MONEY

Why Now is the Time to Source From Overseas

Heard of free shipping? Prices are so low that some freight companies have paid to haul clients' cargo across the ocean.
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Now is the perfect time to order all the commodities you could possibly need from overseas. Shipping costs are at lows that once would have seemed unimaginable.

Global Maritime Investments (GMI) recently charged Glencore International nothing—that's zero, as in, free shipping!—to haul a cargo of grain from the Pacific to Europe. The shipping was not free for GMI, however, which had to eat the ship's $2,000-a-day operating cost. Steve Rodley, GMI’s U.K. managing director, told Bloomberg: “Our other option was to stay in the Pacific and earn poor revenues or ballast to the Atlantic and pay the fuel ourselves.”

Owners and operators of vessels are reported to be paying up to $50,000 a day in fuel to travel to ports to win work because rates have fallen so low. Last week the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks prices paid for spot shipping contracts to move raw materials on specific routes, started rising for the first time in nearly two months. It had dropped 63 percent in the previous twelve months. But don’t worry about missing your opportunity — even with this mini-surge, prices remain at a 10-year low.

The BDI is one of those key economic indicators watched by the economics cognoscenti (that’s a group you don’t want to get stuck in an elevator with – unless you’re me). It has a good track record. Shipping costs plunged in 2008, right before the 2009 recession. At the start of the month it was still below its 2008 mark. If you are a regular reader you are familiar with my regular cries of “The END IS NEAR.” So you are probably expecting me to say this is a portent of doom akin to cats laying down with dogs and the Chicago Cubs fielding a winning team. I still don’t like the looks of things … but the BDI has nothing to do with it.

See, one of the reasons for the plunge in costs is there are too many damn ships right now and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The fleet of ships that carry dry-bulk commodities will expand 14 percent this year, compared with a 3 percent gain in seaborne volumes of minerals and grains. Steven Hansen of SeekingAlpha points out there are nearly 4000 bulk carriers and tankers currently being built. The freight companies have kept building ships because from 2000 to 2008 there was an incredible 60 percent annual increase in trade. Companies continued to order ships thinking this trend was going to continue (think of it as the nautical equivalent of “house prices only go up”). Furthermore, instead of scrapping the old ships, companies have been selling them off – which gives them a little income while killing the market.

Clearly the BDI is not an infallible indicator. As with so many of these indices you have to find another indicator that can confirm or deny it. Or, even better, find some else who finds it and then writes about. In this case that person is Reuter’s columnist Ian Campbell who found The Dutch Centraal Planbureau, which tracks global trade volumes. As of November of last year world trade volumes were up 28 percent from their lows in May 2009 and 2.6 percent higher than their pre-crisis peaks of 2008.

So, source those foreign goods now, while shipping rates are low. Actually, you don’t have to order right now. They’re not going up any time real soon.

Last updated: Feb 14, 2012

CONSTANTINE VON HOFFMAN | Columnist

Constantine von Hoffman is a writer and sometime standup comedian. His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, and Boston Magazine.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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