When Ship Scrapping is an Industry’s Best Hope of a Favorable Wind

Holy Scrap!

When one wants to express strong astonishment, ‘Holy mackerel!’ is a nautical expression that does the trick well. We heard this expression (in British English, that is) many many years ago by a Brit who had beached on the Louisiana coastline in the US Gulf a few decades earlier.

There are a couple of theories for the origin of the expression, but the most plausible holds that since mackerel is a fish that goes bad very fast, fishermen in old England were given extraordinary permission by the church to sell their mackerel catch on Sundays. ‘Guests and fish stink in three days’, the wise Benjamin Franklin astutely once observed, but mackerel is worse than that. And if the church is willing to grant permission to do business on the Lord’s day, there has to be a sacred excuse, and thus the expression.

The expression came to mind while reading a market commentary on the fact that the just passed IMO regulation demanding 0.5% sulphur content in bunker fuel by 2020 will lead to a scrapping wave strong enough to bring a much wanted tonnage balance in the shipping market. In a lousy shipping market, this was a ‘Holy mackerel!’ moment, the way we saw it.

Or, ‘Holy scrap!’ to be more precise; nothing could be more sacrosanct than scrapping in the present market!

The IMO regulation has the potential to be a costly catalyst for the shipping industry, by as much as $40 billion by some estimates. For an industry in distress, additional costs and mandatory investments are the last news one wants to hear about. Complying with the new resolution, a shipowner would have to retrofit a vessel to burn high quality marine diesel fuel low in sulphur, install scrubbers to arrest pollutants and lower emissions or, thirdly, convert the vessel to be powered by natural gas or another low emissions fuel; all pricey solutions that will cost a couple of million of investment per vessel, a tough proposition for a shipowner in a weak market.

Scrapping however is a long shot as an alternative course of action.

Deciding to sell a vessel for scrap is one of the hardest decisions a shipowner has to make, and literally, this is the last decision they will make after exhausting every possible scenario. Selling a vessel for scrap is a terminal and irrevocable decision and quite often entails taking losses in today’s market. Even if there is a ray of hope and an alternative, the shipowner will decide to hold off selling the vessel for scrap. Old age, obsolete design, tonnage oversupply, new regulations, etc are not always definite reasons for scrapping.

With OPA 90, following the grounding of the infamous tanker ‘Exxon Valdez’, single hull tankers were given an expiration date for January 1st, 2015 to be totally removed from the trade. A long lead-time indeed for shipowners to plan for that resolution. What effectively happened was that although there were no single-hulled tanker newbuilding orders since the late 90’s and publicly listed and politically correct shipowners divested off of their single hull tonnage soon thereafter, almost 14% of the world’s tanker fleet was still single-hulled in January 2010, twenty whole years after the new regulation came into place and five years before the final ‘drop dead’ date. Regulations or not, shipowners, worldwide and collectively, effectively kept ‘obsolete’ ships in the market much longer than anybody would had anticipated.

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Scrapping activity is an inverse relationship of the freight market. Credit: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.

The first decade of our century experienced once-in-a-lifetime freight market on the back of China’s expansive growth and easy credit by lenders, which partially explains how single-hulled tankers were kept afloat for so long. Actually, all being equal, the strength of the freight market is a best predictor of the level of scrapping and tonnage withdrawals from the shipping market. As long as freight rates are cash flow positive, ships are not getting scrapped; when the freight market is cash flow negative and prospects for a recovery are poor, then demolition levels pick up. The following graph of the Baltic Dry Index (BDI), the proxy for the dry bulk shipping market, clearly shows the inverse relationship between the index and scrapping activity. There seem to be a two-three month lag, but each time the BDI drastically moves, the scrap yards in Alang, Gadani and Chittagong get to hear about it, one way or another. Earlier in 2016, when the BDI was flirting with all time lows, demolition activity had spiked through the roof, approaching 10% of the world fleet. A few months later with the freight market barely above break even for the dry bulk market, scrapping has more than halved, to the disappointment of analysts and investors who were drawing straight line annual projections based on the activity of the first few months of the year. Scrapping is high still today, to be sure, and comes from many sectors, including containerships, but the moral of the story is that scrapping does not seem to be the convenient and sacrosanct solution that always seem to be.

