* LNG day-rates forecast down at $100,000 in 2015
* Australian project delays accelerate shipping glut
* One third of new vessel orders unemployed
* Timeout on new orders as players mull next move
By Oleg Vukmanovic
LONDON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Gas tanker owners face falling profits over the next few years as delays to Australian gas project leave new ships unemployed, though the tankers will earn more than other commercial vessels at least until 2016, brokers and analysts said.
The liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker market has been the only bright spot in an otherwise depressed shipping sector after a global surge in the demand for gas, led by Japan in 2011, boosted trade and tied vessels to longer routes, stretching the capacity of the global fleet.
Gains in spot LNG tanker day-rates have lost momentum in recent months, after quadrupling in the years since 2010, and are likely to decline further in 2014 and 2015 given gas project delays and rapid fleet growth, the sources said.
"If you look at the pure fundamentals, there is some ground to think there will be oversupply," a source from a major LNG shipping brokerage said.
The main drag on spot LNG day-rates is the number of vessels coming to market that are not committed to long-term projects and which will instead depend on spot demand.
Around one third of the 86 vessels ordered since 2011 are earmarked for spot charter business, some brokers said. The total value of the new-build LNG tanker market amounts to around $17 billion, based on the average cost of a tanker.
Delays in the construction of liquefaction plants mean there will be less fuel to transport than previously expected, idling new vessels and bringing down spot rates.
Day-rates should drop to about $100,000/day in 2015, Arctic Securities analyst Erik Stavseth said, compared with record highs of $160,000/day earlier this year and $120,000/day currently.
"In 2013 there are still a number of LNG vessels delivering that don't have employment yet. Ten out of the 25 vessels expected next year haven't been fixed," the source from a brokerage said.
"In 2014 the situation is even worse, 22 vessels are not committed yet ... A total of 41 vessels are expected in 2014, so more than half won't have employment," according to the source.
Another 18 vessels are due to be delivered in 2015 and 2016.
Shipowners traditionally preferred that newly built ships be tied to specific projects.
But reduced construction costs, rising spot trade and vessel requirements for forthcoming projects have encouraged speculative shipbuilding.
LNG tanker investors can still expect to outperform operators of dry bulk vessels and oil tankers, even if day-rates collapse beyond levels estimated by experts.
"Even if rates come down to $85,000 a day, investors are still looking at a 12 percent annual return," Arctic Securities' Stavseth said.
By contrast, a five-year charter signed now offers an annual return on investment of 7 to 8 percent on a capesize dry-bulk vessel and of 8.5 to 9.5 percent on very large crude oil carrier (VLCC), he said.
Although dry-bulk and VLCC earnings are expected to lag levels for LNG tankers until end-2015, the outlook changes after that as resurgent demand for raw materials overtakes slower-growing trade in gas.
Beyond 2015, LNG tankers will earn comparatively less "mostly due to the fact that dry bulk and tankers will rise more than LNG rates", Stavseth said.
Norwegian shipping company Golar LNG has the largest exposure to spot charter markets of its peer group, taking one third of the non-committed shipping capacity currently on order.
Investors see this as a positive sign.
The long-term prospects for the LNG tanker market are expected to remain strong after 2015 as delayed projects in Australia start pumping LNG to world markets, although the growth in the rate of return will be less than for other vessels.
"There's a lot of installed generating capacity being built which will help ensure demand, and given that volumes will rise and distance between markets will continue to be a factor, the long-term demand looks good," said Andreas Vergottis, the head of research at Tufton Oceanic, a hedge fund with $1 billion invested in shipping.
The average voyage of an LNG tanker was 4,100 nautical miles last year versus 2,900 nautical miles in 2000.
That appears unlikely to change anytime soon after massive strides in global trade.
Qatar, the world's biggest gas exporter, has sealed deals with Latin American, Asian, European and North African customers for long-term supply, while Australian, African and even North American exporters are also taking to the international stage.
The order spree has raised red flags among LNG ship owners keen to avoid mistakes made by investors in the dry bulk and tanker markets, where unrestrained ordering led to a glut of new vessels that has hammered margins.
"Last year there was a lot of ordering, but this year that has significantly reduced," the brokerage source said.
Orders have taken a timeout since July, although sources said that producer countries such as Nigeria and Algeria, shippers such as Teekay, Golar and Excellerate and consumers including China's Sinopec were all planning more orders.