with the rapid technological progress which enables information to be spread much faster than in the past, there is a "latent defect" which has to do with the lack of accuracy/filtering of the information. "Fake news" is a plaque that affects not only our everyday lives but also shipping. Nowadays, people have the ability to spread information in so many ways and in such a quantity that the filtering is either difficult or "time-consuming".
Ιn order to deal with it, we have introduced an " inhouse rule" that enable us to cross-check any external information and to always question the source and the reason of a specific piece of intelligence. In this respect, we make sure that no false information will go through ITCM to our clients. Our clients are rest assured that whatever they receive or hear from/through us has been cross-checked and confirmed by various and reliable sources.
Last but not least, we should mention one more innovative point that we are relying and has to do with our valuation tools. Nowadays, shipping operates in such a volatile and challenging environment where a vessel’s price is not only affected by the industry’s internal fundamentals but also from various other factors such as world or local economy, the weather, congestions and so on. However, any economist or academic that has tried to evaluate vessels’ prices by inputting externalities to their equations has failed. We did something simpler that shall always apply to the SnP market. We benchmark the last done deal and the market' s momentum. Having tested this tool for some years now, it seems that our valuations on the deals that will be done is so accurate that in most cases, we are usually spot on. This enables us to guide more precisely our clients for the actual price of any Vessel they want to invest in and/or provide them the today's or potential valuation of their managed vessel.
- What would we recommend our customers that go for newbuildings in view of the new IMO environmental targets of 2030 and onwards?
IMO’s strategy towards lowering the shipping industry’s total Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) by 50% by the year 2050 involves two interim goals to be achieved prior to that regarding carbon emissions. The first one is to reduce carbon emissions by 40% until 2030 and by 70% by 2050 comparing to 2008 levels. In order to achieve the 2050 goal on carbon emissions, the industry needs to develop carbon neutral fuels. However, in order to achieve the 2030 goal, shipping can also rely to alternative fuels and propulsion methods.
LNG fuel is indeed an intermediate measure that can assist vessels to be compliant with the IMO 2030 goals and is regarded as the most feasible solution at the moment. A substantial amount of newbulding orders are now relying to Dual Fuel engines which means that the vessel can consume both HFO/VLSFO and LNG as well.
It seems that ordering a dual fuel vessel now, will enable the shipowner to make it through 2030 without facing any compliance issues and until regulations change again towards IMO 2050 goals, this particular unit would have well reached the end of its commercial life.
On the other hand, until now, the vast majority of dual fueled vessels newbulding orders are for the largest units of each sector such as Newcastlemax on the dry bulk and Suezmax and VLCC on the crude carriers side. It is yet to be answered how will the newly ordered non- Dual Fueled vessels will become compliant with the IMO 2030 regulations during their 8th or 9th year of their sailing lives.
In that respect, the recommendation to a client as to whether they should opt for newbuldings will mostly rely on the type and size of vessels they are interested in. In case of large tankers, we would recommend that if the other aspects such as steel prices, slots’ availability and market conditions are in favor of such an investment, a newbuilding order for a dual fueled vessel would be a reasonable move.
For our dry bulk owners/ clients, at this point of time we would recommend to rely on the second hand market until there is a resolution on the optimal technologies, fuel availabilities and we have a more straightforward picture to the backbone of the forthcoming regulations.
- In view of the latest technological challenges of autonomous ships, artificial intelligence and blockchain do you feel confident for the future of our business? Is possible those developments to limit the human factor in the shipbroking activities?
It has been nearly a decade now, during which, technology has made notable steps towards the shipping industry in general. Besides the popular ongoing discussions around autonomous ships and the general way that artificial intelligence will help the industry to achieve further efficiency, stricter safety standards and lower the emission footprint, there are technologies that are already used and when introduced brought in radical changes compared to how things used to work.
One of the most significant examples is how blockchain technologies helped to change the way that commercial documents are being exchanged. Bills of Lading, invoices and other important piece of data are now seamlessly exchanged within a paper-free environment which does not only eliminates the paper usage but also allows to avoid discrepancies while limits down the room for dubious and illegal exchanges.
