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The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) is a number (in USD) issued daily by the London-based Baltic Exchange. Not restricted to Baltic Sea countries, the index provides "an assessment of the price of moving the major raw materials by sea. Taking in 23 shipping routes measured on a timecharter basis, the index covers Handysize, Supramax, Panamax, and Capesize dry bulk carriers carrying a range of commodities including coal, iron ore and grain."
In 1744, the Virginia and Maryland coffee house in Threadneedle Street, London, changed its name to Virginia and Baltick, to more accurately describe the business interests of the merchants who gathered there. Today's Baltic Exchange has its roots in a committee of merchants formed in 1823 to regulate trading and formalize the exchange of securities on the premises, which by then had moved to the Antwerp Tavern.
Every working day, a panel of international shipbrokers submits their view of current freight cost on various routes to the Baltic Exchange. The routes are meant to be representative, i.e. large enough in volume to matter for the overall market.
These rate assessments are then weighted together to create both the overall BDI and the size specific Supramax, Panamax, and Capesize indices. The BDI factors in the four different sizes of oceangoing dry bulk transport vessels:
|Ship Classification||Dead Weight Tons||% of World Fleet||% of Dry Bulk Traffic|
|Supramax||45,000-59,000||37%||18% w/ Handysize|
|Handysize||15,000-35,000||34%||18% w/ Supramax|
The BDI contains route assessments based only on time-charter hire rates "USD paid per day per Metric Ton". Fuel (="Bunkers") is the largest voyage dependent cost and moves with the crude oil price. In periods where bunker costs fluctuate significantly, there BDI will therefore move more than the shipowners' realised earnings.
The index can be accessed on a subscription basis directly from the Baltic Exchange as well as from major financial information and news services such as Macrobond Financial, Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg L.P..
Most directly, the index measures the demand for shipping capacity versus the supply of dry bulk carriers. The demand for shipping varies with the amount of cargo that is being traded or moved in various markets (supply and demand).
The supply of cargo ships is generally both tight and inelastic—it takes two years to build a new ship, and a ship's fixed costs are too expensive to take out of circulation the way airlines park unneeded jets in deserts. So, marginal increases in demand can push the index higher quickly, and marginal demand decreases can cause the index to fall rapidly. e.g. "if you have 100 ships competing for 99 cargoes, rates go down, whereas if you've 99 ships competing for 100 cargoes, rates go up. In other words, small fleet changes and logistical matters can crash rates..." The index indirectly measures global supply and demand for the commodities shipped aboard dry bulk carriers, such as building materials, coal, metallic ores, and grains.
Because dry bulk primarily consists of materials that function as raw material inputs to the production of intermediate or finished goods, such as concrete, electricity, steel, and food; the index is also seen as an efficient economic indicator of future economic growth and production. The BDI is termed a leading economic indicator because it predicts future economic activity.
Another index, the HARPEX, focuses on containers freight. It provides an insight on the transport of a much wider base of commercial goods than commodities alone. HARPEX is regarded as a Current-Activity Indicator, because it measures and charts the changes in freight rates for 'container ships.' Container ships typically carry a wide variety of finished goods from a multitude of sellers. These are factory output goods headed for retail markets, at the other end of the supply chain.
Other leading economic indicators—which serve as the foundation of important political and economic decisions—are often measured to serve narrow interests, and subjected to adjustments or revisions. Payroll or employment numbers are often estimates; consumer confidence appears to measure nothing more than sentiment, often with no link to actual consumer behavior; gross national product figures are consistently revised, and so forth. Unlike stock and bond markets, the BDI "is totally devoid of speculative content," says Howard Simons, an economist and columnist at TheStreet.com. "People don't book freighters unless they have cargo to move."
On 20 May 2008, the index reached its record high level since its introduction in 1985, reaching 11,793 points. Half a year later, on 5 December 2008, the index had dropped by 94%, to 663 points, the lowest since 1986; though by 4 February 2009 it had recovered a little lost ground, back to 1,316. These low rates moved dangerously close to the combined operating costs of vessels, fuel, and crews.
By the end of 2008, shipping times had been already increased by reduced speeds to save fuel consumption, but lack of credit meant the reduction of letters of credit, historically required to load cargoes for departure at ports. Debt load of future ship construction was also a problem for shipping companies, with several major bankruptcies and implications for shipyards. This, combined with the collapsing price of raw commodities created a perfect storm for the world's marine commerce.