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China's shipyards brace for leaner times as oil slump sours rig building spree

As crude prices slide, oil producers are slashing new project spending.

[SHANGHAI] For China's shipyards, the oil rig market that was supposed to be a blessing is in danger of becoming a curse.

As crude prices slide, oil producers are slashing new project spending. With a near 40 per cent slice of a global market worth tens of billions of dollars, Chinese rig builders that offered juicy financing terms and discounts to leapfrog Asian rivals in recent years are now the most exposed to a slowdown.

Diversifying to pull out of a downturn in traditional shipbuilding, China's state and privately owned yards have lured orders away from regional peers, building scores of rigs for downpayments of as little at 1 per cent. Many haven't yet been chartered by oil explorers, industry watchers say.

Some in the industry fear that rig builders are now heading towards a slowdown, possibly with cancellations and price cuts, that could persist longer than the oil market's slump. Even if oil prices recover enough to stoke exploration, an inventory of ready-made rigs will be on hand, delaying new construction. "Future cancellations will depend on the market going forward and unfortunately we are looking at a real risk for yards in this respect," said Joachim Skorge, regional head of investment banking in Asia for DNB Market.

Chinese yards are scheduled to supply 37 new 'jackup' rigs - used in shallow-water exploration - this year, according to Nomura research, none of which has contracted customers to date. The most widely used drilling platforms, a jackup rig typically carries a price tag of around US$200 million. "We're having a big headache because there are no orders,"said an official at a large state-backed Chinese shipyard, speaking condition of anonymity. He cited a lack of rig order enquiries for the year 2016 and beyond.

Earlier this month, COSCO Corp, one of China's biggest shipyards, said it has decided to terminate building an offshore platform known as Octabuoy after failing to find buyers.

China became the world's biggest offshore drilling rig builder after rapid expansion led by the likes of state-backed yards China Merchants Heavy Industry, Dalian Shipbuilding, a unit of China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, and Shanghai Waigaoqiao, a subsidiary of China CSSC Holdings Ltd. All three yards declined to comment for this story.

But their jackup rig market share gains from traditional powerhouses in Singapore came at a financial cost. "The Chinese yards are the main culprit (of speculative rig buildup)... Even if crude oil prices are to recover as expected, we expect new-build jackup rig orders to be subdued in 2015" with considerable inventory of already made rigs available, Nomura analyst Wee Lee Chong said in a report earlier this month.

China Merchants Heavy Industry has the largest number of orders at 14, followed by Dalian Shipbuilding and Shanghai Waigaoqiao, according to data from shipping consultancy Drewry.

By comparison, less than 5 per cent of orders at Singapore yards Keppel and Sembcorp Marine are by speculative buyers, according to Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation. Sembcorp Marine and Keppel declined to comment.

Except for a single order won by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering in 2013, South Korean shipyards make very few jackup rigs, leaving the business for its Chinese and Singaporean rivals. Companies like Samsung Heavy have concentrated on deepwater drillships instead.

Even without competition from South Korea, prospects look bleak in the jackup rig trade. "Some yards might have to drop their prices by 5-10 per cent in order to attract potential buyers in the current market climate," said Lianghui Xia, a Shanghai-based shipbroker at RS Platou.