There is no Alpha (α) in Shipping

Companies, seen as going concerns, are usually valued as a multiple of their earnings or cash flows (selectively), reflecting that a buyer of a company will be generating profits in the years to come based on the business’ assets, contracts, reputation, management, corporate competitive advantage, etc Based on the nature of the business and market conditions, the preferred multiple can differ or modified to accommodate unique circumstances. Of course, there are exemptions to the rule. For instance, who could forget the dotcom years when internet startups where valued on “eyeballs” rather than actual cash flows, reflecting hope and ambition that the distant future will be rosiest?

And, then, there are ship-owning companies – on the other spectrum of company valuations. Shipping companies are asset-heavy entities since they own the vessels, expensive capital assets with long economic lives. The prospect is that these capital assets will be utilized to generate cash flows and earnings – and, logically, shipping companies ought to be valued of some multiple of cash flows or earnings rather than just the assets. Valuing a refinery company, for instance, at the cost of their plant value most likely would imply a liquidation or a fire-sale scenario and not a going concern.

For those paying attention to publicly listed shipping companies, the valuation metric is the so-called “NAV”, that is the Net Asset Value – that is, the current value of the fleet less outstanding debt (mortgages) plus cash in the bank or other tangible assets. That’s how publicly listed companies are valued, as the value of the “steel” (ships) with little immediate consideration for earnings. In general, shipping companies are valued at or below NAV – effectively, if one were to liquidate the business would end up with the same or more hard cash in their bank account. Philosophically speaking, being dead (liquidated) has a higher price than being alive (going concern); this does not exactly sound very inspiring…

Perusing a current research report from a major investment bank one sees that the mean stock price of shipping equities stands at 0.97x of NAV and the median at 0.87x; with the exception of two companies that have long term contracts for their fleets (MPLs in the LNG space) that trade above NAV, more or less, any other shipping company trades at a discount to NAV; even the mighty Maersk with its hundred-plus year old name, gloried history, global reach and household name “doesn’t get no respect” – below NAV valuation, too; one tanker company actually at the time of this writing trades at 0.60x of NAV, meaning that if the stock price per share represents $10 worth of shipping assets, the price of the share stands at only $6. Ouch!

Shipping freight rates fluctuate over time and shipping asset values move accordingly with some time lapse and a varying degree of correlation. And, it’s well known that, unlike other assets that only depreciate, shipping assets do also appreciate in price. In a hot freight market, ships get more valuable despite their age. Low NAVs follow weak freight markets and usually indicate the prospects of freight rates are anemic in the near future, which is the current state of the market.

Theoretically, from an investment point of view, there is an arbitrage opportunity and money to be made between undervalued shipping equities (buy the stock or sell the ships when NAV is low) or sell shares when stock trading above NAV; and there has been just a case of the management team of two affiliated publicly listed shipping companies that have presented to the investment community an arbitrageur model of making money in shipping, buying back their own stock when below NAV or selling their ships when overvalued. Unfortunately such an investment strategy has not played well in real life in this case; many reasons, in our opinion, that the arbitrageur model has not panned out well, but let’s say that real life in the shipping industry is more challenging than an investment proposal often assumes.

The paradox, and a disheartening fact, in our opinion, remains that shipping companies are valued according to the value of their hard assets. There is zip premium for brand name (or “franchise”) value, for intellectual property, for charters and other contracts in place, for intangibles, and, regrettably for management expertise. And, if one adheres literally to the valuation definition, a below NAV valuation implies that the company’s management team not only does not add value to the firm, but, in a sense, is a liability to the firm. One gets the firm cheaper than one can buy the assets. Ouch!

From an investment point of view, one could argue that shipping management teams offer little alpha (α) – the premium return over the market return. Their expertise, knowledge, efforts and hard work mean precious little when it comes to adding value; the shipping equity stocks move along the beta (β) of the market, without adding any value. Ouch, again! Unless, there are concerns with the agency theory

Shipping company management teams most obviously generate value by timing vessel acquisitions and disposals, mainly by buying ships when they are cheap or undervalued. Effectively, it’s a focus on market beta (β) and market timing versus capturing alpha (α) by building and running a superior business. And, by focusing on beta – instead of alpha – there is a re-emphasis of a trading model at the expense of an operating business model, one to focus on generating profits from running the ships and not trading the ships themselves.

