* Rates in Feb, March could be similar to last year -broker
* But long-term charter rates remain strong -Fearnley
* BHP Billiton launches first online freight auction
By Keith Wallis
SINGAPORE, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Freight rates for large capesize dry cargo vessels on key Asian routes are likely to trend down next week as an oversupply of ships and reduced chartering activity due to the Chinese New Year holidays weigh on the market.
“No one is particularly excited about the market,” a Singapore-based capesize broker said on Thursday.
Rates on the route from Western Australia to China are set to slide to $5 per tonne, with rates of $12 per tonne from Brazil to China and $8.50 per tonne from Saldanha Bay, the broker said.
“Rates in February and March may be similar to last year. There is enough cargo volume, the problem now is there are too many empty ships, especially for Brazil,” the broker added.
“Owners will fix what they can or they may idle tonnage. Rates will remain range-bound,” he said.
While spot charter rates fell this week, rates for longer term time charter remain strong, with vessels being fixed at close to $11,500 per day for a one-year contract, Norwegian ship broker Fearnley said in a note on Wednesday.
“Hence, there is more of a cautious optimistic view on this year, though next week is expected to be very slow with China off on holidays,” the Fearnley note said.
Australian miner BHP Billiton expected rates to rise this year as cargo demand and vessel supply become more balanced.
Breakeven costs for a 180,000-deadweight tonne (DWT) capesize ship are around $14,000 per day, Rashpal Bhatti, BHP Billiton Freight vice president, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“With returns lower than that or at par, we certainly don’t think that is sustainable,” Bhatti said, forecasting consolidation among owners and operators.
That came as the world’s largest miner launched its first online auction for an iron ore cargo on Wednesday that attracted more than 50 bids from the 13 owners and operators invited to participate.
Charter rates from Western Australia to China fell to $5.19 per tonne on Wednesday, the lowest since Dec. 22, from $5.87 per tonne the same day last week.
Freight rates for the route from Brazil to China dropped to $12.45 per tonne on Wednesday, against $14.07 per tonne last week.
Charter rates for smaller panamax vessels for a north Pacific round-trip voyage slipped to $5,625 per day on Wednesday from $5,673 per day a week earlier.
That is close to last year’s average of $5,562 per day for all panamax routes, ship broker Banchero Costa said in a report on Wednesday.
Rates in the Far East for supramax vessels slipped in a very quiet market, with owners paid about $2,800-$2,900 per day for a voyage from north China to southeast Asia, brokers said.
The Baltic Exchange’s main sea freight index fell to 862 on Wednesday from 952. (Reporting by Keith Wallis; Editing by Biju Dwarakanath)