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Small ships seen unlocking rate boon

china-cargo-ship-loadedDry cargo shippers with smaller vessels are shifting to more-risk, more-reward spot markets, eyeing rising demand for sugar and grains — commodities well suited to versatile supramax and handysize ships.

Ship owners generally prefer long-term charters in a weak market. The Baltic Dry Index o-year lows in recent weeks but confidence has been rocked by South Korean dry bulk group Korea Line Corp  filing for bankruptcy protection, highlighting the risk of charter-party defaults.

“Concerns now persist industry-wide, as speculation grows as to whether faults,” Deutsche Bank analyst Justin Yagerman said.

“Continued charterer defaults could bring into question many companies’ above-market charters.” Flooding in Australia, the world’s biggest coal exporter, and weather-srupted coal shipments and dented sentiment for capesize vessels — the giants of seaborne trade routes, typically hauling 150,000 tonne cargoes such as iron ore and coal.

Demand for grains, though, has soared. Wheat prices in the European Union, the world’s No.2 exporter, a year, aided by a Russian export ban due to drought and strong demand from North Africa and Middle East countries.

Global food prices, which hit their highest level on record last month, is a mounting worry for world leaders. Recent catastrophic weather around the globe could put yet more pressure on the cost of food, an issue that has already helped spark protests across the Middle East. Egypt is the world’s biggest wheat importer.

Eagle Bulk Shipping , which operates supramax vessels that typically have around half the capacity of a capesize, lowing them to haul a wider range of cargoes, has placed half its ships in the spot market.

That strategy has been welcomed by investors, and Eagle Bulk Shipping’s price-to-earnings ratio of almost 35 is the highest among its peers, Thomson Reuters StarMine data shows.

“We prefer smaller vessels due to the more favorable supply dynamics, more diverse cargo loading options, record spot fixture activity for the last five months due to a recovering worldwide economy, and the increasing ton-mile in the grain trade,” FBR analyst Doug Garber said in a note.

Genco Shipping and Trading could be another to gain from a near-term rebound in day rates — the cost of renting a ship by the day — as it has roughly half its 2011 days in open or linked-to-index charters.

Conversely, Diana Shipping , DryShips , Navios Maritime Partners LP and others whose fleets are dominated by bigger ships, have placed more vessels in long-term contracts, hoping for steady returns. Diana and DryShips trade at just above 5 and 8 times forward earnings, respectively.

Iron ore and coal are the main drivers of the dry bulk trade, accounting for some two-thirds of demand, but both are highly dependent on China, making the shippers that own bigger vessels more vulnerable to demand swings in the world’s biggest commodity consumer.

Sterne Agee expects Baltic Dry Index spot rates to drop 16 percent this year and 9 percent in 2012, noting these declines will be hardest felt by those owning capesizes, where fleet growth is seen at 17 percent this year and 14 percent in 2012.

For capesizes, the brokerage forecast a 25 percent fall in spot rates this year to below $25,000 a day. Only three years ago, owners of these vessels could charge day rates in excess of $100,000 a day.

Supramax rates are seen dropping about 7 percent to $20,845.

“The largest part of the order book concerns the larger ships, the capes. It is actually the capes that are of a bigger concern to everybody in the industry,” said Michael Bodouroglou, chairman and CEO of Greece’s Paragon Shipping Inc , which has smaller supramax and handymax vessels among its fleet.

“The panamaxes, the supramaxes and in particular the handies I think they will fare a lot better particularly in the second quarter which is the season where the grain trades pick up from South America etc — these are trades which are accommodated in the smaller sizes,” he told Reuters.

The Baltic capesize Index has fallen by two-thirds in the past 3 months to its lowest in more than 2 years. Rates for supramax vessels were faring slightly better, though the Baltic’s supramax index <.BASI> has dropped by a quarter in the last 3 weeks.

“In the next few months, a moderate amount of cargo demand is likely to continue to surface, which is likely to result in supramax and handysize rates remaining at healthy levels,” said Jeffrey Landsberg, managing director of dry bulk consultancy Commodore Research.

“Global grain demand remains strong and will lend support to rates once the South American export season kicks in to full gear.”-Reuters