There is a third case of disappointment in scrapping: after the shipping market collapsed in 2008, still cash rich shipowners and institutional investors were aiming at buying dirty cheap ships from shipping banks. When the banks held back from selling at any price, at least then, many a shipowner and especially an institutional investor jumped on the wagon of ‘eco-ships’ being fuel efficient that would make ships held by the banks obsolete. And, a massive wave of newbuilding orders was placed. Fast forward five years later, and we all now know that the fresh deliveries of better eco-ships failed miserably to force older tonnage to the scrap heap. Brand new ships, and modern ships, and older ship, and old ships have kept floating and trading and depressing the freight market for all. The wave of demolitions triggered by the eco-design deliveries crowding out older tonnage, shown in Power-point presentations to Wall Street, has failed to materialize and save the market. Holy scrap was not!

We do not want to discount the importance of scrapping to achieving a balanced market. Actually, at this stage of the cycle, scrapping seems one of the most promising drivers for the market; shipping is so bad, indeed. And the new regulations by the IMO for lower emissions will push some shipowners to the edge, and some ships to the beach. However, likely, in our opinion, scrapping will be a slow remedy that will be more drastic with the level of the pain of the market, that is the state of the BDI and the rest of the freight market.

As they say, pain is beauty!

Holy scrap!

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Never easy to say ‘Good bye’ in shipping. Image credit: Karatzas Images


This article was originally was posted on Splash 24/7 under the title ‘Holy Scrap’ on November 1st, 2016.


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

Hanjin’s History Lessons

‘Time is the longest distance between two places’ concludes the Tennessee Williams’ character at the end of the play The Glass Menagerie. For a large number of creditors, vendors, tonnage providers, and predominantly shippers – with $14 billion worth of merchandise packed in containers onboard Hanjin ships, this philological expression was a very hard lesson to put to practice when the company filed for receivership at the end of August.  At present, and with everything going well, the best estimate is that Hanjin’s vessels will be unloaded by the end of October. A very long time indeed for shipping containers ‘lost’ between ports at today’s age.

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In better days… Image credit: Karatzas Images

The developments with Hanjin are still work-in-progress that may take several months, if not years, to settle permanently. For now, it’s a logistical nightmare bordering a legal saga that, in turn, stands on the periphery of the self-feeding financial crisis. Each one of these three parallel worlds will have to run their own course and trajectory, but again, not too far apart from each other. Definitely many lessons beg be learned once all is said and done, and the containers get delivered and the bills get paid, eventually. The fact that Hanjin Shipping has been the largest containership liner company bankruptcy ever (the second biggest was that of the United States Lines in 1986, when the boxship world was still in its infancy) will provide plenty of lessons on where the ‘stress points’ are in the system and the supply chain, and would provide some insight on whether the containership liner industry is a ‘systemic’ industry to the world’s trade.  There have been numerous financial restructurings and bankruptcies in shipping since the crisis ensued in 2008, but almost all of them were in the dry bulk and tanker sectors, where the logistical head-scratchers were much easier to address: usually there is one charterer or cargo owner per vessel per voyage in the dry bulk and tanker markets and not the plethora of cargoes and shippers and vendors with their boxes onboard a containership.

While it will take time to know the fine detail of the numerous parts interacting together in the liner business, a perfunctory view of the case, based on info available so far, indicates that all the factors one would expect to see in the cause of a default in the shipping industry were present in the Hanjin case.

The company, going after market and trying to keep up with the main players in the market, had effectively became a house of cards in terms of over-leverage, financially and operationally. Almost one hundred vessels (out of the 140 vessels under management) were chartered in, effectively with off-balance sheet, non-recourse financing. When the banks and lenders stop lending when one’s balance sheet gets stretched, an ambitious shipowner can just turn to the charter market and can pile up abundantly on tonnage based on their ‘signature’ and their (unsecured) promise to pay. No more than that is needed. Just a ‘sterling’ name and a ‘first class client’, as the saying goes, can be of enough assurance for charter payments and place a tall house a cards in short order. This was once a big deal even back then in 2008, for those who recall.

And, there were plenty of companies and shipowners who had been just happy to offer their tonnage on long term charters to Hanjin, just to show to their own shareholders and lenders that they had cash flow visibility and they were not speculators. Nice long charters with juicy cash-flows that paid until they stopped, that is. It may be worth asking whether such business practice was the result of poor risk management or just a case when no-one really questions whether the emperor may be naked. ‘If so many other tonnage providers had found Hanjin to be a quality charterer, who am I to stop chartering to them vessels’, one almost may be able to hear in a boardroom discussion.

