A surge in demand to ship the flood of crude oil unleashed by Saudi Arabia and its OPEC peers is sending freight rates surging and forcing buyers to seek out space on smaller tankers after the largest ones have been booked out, shipping sources said.
Freight charges to ship oil in Suezmax tankers, which can hold about 1 million barrels, have in some cased increased ten-fold amid a shortage of very large crude carriers (VLCCs) which are capable of carrying as much as 2 million barrels of oil, the sources said.
"Bahri has wiped out the VLCC population for march lifting in less than a week which is why people are having to break up their loadings into Suezmax's," said Ashok Sharma, managing director of shipbroker BRS Baxi in Singapore.
Saudi Arabia's National Shipping firm, Bahri 4030.SE, snatched up about 24 VLCCs since last week amid a bookings frenzy to ship crude oil to customers as it followed through on its promise to boost crude oil output in a price war with Russia and US shale producers.
The cost of shipping crude oil on a Suezmax from the Middle East Gulf to India jumped to about $200,000 per day by Friday, up from about $20,000 per day in the week before, according to shipbrokers.
VLCC rates from the Middle East to China rose to about $265,000 per day on Monday, up from about $30,000 a day last week, broker data showed.
VLCC tanker rates last surged in October last year in the aftermath of US sanctions on units of Chinese shipping giant COSCO.
But a key difference between then and now is that the appetite to actually book ships at these near-record levels is high and supply is struggling to keep up with the demand, the shipping sources said.
The lack of available VLCC's has also seen an unusual increase in the number of Suezmax tankers sailing to China with as many as 10 such tankers booked in the past few days, the broker sources said.
The bookings frenzy comes amid an increasingly gloomy global economic outlook and slowing fuel demand the coronavirus pandemic paralyses travel and supply chains.
"I have never seen a market rising on the back of a recession threatening," said Sharma.
Earlier in March, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, including Russia, - together known as OPEC+ - failed to reach an agreement for deeper production cuts to support prices hit by the coronavirus outbreak, sending global oil prices plunging and threatening to overwhelm global oil markets with supply.