A Feeble Quarter for Frontline

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Back in April, the market for seaborne crude-oil transport looked so choppy that I asked whether tanker stocks were toast. Some weaker hands did indeed fold this year, but in May, we noted that Frontline (NYSE: FRO  ) was built pretty tough.

Back then, my prediction was that Frontline "should at least be able to tread water" until the tanker storm passed. The company has done just that, at least judging by the share price. The stock is trading a bit higher today, while peers such as Tsakos Energy Navigation (NYSE: TNP  ) and Teekay Tankers (NYSE: TNK  ) have, uh, tanked.

Of course, the third quarter was still pretty rough for Frontline. June started out strong enough, with a "conviction buy" rating from Goldman Sachs on an improved outlook, but then rates turned back down as summer unfolded. By early September, tanker lease rates fell by 44% from those June head-fake levels.

With spot rates coming in below cash breakeven levels, Frontline unsurprisingly reported a loss for the quarter -- its first in seven years. That was quite a run, especially given that the tanker market hasn't exactly been sunshine and roses over that span of time. OSG (NYSE: OSG  ) and Nordic American Tanker (NYSE: NAT  ) also reported losses for the period.

Looking forward, we can see the usual mix of factors both supporting and weighing on the outlook for tanker operators. A major phase-out of single-hulled tankers will occur next year, as both the International Maritime Organization and many ports, including Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, plan to ban them. The order book for new tankers is still fairly robust, but there's a gap between the new-build cost and the bank financing available, so new supply may not overwhelm the market. Then, of course, there's oil demand, which is arguably still quite weak.

On balance, Frontline still appears to be fairly comfortably positioned, but I wouldn't necessarily look to add this stock to my portfolio's fleet today.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (5)

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  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2009, at 10:43 AM, Vanquished1368 wrote:

    While the latest quarter was a loss, the loss was less than expected. This makes the third consecutive quarter that earnings bested expectations.

    Four quarters ago, the company reported earnings 19c less than expected, now 5c better. This follows a quarter 36c better than expectations, and a profit.

    With the Baltic Dry Index almost twice its low in March, this group, and this stock in particular, looks inexpensive.

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2009, at 1:05 PM, psl8er wrote:

    The problem for the tanker stocks is that quarterly reported earnings reflect charter fixtures concluded six months prior. Since the summer tanker rates have continued to drift more ships have delivered into the weak market. We should expect to see more losses and serious drain of cash reserves continuing through 2010. Tsakos reported two yesr charters four 4 of its MR product tankers, but at rates of $11,000 per day this leaves only $5,000 pd for debt service and G&A.

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2009, at 3:07 AM, nonidiomatic wrote:

    When would you suggest buying, when it is at $36.00? If anything, the real bargains in shipping are OCNF, DHTand TNK.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2009, at 10:04 AM, stocktrader007 wrote:

    This is a deflationary crash. Developed world borrowed and spent for decades. When the value of debt is deducted from the economy, trade will collapse.

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