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When days were great… Image credit: Karatzas Images

And, Hanjin was not just any charterer. They had real substance since they were a liner company and had access to the end user. If things turned bad for the market, as they did indeed, Hanjin would have cargoes to move and keep the ships busy and therefore keep making the lease and charter-hire payments. They had access to their own terminals (at least partially), and they had preferential access to S. Korea’s promising and export-oriented economy, and thus, they were supposed to have a backstop if things were to get ugly. As we learn now, a bad market is a bad market and it burns cash for stand-alone owners but also burns cash for strategic owners, like Hanjin, too. Notions of an end-user charterer are great, but again, a bad market can pinch sharply enough to make the pain felt on the bone of an end-user.

And, Hanjin was part of a substantial industrial conglomerate with strategic access to the ‘system’, that is the government and the state banks; it had to, as being a chaebol company, they had the implicit ‘put option’ of the government itself. And beautifully this was played until when the cash burn topped US$ 2 million per diem, and all the constituents had to look for alternative solutions. You can support a company-in-need for so long, but again, all love in this world has to have some limits.  And with Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), the local competitor, reaching the restructuring altar in the summer first, there were one too many brides afterwards. There are still many more containership and liner companies that could be considered to have a quasi-government guarantee worldwide. Caveat emptor.

As much as we would like to believe that the Hanjin case will be an example to be held, one has to be doubtful. Time and again, defaults happen in shipping with almost metronomic frequency, and all the times, the same old factors drive those shipping companies to the ground, or the bottom of the sea for that matter: aggressiveness, over-leverage, poor risk management, over-reliance on fundamental assumptions that turn out to be fundamentally wrong, and wishful thinking.

But again, if it were not for all these surprises, shipping would be just any other boring industry. One-dimensional with ships floating beautifully over the ocean. Apparently, there is the dimension of time, at least until one gets their container delivered.


The article above was first published on Splash 247 under the heading ‘Hanjin’s Longest Voyage Yet’ on October 17, 2016.


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

Moral Hazard and Hanjin Shipping

Not a week has passed since we posted an article on the Maritime Executive’s website about moral hazard in shipping, and the shipping world got a big-proportions, real-life case study of the risks in the industry. We argued that when shipowners are over their heads in debt and with little promise of ever recovering any equity, there is precious little they care about financing, operations, trade, safety and even the environment.

Hanjin Shipping, based in South Korea and world’s seventh biggest containership company, filed for protection in S. Korean courts in late August, and subsequently started filing for protection in several jurisdictions worldwide, including in the United States federal bankruptcy court (filing for Chapter 15 restructuring in Newark, NJ). As of the end of second quarter this year in June, the company had outstanding obligations close to US$ 5.5 billion, approximately US$ 900 million of which due by the end of 2017. There were approximately US$ 700 million in equity on the balance sheet. Hanjin stands as the manager of appr. 142 vessels, 98 of which are containerships and 44 are tankers and bulkers. Only one-fourth of Hanjin’s fleet is self-owned, 38 of them owned and the rest chartered in from leasing companies and other financially-minded shipowners. The ownership mix of the tonnage indicates more of a light-asset, trading company rather an asset-heavy, ship-owning balance sheet. The current value of the owned fleet stands at appr. US$ 1.7 billion.

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Shipping crossing a bridge… Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Many details are still too opaque and covered by bilateral non-disclosure agreements, but where several of the counterparties have been publicly listed companies, one can draw certain conclusions: Hanjin had chartered in two 2010-built capsize vessels from publicly listed Navios Maritime Partners (ticker: NNA) MV ‘Navios Luz’ and MV ‘Navios Buena Ventura’ at a daily rate of US$ 29,356 pd each; the average spot capesize market was barely $6,000 pd during the last year, and presuming that Hanjin was trading the vessels on the spot market, they were losing $23,000 every single day for the last year ; of each of the two vessels. That is $16 mil down the drain for the two vessels in just the last year alone; each of the vessels had more than four years of employment remaining with the shipowner, and presuming that the spot capesize market would remain at present levels, Hanjin would had to suffer another $90 mil in losses for just these two vessels. Eight containerships chartered in from Danaos (ticker: DAC) had charter payment obligations of appr. $565 million. Similarly, three neo-panamax containerships from Seaspan (ticker: SSW) had outstanding charter obligations of close to US$ 370 million. These charter obligations add up to close to US$ 900 million, and under present market conditions, reasonable estimates would be for losses of more than US$ 500 million. And these are the calculations based on publicly available information for only thirteen of the 100+ vessels chartered-in, with only three counterparties. There are un-accounted obligations for more than eighty vessels that have been chartered in from other owners.