Some have argued that the public markets with their short-termism, regulatory constraints and poor valuation metrics are not the ideal source of capital for the shipping companies. Irrespective of whether such criticism is valid, the shipping industry is ripe for a shipping company management team that will be able to provide a superior business model and convince the investors to value shipping companies on metrics that go beyond the value of the “steel”.


And, just for the record, Basil M Karatzas, Founder and CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co., is an Accredited Senior Appraiser (ASA) for Machinery & Equipment by the American Society of Appraisers.


Love the “steel”, hate the shipping stock! Image credit: Karatzas Images


© 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, Private Equity and the Theory of Agency

The involvement of the private equity in the shipping industry has consumed plenty of ink and has rekindled not too little of a hope for an industry in distress; since the collapse of shipping market in 2008, private equity investors (and by extension, institutional investors wholesale-ly) have been accorded a portrait ranging from guardian angels and saviors of the industry to the “locusts” purveying industries in distress. A lot second-guessing can be excused when markets are dislocated and survival takes precedence over form or order. However, seven years after the instigation of the crisis and more than $30 billion in investments in shipping, people have been trying to take stock of what they had, what happened and what they should had. The fact that seven years after the instigation of the shipping market’s collapse still major shipping industry indices are flirting with all time lows does not make attempted assessments about the industry any easier.

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MV ‘Prince Joe’ in Piraeus – Your typical princely ‘Joe’, today in Piraeus, tomorrow on Wall Street… Image credit: Karatzas Photographie Maritime

As a matter of fact, the precipitous drop of the market and the establishment of thirty-year lows for indices like the Dry Baltic Index (BDI) have brought the concern of industry stock-taking to the pages of the mainstream business press. Most prominently, recently the Financial Times run an opinion article on shipping and the involvement of the private equity in shipping, and what it may have gone so awry; after all, the best and the brightest of the industry have poured their greyest of their gray power into alleviating the troubles of the industry. So far, the foray of institutional investors into shipping has not gone as modeled (at least up until now), and the aftershocks of such involvement are widely expected to make waves in an industry used to be dealing with physical waves.

Blame has been laid on the shortcomings of the agency theory as managers may try to put their own interests ahead of those of their principals and investors. The agency theory has been offered as a management or administration class in business schools, but actually applies nicely in the shipping industry, and actually twice. Corporate officers and corporate managers are running the shipping company on behalf of the investors – who are not involved with day-to-day operations, and in their absence, corporate managers may make decisions that have the managers’ best interests at heart instead of the shareholders. The potential conflict is clear.

In a model often adopted in shipping, the vessel management of the company’s fleet is often outsourced to a vessel management company often affiliated with the corporate officers or at least the ‘sponsor’ of the company when the shipping company was IPO-ed. Many shipowners – both operating and financial shipowners – outsource their vessel management to third parties, for many reasons – including benefitting from economies of scale, etc, and there is nothing inherent wrong with outsourcing; however, when the vessel management company is affiliated with the company’s management, and the earnings of the steady, market-neutral cash flows of the vessel management are unilaterally benefiting private the corporate management, then there may be a concern. It’s apparent that the potential for conflict arises twice when the agency theory is applied to shipping.

Now that several publicly listed shipping companies have become ‘penny stocks’, not mentioning several restructurings and bankruptcies and many investments by institutional investors gone sour, the conflicts of interest get front and center attention. It took a shipping cycle of a lifetime to burst in 2008 and a dip to 30-year low for the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) for concerns to be raised, as such in the article in the Financial Times.

The truth of the matter is that it’s unfortunate that conflicts of interest let the managers on occasion get the better end of the deal; it’s part of the human nature that such things happen, and the managerial science has been at work on how best to optimize corporate governance, motivate sufficiently the managers but not at the undue expense of the shareholders. However, this is not the first time that managerial abuse may have taken place, and shipping is not the only industry having such ‘privilege’. Just recently in the news, former CEO of Tyco International Dennis Kozlowski was looking for absolution for the managerial excesses of ice sculptures decorating corporate events in Sardinia of an era past (hopefully).

