In late 2009, the U.K.'s > Daily Mail published haunting images of the "ghost fleet," a massive collection of empty cargo ships anchored off the coast of Singapore. The images exemplified the sad state of the world economy, where at the time 12% of all cargo transit was idled. The armada, comprised of more vessels than the entire British and American navies combined, according to the paper's report, was a result not only of the recession but of the prior expansion. Not unlike housing, the notoriously cyclical marine industry had grown dramatically during the boom years leading up to 2008, creating a capacity glut once the world economy slowed.
2009's "Ghost Fleet" of Unused Cargo Ships:
Shipping rates fell even further than most financial stocks during the downturn. At the market crest in June 2008 it cost roughly $230,000 a day to charter a capesize bulk carrier. By November of that year that rate had plunged to $6,000 a day. The Baltic Dry Index, which tracks international shipping rates, fell from 11,300 to 663. Even as early as January of 2011, rates were negative on some routes, meaning that shipowners were actually losing money even when leasing, although less than if they idled them in another "ghost fleet."
Many of the shipping stocks, which were dumped from portfolios as the industry sputtered, have recovered smartly. Although the Baltic Index is still down roughly 50% this year many publicly traded shipping companies have mounted impressive comebacks.
Some Shippers Shape Up:
Navios Maritime Partners (NMM)
One virtually moribund ETF tracks the sector, the Guggenheim Shipping ETF (SEA),
More broadly, transportation stocks have been quiet leaders. Yesterday the Dow Jones Transportation Average hit its highest close of the year and the loftiest level since June of 2008; it now sits just 3.5 percentage points away from an all-time-high. Weakness in airlines like Delta (DAL),
Given that marine shippers are known as "truck drivers of the sea" now might be an opportune time to get on board.
Jonathan Hoenig is managing member at Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC . At the time of writing Hoenig's fund held positions in many of the securities mentioned.