$23,000 losses every single day in the last year for each of the two capes chartered from Navios. Talk about destruction of value!

What options such a ‘shipowner’ like Hanjin (effectively a structured house of cards) does have under the circumstances? As one would suspect, very few. There is little in matter of equity, there is little in matter of collateral, there is lots of debt, and mostly, most of the debt is in relatively unsecured position since it’s in the form of charter obligations for the vessels that have been contracted on charter arrangements.

Playing the devil’ advocate and ask surreal but economically oriented questions: How much vested interest the shipowner has in the assets and the business? Precious little, at this stage. What are the odds that they will recover any equity? Probably better than hitting the jackpot in a national lottery, which we all know is not a fair proposition. What would any rational economic being would do? Briefly, either ask for the mercy of their creditors, or, having little to lose, just stop paying the creditors and pass the buck to the other side. What we called moral hazard in the previous posting.

Hanjin had been rumored (along with their co-patriot Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM)) to be facing financial problems and was an accident waiting to happen. HMM, being slicker, and faster, and part of a big chaebol (traditional corporate conglomerate structure in S. Korea, strongly affiliated with family management style and running businesses deemed strategically important to the State, in exchange of the State’s preferential treatment), managed in August to find their way out of their financial ‘pickle’. When Hanjin tried to secure the consent and more financing from their lenders (mostly Korean banks and the state-owned Korean Development Bank), there was little empathy. This would make perfect sense, as their lenders were in relatively preferred senior position, and any new financing would be considered either ‘throwing good money after bad money’ or diluting their position and getting lower on the seniority scale of claimants. It would make economic sense to refuse any new financing and let the un-secured creditors (that is the shipowners of the hundred vessels on charter to Hanjin, like Navios, Diana, Seaspan) accept a less demanding solution. Again, Hanjin and their prime financiers decided to drop the moral hazard bomb to the parties with a lower legal claim, the shipowners of the vessels.

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The good times left behind… Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Hanjin Shipping is the seventh containership company in the world but with only appr. 3% market, thus, belonging in the lower tier of containership companies as compared to behemoths like Moeller Maersk, Cosco, MSC and CMA CGM. A default by Hanjin cannot be expected to have a major domino effect on the overall shipping or containership world markets. The majority of Hanjin’s lenders were Korean banks, including the Korean Development Bank (KDB), and the Korean banking system (and the Korean taxpayer, if so required) can absorb the losses without posing a systemic risk to the Korean economy, at least at this stage. Hanjin had been a major carrier for LG electronics, but again, even Hanjin’s demise could not be detrimental to LG and the Korean electronics and manufacturing industries; not to mention, since HMM’s successful restructuring in the summer, now there has been an alternative, an alternative based in Korea itself (subsequent reports state the LG has already been shifting their shipment contracts to HMM). Thus, once the situation was ‘ring fenced’ and a fall-out was determined to be contained, Hanjin and its main creditors stopped paying to the lower standing creditors (other shipowners with charter-in tonnage). An example of moral hazard in all its glory.

Hanjin has filed for restructuring (and not for liquidation) expecting to find a way to save the company as a going concern over the long term. However, owners of vessels on charter to Hanjin, companies like Danaos, Seaspan, Navios and many other smaller, private owners, stand to lose the most. In an oversupplied market of low freight rates, it will be difficult to withdraw their vessels from Hanjin and seek equally profitable charter rates elsewhere in the present market; likely, they will have to accept lower and extended rates that Hanjin will offer them, and possibly some equity upside if and when the company recovers. Otherwise, the shipowners will have to seek legal remedies which are costly and time consuming, and always risky on whether there will be a chance to ever collect. After all, the events of last week have shown that Hanjin is not a systemically important company to the Korean economy, there is little the Korean constituents that can lose, there is little left for Hanjin’s management and shareholders to lose. Heads I win, tail you lose.

A case of moral hazard of the highest caliber.


A better edited version of this article was originally published on The Maritime Executive website on September 6th, 2016 under the title ‘Moral Hazard Case Study: Hanjin Shipping’.  This article builds on our essay on the dangers of the moral hazard in a weak freight market posted in early September in this post, when market participants were left with few options and little to lose, so much so that they care little for the outcome or the interests other constituents of the shipping industry.


