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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The UK has just designated the Persian Gulf as a level 3 risk for its ships – the highest level possible threat for British vessel traffic – as the confrontation between Iran with the US and its allies escalated. The strategically-important bit of water - and in particular the narrow Strait of Hormuz – is boiling over, and it seems as if full-blown military confrontation is inevitable.
The risk assessment comes as the British warship HMS Montrose had to escort the BP oil tanker British Heritage out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean from being blocked by Iranian vessels. The risk is particularly acute as Iran is spoiling for a fight after the Royal Marines seized the Iranian crude supertanker Grace-1 in Gibraltar on suspicions that it was violating sanctions by sending crude to war-torn Syria. Tensions over the Gibraltar seizure kept the British Heritage tanker in ‘safe’ Saudi Arabian waters for almost a week after making a U-turn from the Basrah oil terminal in Iraq on fears of Iranian reprisals, until the HMW Montrose came to its rescue. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have warned of further ‘reciprocation’ even as it denied the British Heritage incident ever occurred.
This is just the latest in a series of events around Iran that is rattling the oil world. Since the waivers on exports of Iranian crude by the USA expired in early May, there were four sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the region and two additional attacks in June, all near the major bunkering hub of Fujairah. Increased US military presence resulted in Iran downing an American drone, which almost led to a full-blown conflict were it not for a last-minute U-turn by President Donald Trump. Reports suggest that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have moved military equipment to its southern coast surrounding the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is 39km at its narrowest. Up to a third of all seaborne petroleum trade passes through this chokepoint and while Iran would most likely overrun by US-led forces eventually if war breaks out, it could cause a major amount of damage in a little amount of time.
The risk has already driven up oil prices. While a risk premium has already been applied to current oil prices, some analysts are suggesting that further major spikes in crude oil prices could be incoming if Iran manages to close the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time. While international crude oil stocks will buffer any short-term impediment, if the Strait is closed for more than two weeks, crude oil prices could jump above US$100/b. If the Strait is closed for an extended period of time – and if the world has run down on its spare crude capacity – then prices could jump as high as US$325/b, according to a study conducted by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre in Riyadh. This hasn’t happened yet, but the impact is already being felt beyond crude prices: insurance premiums for ships sailing to and fro the Persian Gulf rose tenfold in June, while the insurance-advice group Joint War Committee has designated the waters as a ‘Listed Area’, the highest risk classification on the scale. VLCC rates for trips in the Persian Gulf have also slipped, with traders cagey about sending ships into the potential conflict zone.
This will continue, as there is no end-game in sight for the Iranian issue. With the USA vague on what its eventual goals are and Iran in an aggressive mood at perceived injustice, the situation could explode in war or stay on steady heat for a longer while. Either way, this will have a major impact on the global crude markets. The boiling point has not been reached yet, but the waters of the Strait of Hormuz are certainly simmering.
The Strait of Hormuz:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 July 2019 – Brent: US$64/b; WTI: US$57/b
Headlines of the week
Utility-scale battery storage units (units of one megawatt (MW) or greater power capacity) are a newer electric power resource, and their use has been growing in recent years. Operating utility-scale battery storage power capacity has more than quadrupled from the end of 2014 (214 MW) through March 2019 (899 MW). Assuming currently planned additions are completed and no current operating capacity is retired, utility-scale battery storage power capacity could exceed 2,500 MW by 2023.
EIA's Annual Electric Generator Report (Form EIA-860) collects data on the status of existing utility-scale battery storage units in the United States, along with proposed utility-scale battery storage projects scheduled for initial commercial operation within the next five years. The monthly version of this survey, the Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory (Form EIA-860M), collects the updated status of any projects scheduled to come online within the next 12 months.
Growth in utility-scale battery installations is the result of supportive state-level energy storage policies and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 841 that directs power system operators to allow utility-scale battery systems to engage in their wholesale energy, capacity, and ancillary services markets. In addition, pairing utility-scale battery storage with intermittent renewable resources, such as wind and solar, has become increasingly competitive compared with traditional generation options.
The two largest operating utility-scale battery storage sites in the United States as of March 2019 provide 40 MW of power capacity each: the Golden Valley Electric Association’s battery energy storage system in Alaska and the Vista Energy storage system in California. In the United States, 16 operating battery storage sites have an installed power capacity of 20 MW or greater. Of the 899 MW of installed operating battery storage reported by states as of March 2019, California, Illinois, and Texas account for a little less than half of that storage capacity.
In the first quarter of 2019, 60 MW of utility-scale battery storage power capacity came online, and an additional 108 MW of installed capacity will likely become operational by the end of the year. Of these planned 2019 installations, the largest is the Top Gun Energy Storage facility in California with 30 MW of installed capacity.
As of March 2019, the total utility-scale battery storage power capacity planned to come online through 2023 is 1,623 MW. If these planned facilities come online as scheduled, total U.S. utility-scale battery storage power capacity would nearly triple by the end of 2023. Additional capacity beyond what has already been reported may also be added as future operational dates approach.
Of all planned battery storage projects reported on Form EIA-860M, the largest two sites account for 725 MW and are planned to start commercial operation in 2021. The largest of these planned sites is the Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, Florida. With a capacity of 409 MW, this project will be the largest solar-powered battery system in the world and will store energy from a nearby Florida Power and Light solar plant in Manatee County.
The second-largest planned utility-scale battery storage facility is the Helix Ravenswood facility located in Queens, New York. The site is planned to be developed in three stages and will have a total capacity of 316 MW.