Shipping is a curious industry. It is a marketplace where massive deals concerning the movement of millions of barrels of oil on behemoth ships can be made over a third pint of Peroni at the local pub. Entertaining clients can be just as important as providing them with a great service.
It is a small world, where faces are remembered, grudges are engraved in stone and favors are easily called upon. It is personal and as such it requires you to wear your best “game face” at all times. And every two years, you can give your trusty business mask the ultimate test at the biggest and fanciest shipping masquerade – Posidonia week in sunny Athens.
“Posidonia” has become a special word for shipping people over the years and for good reason. It is a massive event, with two sides to it.
The first is a biennial international shipping exhibition, which started back in 1969 under the patronage of Greek shipowners and has grown dramatically since. This year it attracted 22,000 people with 1,800 exhibitors from 90 countries.
The other side is the fancy late night parties, mostly concentrated in the seaside town of Vouliagmeni, just south of Athens, which is perfect for this as it boasts amazing, sleek venues and locales.
Suited, booted, armed with business cards and aspirin, thousands of shipping professionals from around the globe attend these parties. They throw back a few drinks, shake some hands, slap some backs and, quoting Jay Z, re-introduce themselves. And that is where the game face masks really come into play.
When you navigate through a busy 5-star hotel seaside terrace splashed in the evening sun, you can see the masquerade in all its glory.
Here are some shipbrokers, usually wearing the faces of wolves and foxes. They emit an image of vigor, cunning and confidence, all the things that clients would expect from their brokers. You can usually find them in groups around their principals, like chartering managers from oil majors, commodity trading houses or shipowner companies.
Principals themselves are often comfortable under the masks of bears and lions. Powerful, somewhat calm and, well, important.
However, if you get to know these people, ask them the right questions, you may sometimes see the strain, gritted teeth, nervous eyes and sad smiles beneath the masks.
Some of that is usual stuff. Like a young broker, who has to switch his markets along with changes in the company, losing some accounts that he worked so hard for, unsure if he has enough energy to do it all over again.
Or an owner’s freight trader, who recently missed a big spike in his market, costing his company a few million dollars and under his bear mask hiding the fear that he cannot afford any more mistakes.
Another shipbroker, who after getting a big principal’s job suddenly found that people who wouldn’t shake his hand before are now throwing rose petals at his feet, standing in line to be his new best friend.
Even a charterer, who understands that shipbrokers that treat him like a king, send him cases of wine, get him the best football game seats, still make much more money than he does and would never call him again if he left the industry.
Still, some things were unique at Posidonia 2016. There is a lot of pain and uncertainty in the shipping market. The dry bulk sector in particular is going through probably its worst depression in three decades.
The oversupply of tonnage and limping commodity demand are steadily squeezing the life out of it. So, it is often hard for shipowners involved in this business to stay positive or come up with good reasons for optimism as there are so few to be found.
That’s why, leaning on a bar, in a sea of wolves and foxes, some of them can’t help but wonder if they will have this job in two years’ time when the next Posidonia event comes along.
Yes, there is a view that the situation may get better by then as the investment in tonnage goes down, giving hope to slowing vessel supply, but such opinions have often been wrong before.
Things are not so rosy in tankers either. The crude oil glut that made this market a superstar in 2014 and 2015 is shrinking. At the same time, there is a flotilla of newbuilding vessels due to hit the water in the next two years, boosting supply and thus pressuring freight rates down again.
And all this reflects on Posidonia guests too.
As veterans of the event told me, there were far fewer parties this year where the bar would be open past midnight. Many of the guests, including some top brokers, shipowners and charterers had to share rooms in order to afford staying at the top Vouliagmeni hotels where all the action was.
However, the beauty of shipping is that despite downturns, troubles and bad omens, the show still goes on. Simply because there are so many truly dedicated people who love, live and breathe this business.
That’s why I could see so many of them at the Posidonia parties, taking a step away from a bar to send that charterparty from their smartphone, share a rumor on a fixture they just heard from a client or just check their stem programs or position lists. For them, a game face mask is second skin, even if the makeup may be flaking sometimes.
And so there I was too, on a Thursday night, at the final big party of this over-the-top Posidonia week. With some effort I squeezed through a thick crowd of men in suits and ladies in fancy cocktail dresses.
The gorgeous Balux Café in Vouliagmeni is so packed that it required precise powers of agility not to spill my gin and tonic over someone’s tie or to inadvertently shove a fellow guest into a massive seaside pool.
I finally make it to the other side in an attempt to cool off in the warm Mediterranean breeze. I am out of business cards, my meeting schedule is complete and my plane leaves for London tomorrow.
And as I finally relaxed and took a final sip, I could feel the mask slipping from my own face.
By Alex Younevitch, Managing editor
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)