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

Lexis Nexis – Hanjin Receivership Free Webinar

Hanjin Shipping‘s filings in early September 2016, for receivership in South Korean court and subsequent filing for Chapter 15 protection in US federal bankruptcy court, have been making front-pages news even in general interest newspapers and media. The case revolves around logistical, legal and financial considerations interweaved perilously together and can potentially affect everyday life with peak shopping season soon upon us.

LexisNexis Legal & Professional is hosting a Free Webinar on the matter of Hanjin’s receivership addressing both legal and commercial issues of the case. The Webinar is held on Wednesday October 5th, 2016 at 15:00 hrs EDT.

Registration is fee and open to the general public. Entities interested in the case and its repercussions, whether they have immediate outstanding claims in the case or looking for general information on the case and the overall shipping markets are encouraged to register to attend.

We are delighted that Basil M Karatzas, CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co., has been invited to participate at the Webinar and address questions of commercial nature on the case and the overall shipping markets.

Mr Daniel Saval, partner with Brown Rudnick LLP, and holding substantial experience with Chapter 15 law, will be addressing legal questions during the session.

The Webinar will expertly be moderated by Ms. Danielle Bennett, Esq., Subject Matter Advisor on Banking, Finance and Restructuring with Lexis Nexis.

LexisNexis Legal & Professional is a leading global provider of content and technology solutions that enable professionals in legal, corporate, tax, government, academic and non-profit organizations to make informed decisions and achieve better business outcomes. As a digital pioneer, the company was the first to bring legal and business information online with its Lexis® and Nexis® services. Today, LexisNexis Legal & Professional harnesses leading-edge technology and world-class content to help professionals work in faster, easier and more effective ways. Through close collaboration with its customers, the company ensures organizations can leverage its solutions to reduce risk, improve productivity, increase profitability and grow their business. LexisNexis Legal & Professional, which serves customers in more than 175 countries with 10,000 employees worldwide, is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries.

To Register for the Free Webinar, please click on the brochure herebelow and follow the instructions! We are looking forward to receiving the benefit of your participation at the event, on Wed October 5th, 2016, at 15:00 hrs EDT!

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© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

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Hanjin Shipping in Receivership

On August 31st, 2016, Hanjin Shipping filed a receivership petition with Seoul’s Central District Court, and on September 6th, for Chapter 15 protection at US Federal Bankruptcy Court in Newark, NJ. Filings in approximately 45 jurisdictions worldwide, where Hanjin vessels trade, are expected to be filed in the very near term.

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Containership MV ‘Hanjin Monaco’ against the downtown Manhattan skyline in better days. Image credit: Karatzas Images.

With approximately 140 vessels under management, only 40 of which are self-owned and 100 chartered-in or leased, there have been serious implications for the market, at least in the short term. With only US$ 700 mil in equity, US$ 1.7 billion value of its fleet and $5.4 billion in outstanding obligations, the capital structure resembles a house of cards. The value of the cargo on-board of Hanjin’s vessels at the time of filing for receivership was estimated at $14.5 billion. The ensuing result has been a logistical nightmare, given all such cargo had contractual obligations to be delivered on time, but Hanjin’s vendors would not render any services unless they were getting paid in advance. Receivership and Chapter 15 can stop creditors from knocking on the door, but vendors would now perform only on cash basis payments. Hanjin’s financial nightmare has been compounded by the legal complexity of the business which is further compounded by the logistical complexity of the containership liner business. Only the fact that the containership market has appr. 25% capacity (which has caused Hanjin’s financial troubles in the first place) can alleviate concerns that Hanjin’s potential demise will no be a threat to the supply chain and international trade.

Hanjin’s filing has been front page news for the whole last week. Here’s a list of articles in the print, TV and radio coverage where Basil M Karatzas and Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co were quoted:

Moral Hazard Case Study: Hanjin Shipping                                                          Maritime Executive, September 6th 2016

Containers Stranded at Sea After South Korean Company Goes Bankrupt         NPR, All Things Considered, September 8th, 2016                                                    To Listen to the Audio Clip, Please Click here!  