Narrowing down the study to the shipbroking activities, it is important to ascertain the two major clusters of the profession. On the one hand there are the chartering shipbrokers who are assisting shipowners and charterers to match their expectations and requirements on employing vessels and on the other hand there are ship sale and purchase brokers who act as the intermediaries when a vessel is due to change ownership.
During the last years, we are witnessing several attempts of technological start-ups which are creating platforms to enable shipowners and charterers to charter vessels without the presence of a shipbroker. In theory, there is a valid argument around the purpose of such initiatives but until this moment, there is no company of this kind that can be described as successful. However, there are industry players, mostly from the charterers’ side who are in favor of such platforms. Most of them are charterers involved into the dry bulk trades and specifically on the so called ‘’vanilla’’ trades which have to do with iron ore cargoes carried by Capesize vessels. Actually, some years ago, the first on-line charter was fixed to carry an Anglo-American cargo. As a matter of fact, though, these vanilla trades, although concerning high volume shipments only consist a small fraction of the dry bulk spectrum and is not enough to empower such initiatives only by itself.
On the ship sale and purchase side and to the best of our knowledge there is not any remarkable effort aiming to replace the role of the shipbrokers. This is mostly because the shipbroker is not adding value to their customers by providing them the better products but the information attached to/related to it(the product). That being said, it still seems hard to replace an intangible source of added value with a platform which will propose and market vessels the "strengths" of which are more or less already familiar to the customers.
Besides the direct replacement of the shipbroking profession, there are technological initiatives with the purpose to simplify and bring initiative to the shipbroker himself. There are now tools which assist practitioners to have much faster source to the information, keep records and accurately inform their clients about market trends, movements and history. These initiatives although helpful and widely used from the shipbroking communities are not coming without collateral losses.
People who have been employed by shipbroking firms acting as analysts or used to be involved into the clerical side of the business are now starting to become "less useful" . However, this is something that happens not only to shipbroking or shipping industry in general but to any industry where the recent technological achievements are in use.
To conclude with, as long as technology will continue to progress and to harmonize with the various industries, it is obvious that it will also become more handy to shipbroking as well. It is yet unknown whether the usual shipbroker will become extinct or not but a prudent shipbroker has to remain on top of everything that technology can provide/assist thus to be able to make use of same on an efficient and productive manner.
- Dry Bulk: What are the forces behind the stimulus recovery of the dry bulk market?
It has so far been a very strong start to 2021 for the bulkcarrier sector, with earnings surging amid a wave of optimism after a fairly challenging 2020 and despite a slight correction early in the month earnings reached the best monthly average since June 2010. This strength reflected a reasonable rebound to the 2020 when the Covid-19 hit the global economy, the longer average hauls pertaining the Chinese Coal imports and was also assisted by an increase of the congestion at ports comparing to previous years.
The aforementioned rebound was mostly led by the Chinese rise of imports, with the additional support from a 3.6tn yuan stimulus package thus the firm expansion in China’s seaborne imports saw the country’s share of global imports rise from 22% in 2019 to 25%
One of the major factors that drove the dry bulk market recovery during the 1st half of 2021 is the grain trade which was enhanced by the US-China trade following the ‘Phase I’ trade deal, and strong Chinese demand as a result of high crush margins and the easing impacts of the African Swine Fever outbreaks in the country’s pig herds. Chinese soyabeans imports already grew around 20% y-o-y for Q1 2021 with the majority of quantities shipped from US. Meanwhile, wheat and coarse grain imports also surged last year, growing by 186% and 110% respectively on the back of strong poultry feed demand and a wider gap between domestic and imported prices. In Q1, Chinese wheat and coarse grain imports rose by 160% and 284% y-o-y respectively, with total grain imports up by a remarkable 63% y-o-y at 35mt.
While the US have increased the grain exports to China, there are also other countries who have risen the stakes as well. Ukraine, which is a major maize producer, saw its exports to rise during the previous period as well as Russia, France and Argentina. On the opposite, the draughts in Australia dropped its exports and as a result the average haul for Chinese grain imports has risen as well as freight.
Regarding Iron Ore, the recovery in steel production in China has been driven by governmental stimulus measures focused on a recovery in industrial production and exports and construction, driving demand for steel and consequently iron ore. Chinese demand for steel is expected to remain robust in 2021 as steel intensive industries such as construction and manufacturing are set to continue growing. What is more, Australia continues to be China’s major iron ore provider and so far, there are no indications that the Australia – China coal trade war will affect the iron ore shipments.