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Lighthouse ‘Point Judith’ in Rhode Island; image credit: Karatzas Photographie Maritime

The truth of the matter also is that in reference to managerial excesses in shipping – and mostly when it comes to vessel management – the news about the abuses are often pre-announced and occasionally never exaggerated at all. One only has to peruse the filings and the prospectuses of shipping companies – mandatory information for publicly listed companies – to see that in many cases, there have been a garden variety of excesses and conflicts, including exorbitant vessel management fees. There is no digging, begging, suing, etc to get access to such information; it’s in black and white, publicly filed, and available on any computer with internet access. It only takes a few phone calls to market experts and other vessel management companies to get a sense of the going market rate for vessel management fees, which coincidentally is less than $500 per diem; however, on average for most publicly listed shipping companies, the shareholders are paying more than twice as much to affiliated companies to have their vessels managed; There are actually publicly listed companies that they have proposed as high as $1,800 per diem vessel management fees. Why? Why anyone would accept such without qualifying the service or attempt to negotiate better pricing or shop the market? And of course, vessel management fees is only one form of conflicts and managerial abuse; there are commissions for the sale & purchase of vessels managed, for the chartering and the commercial management of the vessels, for ordering the vessels at the shipbuilders, for supervising the construction, for … for… Back-of-the-envelope calculations for last year’s darling of shipping companies on Wall Street is that the management of the company has earned close to $100 million in fees alone, risk free and captive proceeds effectively for doing their job; and this is before executive compensation and other benefits. And a few years ago, executive compensation for another certain shipping company amounted to $75 million out of $125 million operating profit in the course of a few years. Again, such information has been filed publicly and it is not news, or it should not be news.

We can talk about the excesses of the shipping markets, but as in many things in life, there is the overarching principle of caveat emptor, buyer be aware; pertinent information is made publicly available, and let the investors make their own decision, and let them be prepared to take certain risks, let them benefit or suffer from the consequences. And, shipping is a very volatile industry with lots of inherent risk and meaningful chance of one losing their investment. Heightened management fees and other conflicts have exacerbated the results of the crisis but cannot be blamed for the crisis. And, placing the blame solely on the management teams doesn’t advance the debate about better corporate governance. After all, these prospectuses are primarily filed and intended for institutional investors who are well educated and experienced and compensated to invest money professionally; they should have done their due diligence, they should have checked the market, they should have ‘kicked the tires’ as they say, or in shipping, possibly they should have boarded a vessel or two. The truth of the matter is that sometimes investors are blinded, motivated by deal pressure and the need to deploy their money under management and start earning their own fees, they sometimes think monolithically and chase the same story, and unfortunately, very often, minimizing their due diligence to a box to be checked, and not a real in-depth search of the real events, causes and relationships. Unfortunately, we have seen it too many times in our business life, including most memorably once getting a call from Sydney, Australia from a firm where a US-institutional investor had outsourced their due diligence ‘box’ – the heavily Aussie-accented gent was calling to ask about a Greek shipowner; when the reply was ‘Well, they are not exactly Angelicoussis’, the follow-up question was ‘What’s Angelicoussis?’

Putting the blame solely on managerial abuses and conflicts of interest on the management and sponsors of shipping companies reminds of the joke where a prostitute, failing to collect the earnings after rendering certain services, yells ‘Rape!’ When professional fund and asset managers depend solely on screens and models to make their decisions and fail or turn a blind eye to conflicts in pursue of a quick return to be booked in this quarter, and follow a trend because everybody else is doing it (‘eco design’ newbuildings come to mind), it’s a disingenuous service to the shipping industry and a disingenuous service to the shareholders on behalf of whom institutional investors are acting. When short-termism and herd mentality guides investment decision-making, when due diligence is a box to be ticked, one has to wonder whether shipping will get to see better days soon… or more respectable days…


 

© 2012-2015 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.