Retailers Seek U.S Help With Shipping Crisis                                                            The Wall Street Journal, September 1st, 2016

Hanjin Shipping Bankruptcy Unlikely to Ease Gluts of Vessels                                    The Wall Street Journal, September 2nd, 2016

Shipping Chaos                                                                                                              The Exchange CBC News Canadian Broadcasting Corporation                                TV Interview, September 2nd, 2016

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Basil Karatzas on CBC News – The Exchange about Hanjin Shipping’s Receivership. Image credit: CBC

© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

 

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The chronically weak freight market and moral hazard

Low freight rates have been a concern for a great number of reasons and to a wide range of market participants: low freight rates entail weak cash flows for the shipowners who cannot perform on their loans and causing problems for the shipping lenders; investors in shipping having experienced poor returns on their investments contemplating asset sales and leading even lower asset prices; shipbuilders facing a great deal of slippage and defaults on existing newbuilding orders while demand for additional orders has vaporized; charterers and cargo owners have to be very careful that vessels chartered even in the spot market not only are seaworthy and commercially competitive, but also the shipowner is current with their financial obligations and there is no risk of seeing the vessel delayed or arrested and the cargo onboard not delivered on time; likewise, vendors to the shipping industry have to be experts with managing credit risk and keep their clients on a short leash (further curtailing market activity and their own business).

All the concerns mentioned above emanate from a single cause, a low freight market that radiates and affects every dimension of the shipping market. Despite the recent bounce in the dry bulk market, freight rates are still very low and at barely operating break-even levels. The freight markets have been too low and for too long, and shipowners, still in business, have had to dip deeply into their cash reserves or seen their equity overly diluted. There is little more aside in terms of cash reserves, funding from investors and financiers outside the industry, or for that matter, of patience.

Based on recent transactions and experience, now another concern has to be added to the long list springing from a weak freight market: moral hazard. Moral hazard in this case can be defined as the behavior where an owner is so much disengaged from reality as to act carelessly in reference to the asset and the parties with an interest in the asset. The most obvious example is when the owner’ economic interest in the asset is so minuscule that there is precious little to care about the asset.

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Neo-panamax containership MV ‘Hanjin Namu’ entering the Port of Piraeus in better days. Image credit: Karatzas Images

There has been moral hazard in reference to financing and outstanding shipping loans. When the principal amount of the ship mortgage is materially higher than the present value of the vessel (and any hope of market recovery thereof), the shipowner has little incentive to make any effort to fulfill their obligations according to the loan agreement. There is very little hope that they will ever see their money back and thus little incentive to behave. Several owners we know had been making good, more or less, on their loans for the last couple of years in the hope of a market recovery. Two years later, having thrown good money after bad money, and reaching the bottom of their cash reserve piles, now they are barely inclined to keep performing. There have been cases of shipowners who have stopped paying interest and principal of their loans despite having the financial capacity to do so. They are better off with shipping loans in default than with performing loans. First, they reserve capital, which they can deploy to new clean-slate shipping investments and let the legacy transactions sink. Second, for loans in default, shipping banks seem keener to grand concessions to shipowners with non-performing loans while they seem to uphold ‘good’ shipowners at a much higher standard. Thus, it pays to be bad. Thirdly, there had been traditionally an unspoken law in shipping that for a borrower defaulting to a shipping bank, effectively they were ostracized for life by the ship banking community, thus a very high incentive to behave: not to borrow more than one could afford, and, even when things turned sour, to make every effort to see the lender to recover as much as possible of the principal outstanding. Now with several executives at shipping banks being corporate officers with little knowledge of or affection for shipping or with a great deal of shipping banks actively exiting shipping, there is no longer the self-watching ship banking community to ensure proper borrower behavior and thus, plenty of room for moral hazard. Sort of, ‘what they can do to me?’

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Image credit: Karatzas Images

There has been moral hazard in reference to the maintenance of the vessels as well. When the freight market is low, economizing by cutting on expenses is required to make do with less and ensure survival in a challenging market. First goes the ‘fat’ and then ‘discretionary spending’ (spare parts onboard the vessel is the classic case) and then laying off people ashore, and then keeping vessel maintenance only to the extent that the classification society requires in order to renew the certificates. Talking to inspectors boarding vessels on behalf of charterers, the technical quality of the vessels has become a concern; and, this concern is highly troubling for tankers and for oil companies given the level of liability in the event of an accident involving pollution. Talking to inspectors boarding vessels on behalf of the port state control (such as the US Coast Guard), there is real concern about vessels that have been under-maintained. Talking to inspectors boarding vessels on behalf of buyers of ships in the secondary market, there is lots of concern about vessels that have been neglected for too long. With the freight market too weak for too long and with many vessels afloat ‘depending on the kindness of strangers’, there is little incentive to do anything above the absolutely minimum required in terms of maintenance.