Containers: The global container shipping industry experiences a record high demanding activity.
How long will the growth be sustainable?
The container shipping industry is enjoying a substantially favorable market which started to show from the q4 of 2020. Unexpressed demand, restocking and urgence of medical supply trade are the main driving factors of this performance which has led to an increase on the newbuilding activity accordingly. Until March, over 166 vessels of 1.8m TEU and 7.4m CGT were contracted (following 65 orders of 0.75m TEU in Q4 2020). Ships in the ‘neo-Panamax’ range have made up the majority, with 86 orders of 1.3m TEU for boxships of 13-16,000 TEU.
One other major contributing factor to the wide range of increase on the fright market is the port congestion. It is not only the disruption within the port facilities which are now operating slower due to various reasons frequently linked with Covid-19 protection measures but also due to the slower processing of the box whether these are full or empty in the mainland of several countries. “Container demand”, particularly for shipments into major importers, has recovered more swiftly than disruption to the “domestic economies” in those regions has eased while at the same time the average duration of a USWC port call for a 12,000+ TEU unit (from arrival at anchorage until departure) doubled y-o-y to >8 days in Feb.
This upward trend is expected to continue to pertain even more because boxships are now more and more getting committed to long charters with the average period being over 20 months. This factor will keep up the pace while a slight ease is expected due to the softening of the empty boxes handling at the ports.
Tankers: How do we see the future of the seaborne crude oil tanker sector? Explain the impact of geopolitics, the behavior of OPEC and US shale on the tanker market?
The crude oil tanker sector is the cluster of the shipping industry that is more affected from geopolitics. If we try to take a snapshot of the previous year, we will see that sanctions, production cut and increases and other political developments played the most important factor to the vessel’s earnings.
During the first half of 2021, the crude oil tanker market has faced a historic downward tendency on the vessels’ earnings side which were also on negative figures in many instances. During these months, analysts are arguing that they do not see how the market will return to viable levels until the US pipeline issue stroke and made the charter rates of MR tankers located in the Atlantic to skyrocket. A similar occasion was the one witnessed last year with the US sanctions to Iran where more than 300 VLCC tankers were ruled out of market. Sport rates hit historical highs and at the same time, due to the Covid-19 outbreak the demand for fuel was very limited around the globe. Thus, deposits were getting full and vessels started being used as floating storages leading a market contango. The units which were left available to trade were limited and as a result the market also shifted to smaller sizes in order to fulfill demand and generally enjoyed a historic uptrend for several months.
A contradictory to the market conditions factor Is the level of the newbuilding and secondhand markets which can be described as healthy even though the actual earnings of the vessels are limited. Shipowners believe that this slowdown is temporary and are trying to place themselves into a better position before the correction by increasing their capacity and exposure.
The only thing that is certain is that the crude oil market is the less dependent on the internal fundamentals such as tonnage supply, age, position, newbuilding and scrapping levels. As a marker, it has its own opponents such as renewable energy and LNG which in many occasions can also alter the equilibrium on the sea/land transportation since a great deal of such sources of energy are not transported on vessels.
- In a shipping market of continuous volatility what is our company’s business model for achieving steady growth and sustained profitability? Describe the future plans of our company.
As a matter of fact, the evolvement of the shipping market and its volatility make it a tough challenge for practitioners to efficiently follow and stay on top of developments. We, at ITCM are consistently following our moto ‘’ Large enough to handle, small enough to care’’. We are a boutique company which invests heavily on relationships both with our clients but also with fellow brokers in order to maintain a firm and accurate line of information, and developments of the market.
We have understood that since the volume of information nowadays is abundant, the actual value lies on the accuracy of information provided and thus we are focusing on to develop the internal mechanisms that will allow us to properly filter our information and distribute same on time.
Our intention is to keep up "the recipe" that made us successful all these years while we keep updating our procedures in line with today's and future challenges. Hard work, Integrity, honesty and the placing ourselves side by side and not across our clients are the keys that will keep us going on for the years to come.