Boats of the Highly Levered Seas

There used to be a time when the financing options for a shipowner where simple: seed capital was levered with a ship mortgage from a bank, and the loan was paid off based on an agreed-upon principal repayment profile from the operating profit. The terms of the shipping loans from banks were very similar and often the only differentiating factors for shipping loans were a few quantitative factors, principal among them the so-called spread, the difference over Libor for the cost of the debt.

Obviously, for any rational borrower, the lender with the lowest cost (interest rate) would get the business. When all things were equal, it was easy to note the sole differentiating factor, and push for the lowest number. Borrowers (shipowners) did not really have to create an “indifference curve”, their optimal set of choices. The leverage was in the 60-70% of FMV, the terms and covenants comparable, and thus the choices were limited. The “product” was one-dimensional and business was earned on the lowest spread.

Now that we live in times where by necessity there have been more types of capital than seed capital and traditional debt, such as alternative capital, mezz, senior and junior debt, etc, there is a greater opportunity to see the choices of preference for the shipowners.

There are funds that provide senior lending at only 500 basis points (5%) over Libor, but they do so at rather conservative terms, such as by lending in the 50-60% range of the FMV in today’s depressed asset pricing market environment. We would think that such financing is both cost competitive (in absolute terms) and also acts as prudent financial gearing for an owner to maximize returns and stay flexible when market conditions turn bad.

On the other hand, there are funds that provide close to 80% leverage, or even more, but at much higher cost, typically in the 8-12% range plus expectations of profit sharing, etc. The financial gearing is almost as sizeable as in the go-go days of the stratospheric market of a decade ago, but such levels of financial gearing add a lot to the costs of running profitably a vessel, and also multiplies the risk that when markets turn bad, the whole financial structure will not stand for more after the first few waves of the crisis reach the beach.

The options outlined above are as distinct as they can get, and although there are a few shades of gray between these two opposites, borrowers (shipowners) seem to gravitate to either of these polar opposites in terms of debt financing. And, watching shipowners make choices in the present market offers some insights on he direction of the market, the utility curves of the shipowners, their willingness to pay at various ranges of the curve, their risk appetite or risk aversion, and the inflection points thereof.

Even after the debacle of the last decade and the massive decade and rather fair prospects looking forward for shipping, there is a clear trend whereby shipowners prefer the high leverage, high cost (and high risk) option set over the low leverage, low cost (and low risk) alternative. There are many more shipowners who would rather borrow 80% of the value of a ship at 8% (spread) interest than shipowners who would borrow 55% at 5% (spread) interest. Credit funds and lenders in the former category are much more active than lenders in the latter camp.

Stephen, the Roaring Lion. Image credit: Karatzas Images

Apparently, shipowners (borrowers) seem to think that this is a time for “risk on” investments and thus higher financial gearing (at higher cost) makes sense. Asset prices, in the dry bulk market especially, are up by 30-50% on average in the last eighteen months, and thus, allegedly a high stakes strategy has paid off. Improving world economies and trade, and a historically low newbuilding orderbook add more fuel to the argument. But, playing the proverbial devil’s advocate, adjusted for risk, is a 50% asset appreciation investment justified on an 8% cost of debt?

In general, over the last decade, cost of capital (mostly debt) is going up in shipping. Interest rates have gone up, especially when they are expressed in terms of spreads. And, leverage overall has come down in shipping in the last decade. Likely, when shipowners (borrowers) are slowly adjusting their financing cost expectations, they seem to focus more on (and prefer) higher gearing at the trade of cost. In a theoretical binary choice of “give me more leverage or give me lower cost”, they are for the former, hands down. It may be that it takes a lot of time for habits to die?

High leverage at high cost has its risk, as mentioned. Already there are several transactions in the market where borrowers have already run into trouble and they desperately look to refinance high-priced transactions based on this structure. There are ships that have been arrested or are very close to arrest, ships financed with high leverage at high cost. And this is at a time when 2017 and 2018 freight rates are dreamboats of the 2015 and 2016 monster freight markets. Thus, in a relatively decent freight market, these high leverage preferences do not seem to always work out very well. We are afraid that after the debacle of private equity investments in 2011/2014 going sour in a major way and resulting in massive write-downs, the industry is setting itself up for another round of misguided investments powered by institutional money.

Shipping is a unique industry with its high volatility and risk at an operational level as this can be counted by the spot freight market (in the last eighteen months, BDI has been up by a factor of 5 but down 40% in the last month or so). Financial gearing over operational gearing can easily get out of hand.

But again, how fortunes have been made… or…

Stitt, the Quiescent Lion. 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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For the Shipping Industry, a Matter of Interest and Indebtedness

Ever since shipping banks (and banks in other industries) have been curtailing their lending to shipowners (and for other banks outside shipping to small and middle-market companies), there has been a big funding gap, a market need, that has to be filled for the economy to grow. Many credit funds or alternative capital funds have popped in shipping that lend money for those who look for financing to buy or refinance ships. On a broader scale, many brand-name private equity funds have been setting up credit funds in order to serve the market need of lack of debt financing in numerous industries; with more regulation for banks (among other things), un-regulated lenders step in to serve the market.