There has been moral hazard in reference to seafarers and the environment as well. There have been several stories recently in the trade press about seafarers getting abandoned, gone unpaid for months and malnourished, and even stories of vessels arrested due to outstanding crew wages. And, in a market place where the shipowner does not care much about the asset or the lender or the crew, it’s hard to envision how or why they would care much about anything else, such as the environment or adhering to sound navigational practices. Such is the risk of moral hazard.

There is no doubt that we are living through unique times in shipping; the present shipping crisis has been much more monstrous than others in the past. Examples of moral hazard is a known consequence of rapidly shifting economic structures and defaults (think of moral hazard in the subprime real estate in the US a few years ago). However, given that there is low expectation of a market recovery in the near future, issues arising from moral hazard will only get more complicated and perilous. After all, moral hazard in shipping can affect trade, human lives and the environment. When contemplating actions in shipping at present, one has to be cognizant of addressing alignment of interests and dissipation of moral hazard.

There is an anecdote of Shipowner A confiding to their friend, Shipowner B, that Shipping Bank X arrested four of their vessels. ‘Oh dear,’ replies Shipowner B, ‘I am so sorry to hear. And now, who is your best banking relationship?’ he asks, to which, Shipowner A dryly replies with relief: ‘I think I already told you, Bank X’!

As funny as the joke is, a market cannot function on such a basis.


The above article was originally published on The Maritime Executive website on August 30th, 2016, under the title: “Shipping’s Moral Hazard”. We are thankful to the Editors of The Maritime Executive for hosting our article.


bmti-1An abbreviated version of the article suitable for the weekly market report was published on September 2, 2016 by BMTI in Germany, under the title: “Concerns About Moral Hazard in the Shipping Industry”. We are thankful to our friends at BMTI (a well respected dry bulk market data provider, with special focus on smaller tonnages and MPP vessels, and the short sea market) for hosting our article. For more info on BMTI and their services please click on the image of their homepage to the right!


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

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Shipping is Sailing Against Trade Winds, and Other Protectionist Concerns

With the dry bulk freight market limited to bouncing along the bottom for now, most of the resources – when not afforded for ships to (figuratively) stay afloat – are devoted at buying dry bulk vessels at cheap prices in the secondary market. It seems that everyone is convinced that asset prices at present offer a unique investment opportunity not to be passed up. After all, freight market weaknesses come and go, but markets of cheap ships do not present themselves often.

The weakness of the shipping markets is mostly attributable to tonnage oversupply, whereby there are just too many vessels chasing few cargoes. In general, demand for vessels – that is trade and cargoes to be transported – is only un-inspiring at present. The main concern is that there are many more ships than cargoes, but trade is still existent, just not robust enough to employ all available vessels. Too many vessels were built because of too much speculative investment in shipping, and also because of too much available liquidity and that, at a very low cost.

Most potential buyers of ships believe that there will be tonnage equilibrium as soon as older vessels and less efficient vessels find their way to the scrapheap. Thus, effectively, it’s a matter of timing and awaiting for the immutable laws of nature to work their unique rejuvenation of the markets by way of aging. After all, it often has worked out just like this in previous business cycles in shipping. It’s true, newbuilding orders have diminished in the last year while scrapping has been as strong as it has been in the last seven years; thus, tonnage supply is coming down, and that’s easy to verify in most cases.

Demand for shipping is a much more convoluted analysis since there are too many commodities and cargoes and trading patterns, and permutations thereof, to analyze. Then, one has also to take into calculation macroeconomic factors, political events, possibly technological developments, changing consumption patterns, trade barriers, etc, and all of them, to varying degrees of seriousness, affect demand for shipping. Quite frankly, often analyzing demand for cargoes (and shipping) in detail resembles the so-called the Butterfly Effect model.

Trying to view demand for shipping from 10,000 feet, one has to identify the long-term trends and ideally be on the ‘right side’ of those trends. As a rule of thumb, growth for international trade is twice as much as economic growth (GDP), as commodities, raw materials and finished products have to pass international borders often to reach the end consumer as the economies grow. Further, growth for international trade declines much faster than economic growth in decelerating economies, while growth for international trade increases much faster when economies grow. It’s intuitive, as, when an economy is slowing down, need for trade comes down fast, while as an economy starts growing again, there is fast demand for trade for products to be brought together and reach the end consumer. The fact that the IMF and OECD keep revising downwards world economic growth has not escaped the shipping markets that have been trading at almost all time lows.

