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Multi-Purpose Cargo Ships And Their Future Markets

The multi-purpose fleet of single and 'tweendeck general cargo ships is surprisingly large — numbering nearly 17,000 vessels totaling about 80 million dwt — and is estimated to carry more than 400 million tons of cargo each year. In comparison, the cellular containership fleet equals 1,800 vessels and 42 million dwt, and probably moves about 300 million tons of cargo annually. But while such figures reveal that classic ship designs such as the SD-14 and the Freedom still perform a major role in world shipping markets, they cannot disguise the fact that the multi-deck fleet has been reduced by 16 million dwt (26 percent) in the last 10 years, while the annual cargo volume carried by the total MPP fleet has contracted by 50 - 75 million tons.

As a consequence, the MPP fleet has a unique market profile and a unique future. While most sectors of the world fleet are faced with the common problem of over-tonnaging despite an expanding global cargo base, MPP operators live with the paradoxical possibility of an under-tonnaged market, even though demand for such ships is clearly in long-term decline.

A new report from Drewry entitled "Multi-Purpose Cargo Ships and Their Future Markets" examines this complex sector of the dry cargo market, and looks in detail at the demand and supply side prospects of what has become a prematurely neglected sector of the world fleet.

Displaying a versatility entirely in keeping with their name, multi-purpose ships participate right across the dry cargo spectrum, from containerized liner traffic through project, heavy-lift and breakbulk general cargo, to the major and minor bulks, where commodities such as steel, agribulks and fertilizers move in 5 - 10,000-ton parcels, or even in larger, full ship-load quantities.

This flexibility has fallen out of favor, with a shift towards specialist vessels. As a consequence, the MPP's liner and tramping roles became the province of larger, more sophisticated, and more productive cellular containerships and handy bulk carriers, respectively. With newbuilding activity having been largely restricted to small volumes of container- friendly single-deckers for many years, and regular scrapping of elderly general cargo ships, there has been little or no supply side pressure on the MPP fleet.

Instead, operators have been confronted with shrinking demand. The global general cargo market itself has expanded quite strongly since the worldwide economic recovery post-1986, but the new volumes have been almost entirely composed of unitized traffic, which is moving in ever-increasing volumes on cellular containerships.

Furthermore, the traditional breakbulk cargo carried by MPPs has continued its modal transfer into containers, eroding the cargo volumes being carried on general cargo vessels. In the first half of the 1990s, the rate of shift to containers in the developing regions of South America, south/southeast Asia and parts of Africa has accelerated, and this is now hastening the reduction of the MPP fleet's liner cargo pool.

Nevertheless, with a significant core market of bulk, breakbulk, semi-liner ,and even some container cargoes which continue to demand low cost, basic shipping services, and trip and period rates on MPP tonnage have generally held up well.

For instance, China, somewhat exceptionally, has seen a sustained increase in demand for MPP vessels to serve the country's rapidly expanding international trade. Such developments have offered those owners prepared to persevere in this declining sector opportunities for positive, albeit modest, returns on low capital/low risk investments in aging secondhand ships.

However, the age profile of the fleet means that suitable S&P candidates will inevitably become increasingly rare, and in a market which functions on low operating and capital costs, as well as low rates, the economics associated with newbuilding options (other than in top of the range semi-containerships) appear unsustainable.

As a market sector, the MPP fleet does not enjoy a particularly good reputation for its R&M quality, and the high average age of the fleet means that it is probably too late for any attempt to recover lost ground in this respect. Many cargo interests, especially in the bulk and neo-bulk commodity sectors, are alive to the prospect of finding themselves short on suitable MPP tonnage, but with the fleet continuing to shrink, they will be forced to turn to the higher alternative cost of handy bulk carriers or containers in order to retain long term access to their markets. However, not all cargoes are particularly suitable for either mode of shipment, and not all commodities will be able to absorb the higher freight costs which will accompany the change. There will thus be a residual traffic volume which will continue to depend on MPP vessels.

The future development of the market indicates that the best hedge against such a scenario will be found in those MPP vessels with good unitized capability. These ships should form the basis of a long term strategy against possible redundancy in a modally changing market, but also constitute a much higher capital and operational investment. In contrast, the traditional 'tweendecker will continue to offer low cost, but strictly short term, tactical opportunities in the secondhand market, in which financial success will be heavily influenced by the ability of owners to extract a few extra trading years from the aging fleet. The preceding was excerpted from the new report from Drewry Shipping Consultants, entitled "Multi-Purpose Cargo Ships and Their Future Markets: Will the MPP be squeezed into extinction?"

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