Streetwise Professor

April 15, 2019

Chartering Practices in LNG Shipping: Deja Vu All Over Again

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:28 pm

One of the strands of thought that combined in my analysis of the evolution of LNG market structure is the idea of temporal and contractual specificities. This traces back to my dissertation, in what was published in a JLE article titled “Contracting Practices in Bulk Shipping Markets.” In that article, I addressed something that is a puzzle from the context of transactions costs economics: since the most common forms of asset specificity (especially site specificity) are not present for ships, why are many bulk carriers subject to arrangements that TCE posits address specificity problems, specifically long term contracts or vertical integration?

My answer was that even with mobile assets the parties could find themselves in small numbers bargaining situations and vulnerable to holdup due to temporal specificities: I need a ship at place X NOW, and maybe there is only 1 ship nearby. Or, I have a ship at place Y, but maybe there is only one viable cargo there. Long term contracts can mitigate this problem, but they create a form of externality. If most ships suitable for a given cargo are tied up under long term contracts, and most shippers have contracted for vessels for an extended period, the number of free ships and cargoes at any time will be small, thereby creating opportunism problems in spot contracting, which leads to more long term contracting. In essence, there is a spot (“voyage chartering”) equilibrium where most ships are traded on a spot basis, or a long term contracting equilibrium where they are not.

The article posits that these problems depend primarily on the specificity of the ship to particular cargoes and the “thickness” of trade routes. Cargoes suitable for standard bulk carriers on heavily-transited routes should sail on a spot charter basis: cargoes requiring specialized ships, and/or those on relatively isolated routes, are likely to require longer term ship chartering arrangements, or vertical integration.

By and large, the cross-sectional and time series variations in contracting practices line up with these predictions. One interesting case study that in the time series is crude oil. Prior to the development of spot markets in crude, most of it was shipped on oil company owned ships, or tankers obtained under long term charters. The development of spot markets for crude reduced the potential for holdup by freeing up cargoes. The ability to buy oil spot to replace a shipment that a specific carrier might have a time-space advantage in lifting reduced the ability of that carrier to extract rents. This flexibility also reduced the ability of shippers to extract rents from carriers. This reduced scope for rent extraction and opportunism in turn reduced the need for contractual protections, and soon after the spot crude market developed, the crude shipping market rapidly transitioned towards short-term chartering arrangements and vertical integration virtually disappeared.

One of the examples of long term contracting in my article was LNG shipping. LNG ships have always been very specialized due to the nature of the cargo: the only thing you can carry on an LNG carrier is LNG, and you can’t use any other kind of ship to carry it. At the time (late-80s/early-90s), most LNG was shipped between a limited set of sources (mainly Algeria) and sinks (mainly in Europe), and sold under long term contracts (20 years or more, for the most part). Consistent with the theory, LNG ships were also under long term contracts or owned by either the seller or buyer of LNG.

An implication of the analysis is that as in the crude market, the development of an LNG spot market should lead to more short term charters for LNG shipping. And lo and behold, this is occurring:

The market for LNG freight trade is relatively new and many companies are reluctant to talk about trading strategies, which are still being developed.

“We see LNG shipping as a commodity on its own,” said Niels Fenzl, Vice President Transportation and Terminals at Uniper, an energy firm which along with Shell, pioneered freight trade within the LNG market.

“We were one of the first companies who started to trade LNG vessels around two or three years ago and we see more companies are considering trading LNG freight now.”
. . . .

In general, traditional shipowners prefer to stick with long-term charters, which help them finance building new vessels, and let the energy firms and trading houses deal in the riskier short-term sublets.
But, given the potential money to be made, there are shipping companies focused almost entirely on servicing the LNG industry’s immediate or near-term requirements.

“The spot market is our priority now given the current rate environment as we don’t want to lock our ships in long-term charters prematurely in the recovery cycle,” said Oystein M. Kalleklev, CEO of Flex LNG, a shipping firm founded in 2006.

“We also do believe spot is becoming a much bigger part of the LNG shipping market as well as the overall LNG trade.”

Theory in action, yet again. The parallels to the experience in crude 40 years ago are striking.

And again as theory (although a different theory than TCE) would predict, the development of a liquid spot market is catalyzing the development of paper derivatives markets for hedging purposes. As one would expect, and has happened historically, this new market is primarily bilateral, opaque, and illiquid. But the potential for a virtuous liquidity cycle is there.

One problem at present is that the liquidity in the spot charter market is insufficient to provide the basis for an index that can be used to settle derivatives:

The difficulty for the index is having enough deals to base a price on, according to Gibson.

Also, many transactions are discussed privately, making it difficult to find out what price was agreed.

“In order for Uniper to consider trading on LNG freight indices we would need to see what mechanisms are offered to make the trade possible. If they could work in principle, we would look into using those,” Fenzl said.

But as the spot LNG market grows, and this leads to more spot ship chartering, indices will become feasible and better, which will spur growth in the derivatives market. And there will be a further positive feedback loop. The ability to manage freight rate risk through derivatives reduces the need to manage them through bilateral term contracts, which will further boost the spot chartering market.

One of the lessons of my old work (done when I was a small child! I swear!) is that there is a substantial coordination game aspect to contracting. If everyone contracts long term, that is self-sustaining: to go against that and try to buy/sell spot makes one vulnerable to opportunism and bargaining problems. Shocks (like the 1970s oil shock that transformed that market, or the variety of developments that led to more spot LNG trading in recent years) that lead to increased spot volumes can undermine that long term contracting equilibrium, especially if those volumes are sufficient to activate the positive feedback loop.

We are seeing that dynamic in LNG, and that dynamic in LNG is creating a similar dynamic in LNG shipping, a la oil in the 1970s. It’s deja vu, all over again.

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  1. Good article prof. Been following your work long time, first time posting.
    I guess the shock in LNG market has been the chinese demand ramp up previous winter and the japanese trying to get destination clauses off new LNG contracts.
    As an aside, what resources would you recommend for learning about commodity trading in general?

    Comment by #N/A! — April 16, 2019 @ 7:19 am

  2. Thanks, #N/A. I appreciate you joining the community.

    There have been a variety of shocks to LNG–Fukushima, the collapse in Egyptian gas production, drought in the Amazon a few years back, plus some new supply sources coming online. The factors you mention have contributed as well. The lapsing of contracts on some legacy projects will probably also bring new volumes to the spot market. The snowball is definitely rolling downhill.

    Commodity trading is a broad topic, but if you are referring to physical trading, you have to start here. 😉

    Comment by cpirrong — April 16, 2019 @ 8:03 am

  3. Fascinating, thanks for taking the time to share.

    I know this is super-basic by comparison, but we see a similar dynamic playing out in the French labour market: Being a sole-trader (such as, say, a plumber) carries the risk of uncertain income and fewer social protections (“temporal specificities”?). So plumbers prefer to work for a company that can offer those things, i.e. builders or infrastructure companies. That means that the big builders (who do indeed build lots of houses and apartments here) are often vertically integrated, with their own plumbers, electricians, plasterers, etc. employed (long term contracts) so that they can be guaranteed access to this labour at reasonable cost – albeit with the risk of carrying excess capacity in a downturn.

    This creates opportunities for those plumbers who do elect to be sole-traders (i.e. spot market?) and oh boy, do they ever present an opportunism and bargaining-problem to the homeowner who has a leaking pipe… Thus pushing some customers (notably business) to engage in long-term maintenance contracts with infrastructure companies.

    Only a small example, but it’s funny how similar pressures act in similar ways at large and small scales 🙂

    Comment by HibernoFrog — April 18, 2019 @ 3:27 am

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