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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Should investors keep a beady eye on the BDI (Baltic Dry Index)?

What makes successful investing in the stock market (or mutual funds) such a challenge (or, intellectually stimulating – depending on your mental makeup) is the wide variety of factors and indicators that you need to keep track of. The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) is one such indicator that many investors may not have a clue about.

What is the BDI, and why should investors keep a watchful eye on it? This is how describes it:

The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) is a number issued daily by the London-based Baltic Exchange. … the index tracks worldwide international shipping prices of various dry bulk cargoes.

The index provides "an assessment of the price of moving the major raw materials by sea. Taking in 26 shipping routes measured on a timecharter and voyage basis, the index covers Handymax, Panamax, and Capesize dry bulk carriers carrying a range of commodities including coal, iron ore, and grain."

In plain English, the BDI gives an indication of international rates for transporting raw materials by sea in cargo ships of different sizes – based on supply and demand of commodities.

Why should stock or funds investors be interested in the current state of the BDI? Most economic indicators, like consumer spending, unemployment figures, housing starts are lagging indicators. That means, we get to assess the implications after the events have already occurred.

However, the BDI is a leading economic indicator because increasing demand for raw materials (which leads to higher shipping rates) is a signal of greater economic activity. That in turn, leads to growth and higher stock prices. Likewise, a fall in the BDI indicates declining demand for raw materials, leading to reducing economic growth and a likely slide in stock prices.

Unlike stock and commodity exchanges, where speculation is an important part of the overall activity and may camouflage the actual supply-demand equation, the BDI is free of any speculation since the index is based on shipping rates on various representative routes submitted by international shipbrokers who have actual cargo to transport.

Supply and demand of raw materials is not the only reason for changes in the BDI. Availability of cargo carriers, heavy traffic on certain routes, bad weather, price of oil can all contribute to higher shipping rates. Like all indicators, the BDI can’t be used in isolation.

Over the past year, the BDI has fluctuated between a high of about 2750 in Oct ‘10 and a low of about 1050 in Feb ‘11. It rose sharply from 1270 in Aug ‘11 to its current level of 1890. Is it indicating that the global economy may not be in the doldrums that many economists are suggesting?


scorpio said...

Thanks for the info. I did not know that this could not be speculated :)

Subhankar said...

Appreciate your comment, Ashish.

Ship brokers only bid for a shipping route if they have actual cargo to transport. Unlike short-selling in stocks, you can't 'borrow' some one's cargo for shipping it.