Doomsday predictions surrounding the IMO 2020 sulfur fuel cap and the impact on container lines are unfounded, according to Alphaliner chief analyst Tan Hua Joo.
Speaking Tuesday at the TOC Asia Container Supply Chain Conference in Singapore, Tan dispelled claims of market chaos and carrier bankruptcies, although he admitted, “This is the most important subject for the industry in the coming months.
“But there’s been some pretty catastrophic predictions being made, and while there’s a lot of uncertainty on IMO 2020, I don’t think these dire predictions are entirely justified,” Tan said.
He said, for example, estimates of the new regulation costing up to $50 billion were overblown and instead placed the cost at around $10 billion on an annualized basis, adding that this would be the “top end and the likely cost will be much lower.”
“Having said that, a $10 billion bill is still an extremely large one for the industry to bare and it’s suddenly the costliest IMO rule that’s ever been attempted,” Tan said.
The biggest point of uncertainty remains the cost spread between the new low-sulfur fuel oil (LFSO) and the current heavy fuel oil (HFO). Tan pointed out the current spread between HFO and the 0.1 percent sulfur fuel required for SECA — which is significantly less than the 0.5 percent global cap from IMO 2020 — is around $200.
“And the cost of producing 0.5 percent LFSO is very likely much lower than for the 0.1 percent spread,” he said, cautioning that initially it could be higher since it will take time for the new fuel’s supply and demand dynamics to level out. “Any teething problems will be resolved relatively quickly and certainly within 12 months, and I expect the spread to become significantly below $200.”
Tan added that three years ago HFO costs were at $600 per tonne compared with the current $400 per tonne, meaning there is room for the industry to absorb the extra costs on the horizon.
Tan said, “Right now there’s a real sense of urgency from shipowners to take action and scrubber orders are constantly increasing. Based on the data we’ve collected, more than 20 percent of global container capacity will be on ships with scrubbers installed by the end of 2020 — which is much higher than initial predictions of 5 to 10 percent.”
One potential danger of the increased scrubber uptake is how carriers will react if the fuel cost spread is higher than expected.
“If the spread turns out to be higher than I predicted, then those who do have scrubbers will have a significant cost advantage. How they’ll use this advantage to price and gain market share remains to be seen,” he said.
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“If you do remove this as a tool for the shipping lines to use, are you prepared to accept higher freight rates as a consequence?” asked analyst Tan Hua Joo.
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