(Bloomberg) — Returns for oil tankers hauling Middle East crude to Asia, the industry’s busiest trade route, reached the lowest level since August as the number of cargoes declined amid an ample supply of ships.

Very large crude carriers are losing $6,761 daily on the benchmark Saudi Arabia-to-Japan voyage, more than yesterday’s $6,482, figures from the Baltic Exchange in London showed. The current return is the worst since Aug. 31.

Lower Middle East oil production reduced VLCC cargoes by as many as 12 a month, London-based shipbroker E.A. Gibson said in an e-mailed report. Still, the combined carrying capacity of the world VLCC fleet will expand 5.3 percent this year, below demand growth of 5.9 percent, according to Clarkson Plc, the biggest shipbroker.

“Tonnage is in plentiful supply for the remaining February program” of cargoes, Gibson said. There’s “not a sign of any recovery for owners.”

VLCCs began losing money on the benchmark voyage on Jan. 24, the exchange’s figures showed. The ships, each able to hold 2 million barrels of crude, earned money in only four sessions in the third quarter on the journey.

The exchange’s assessments fail to account for owners’ efforts to improve returns by securing cargoes for a voyage’s return leg or by reducing speed to burn less fuel, known as slow-steaming. The price of fuel, or bunkers, the industry’s biggest expense, gained 0.4 percent to $654.77 a metric ton, staying at the highest since Oct. 2, figures compiled by Bloomberg from 25 ports showed.

Fourth Decline

Charter rates for VLCCs on the benchmark route slipped 0.2 percent to 31.19 Worldscale points, the exchange’s figures showed. That was the fourth drop in a row.

The Worldscale system is a method for pricing oil cargoes on thousands of trade routes. Each individual voyage’s flat rate, expressed in dollars a ton, is set once a year. Today’s level means hire costs on the benchmark route are 31.19 percent of the nominal Worldscale rate for that voyage.

The Baltic Dirty Tanker Index, a broader measure of oil- shipping costs that includes vessels smaller than VLCCs, rose 0.3 percent to 640, according to the exchange. It stayed at the highest since Jan. 25.

- Rob Sheridan, Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.

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