US volumes help boost container rates

But boxship market mired in overcapacity; Stifel cuts Costamare estimates.

Container rates got a boost after US container ports saw better-than-expected volumes in December thanks to inventory restocking after the holidays.

But Stifel analyst Ben Nolan cautions a full recovery is not yet in the offing.

As a result of the weakness, he cut earnings estimates by some 20% for Costamare this year and next.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach saw inbound loaded container volumes for December rise 8% from year-ago levels to 665,816 teu. Outbound loaded shipments were also strong, rising 12% last month to 287,833 teu.

Transpacific container rates have strengthened as a result. Shanghai-to-US West Coast rates surged to $2,106 per teu at the end of December, up 149% from rates in April, according to Stifel.

Nolan says the containership market "has passed through its weakest point with some moderate improvement" expected by the last half of 2017. However, "a full blown market recovery is still years away," he adds.

One-year time charter rates across panamax-size boxships remain stuck around $4,250 per day. Larger 9,000-teu vessels saw time-charter rates fall from $30,000 per day to $23,000 per day.

The backdrop of lower rates prompted Nolan to lower earnings outlooks for Costamare for this year and next. He knocked down the company's earnings outlook 20% to $1.17 per share this year, and 22% to $1.01 per share for 2018.

Seaspan's earnings outlook improved to $0.75 per share this year from an earlier $0.73 per share estimate. But Nolan trimmed the 2018 estimate to $1.40 per share from $1.41 per share.

"Ship lessors are consistently facing contract rollover into a terrible pricing environment, which has driven down earnings and cash flows and is likely to continue in 2017," Nolan said.

Also today, US shipbroker Clarksons said sector fundamentals did appear a little more positive in 2016.

Global container volumes expanded 3% last year to 181 million teu. It noted volumes on the Far East-Europe trade returned to positive growth. Rates to Europe from Shanghai were up 61% over that period to end at $2,210 per teu.

But it added that 7% of the total fleet remains idle, despite a year of massive scrapping.

Clarksons says the industry took important steps to improve conditions through scrapping and alliances, but a "further recalibration still appears necessary to generate better markets."