While we all hope that there will be robust economic growth soon enough to save shipping, one has also to pay attention to the fact that international trade thrives when there is a receptive ground and open-minded trading partners. And, international trade, much glamorized by free-market economists, demonstrably has been exerting a positive outcome on our societies. But often, international trade has to get clearance by politicians, and from their voters. International trade agreements can formalize trading relationships among geographic regions or bloc of countries, and make trade easier to happen. While the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the large overreaching umbrella for trade worldwide, trade agreements can be negotiated at local levels by countries or group of countries. The EU started as a quasi-trade agreement and has evolved into a political union (its end results to be seen, however), while most readers in the US can recall NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, between Mexico, USA and Canada, and its eventful passing despite the ‘giant sucking sound’ warnings of jobs lost to the south borders of the NAFTA countries.

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Shipping keeps an eye on trade patterns

On a macro-level, one today has to notice a wave at the international level whereby voters have been turning much more ‘isolationistic, nationalistic and ethnocentristic’ and against (free?) movement of people and cargoes. For instance, just recently British voters opted for Brexit, which, while driven by desire against free movement of citizens within the EU, eventually will have to have implications on movement of goods, if and when Brexit gets to be implemented. Most definitely this is not a positive development for trade and for the shipping industry, especially given the fact that Great Britain has historically been a beacon for openness and trade, being an island nation with long tradition in and institutions for maritime and trade. Moving on to the Continental Europe, there have been reports that in the State of Bavaria in Germany there is very strong anti-trade sentiment against CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, between the 28-nation EU and Canada, finalized in 2014. And, in the USA, while the Obama administration has spared no efforts to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), both presidential candidates – including his presumptive legacy preservationist Hillary Clinton – have come against the trade agreement. One cannot be sure of the outcome for these trade agreements, especially since they seem to be driven by voter angst against migrants from poor regions and/or possibly terrorist risk underlining, but the writing on the wall is clear that free trade is a ‘zero sum game’. Irrespective of one’s political or philosophical inclinations, trade and shipping will have to face some headwinds, at least in the short term.

Intra-region free trade agreements (FTA) such as ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations), RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), MERCOSUR and UNASUR in South America seem to be faring better, but these being localized agreements, their big impact on global trade (and shipping) is rather limited.

If there was ever any doubt on the beneficial impact of trade to shipping, in the following graph we present trade data from the WTO website, for total world exports and for exports from the USA and China starting in 1980 (in 2015 US$ value). China became formally member of the WTO at the end of 2001, and it’s apparent that trading values have increased for the world, USA and China since 2001. Of course, increased growth in trade since 2001 cannot totally be attributed to China’s ascension to WTO, but there is no doubt that China has been the primary driver. On the same graph, on the right scale in red, the annual averages for the Baltic dry bulk market (BIFFEX and BDI) are shown, and it’s clear that since 2001, the BDI had been trading – for most of the time – at a different plateau altogether.

Trade and BDI since 1980 (large)

‘One great wowing sound’ for shipping following China’s acceptance to WTO.

There is no dispute that shipping asset prices present great investment opportunities and that eventually enough ships will be scrapped to reach equilibrium with demand. On the other hand, the demand side of the equation has to be given proper consideration, in the light of present anti-trade sentiment in mostly the western world.

And, as a disclaimer, trade and trade agreements in this article are being viewed strictly from the point of view of a shipping man without imparting any political judgment or inclination, but bearing the strong belief that all trade is good for consumers and citizens and the society and culture, not to mention good for shipping, too.

Trade is not a zero sum game.


This article was first published on Splash24/7 under the title ‘Where’s the Growth in Trade?’ on August 8th, 2016. On August 14th, 2016, following A.P. Moeller’s quarterly report, Bloomberg published an article titled World’s Biggest Shipping Firm Warns Against U.S. Protectionism’.


© 2013 – present Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:  Access to this blog signifies the reader’s irrevocable acceptance of this disclaimer. No part of this blog can be reproduced by any means and under any circumstances, whatsoever, in whole or in part, without proper attribution or the consent of the copyright and trademark holders of this website. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that information here within has been received from sources believed to be reliable and such information is believed to be accurate at the time of publishing, no warranties or assurances whatsoever are made in reference to accuracy or completeness of said information, and no liability whatsoever will be accepted for taking or failing to take any action upon any information contained in any part of this website.  Thank you for the consideration.

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