There are substantial differences in the way a bank evaluates a loan in shipping than a credit funds approaches the market; although effectively they both look to undertake credit risk (they both lend money), there are always more types of risk entangled around credit: asset risk, operational risk, counterparty risk, etc No doubt that credit funds, as non-regulated lenders typically, have much more flexibility of the structures and the terms of the loans they can underwrite. For starters, credit funds can also take a little or a lot of residual asset risk (balloon payments, etc), market risk (profit sharing, etc), asset risk (finance older vessels, etc), that is, they can think outside the “credit risk” box and provide commercially more flexible structures (of course, at a higher cost of capital.) Also, since credit funds are not regulated, when there is a default of a loan, there is no reporting to a regulatory body which would have consequences on ratios and strategy; a credit fund would have the precious luxury to convert late payments to equity or accept payment-in-kind (PIK) or impose a higher profit sharing scheme and eventually take over the asset, if things really go bad. To be sure, a default for a loan is a painful experience for all those involved, for the shipowner / borrower of course, and also for the financier / creditor, whether the creditor is a regulated bank or a credit fund as practically no-one wishes for such an outcome of default (unless the lender is really a niche vulture fund specializing on feeding on carcasses and liquidation, but honestly, this is the exception than the rule.)

The typical credit fund these days would charge approximately 8% interest for a first preferred ship mortgage; for some, this is expressed as annual interest in absolute terms, but for others, it’s the spread over Libor (L+800 bps), meaning that the borrower also undertakes interest rate risk (at a time when the Fed and other central banks shifting to a tightening mode.) The amount of leverage is dependable, but most likely it populates in the 60-70% range, inlying that still a respectable percentage of equity is required; of course, more equity means that the shipowner has to be selective with their projects and also that the credit risk for the creditor goes down as the percentage of equity goes up. Although some credit funds can accept a bullet payment of the principal (under certain circumstances), a certain level of amortization is required for most cases. And, there are the usual assignment of earnings, minimum value clause, minimum liquidity clause, negative covenant clauses, and also pledge of shares, undated signed director resignations, and, more frequently these days, demands for a personal or corporate guarantee. All in all, the loan terms these days seem to be the extreme opposite of the easy credit days of a decade ago of name lending and loans agreed on a handshake.

Although a few short years ago shipowners would never had conceded to a first preferred ship mortgage with an interest rate above 4-5% or other funky terms, these days there are few options, and thus the reason that 8% has become the prevailing cost of the debt for ship mortgages. Different types, different norms, as said before.

For a theoretical example of a five-year modern panamax bulker valued at $22 mil and 65% leverage and five year term, at 8% annual interest, the daily interest payment alone is appr. $3,000 per diem; presuming that there is a requirement for the principal to be amortized by 50% over the term of the facility, then another $4,000 pd had to be added to the financing payments. Based on a back-of-the-envelope assumption of $6,500 pd vessel daily operating expenses, the cash expenses for operating such a ship range from $9,500 – $13,500 pd; just as a reminder, only in the last eight months panamax freight rates sustainably moved above $10,000 pd, meaning that many borrowers, at best, they were breaking even in the last eighteen months. Of course, there is the hope for higher asset prices and higher freight rates, but, as they say, hope does not make for a good business plan. This model of 8% cost of debt financing would never work with modern, expensive ships (as the interest payment would become exorbitant in today’s freight market), while older tonnage (to the extent that a credit fund can be enticed enough to consider it) has more favorable economics.

There are a few corollaries to the prevailing market practices that need come elaboration:

  1. the cost of debt financing has moved to such high levels that it’s barely economically feasible to undertake new projects or buy ships for the smaller, independent shipowner
  2. borrowers undertake severe interest rate risk at a time when interest rates are moving higher (unlike a shipping bank with its interest rate swap desk that offered a full package, credit funds do not offer such service, and the borrower has to search a dis-incentivized market for this product for effectively project finance and small amounts)
  3. there is a lot of risk for both the borrower and the creditor under such scenario of high interest rates, and it will not take much for many of these financing projects to be underwater, so to speak
  4. as several more tight covenants have been added to these types of loans, in the event of defaults, it can be really ugly; if the overall market turns south (an unlikely scenario for now, but as we have learned, in shipping even unlikely scenarios are probable), there will be a massive cascading problem (credit funds will not be as cavalier as shipping banks with arresting ships, but then how they would be operating them or sell them in a declining market?)
  5. with so many credit funds having been set up for shipping, potentially there could be the possibility of them having to compete and lowering their standards in order to gain business; we are well aware of at least one credit fund that between April and October 2016 made a complete U-turn on their credit underwriting as they could not get one deal done.
  6. as cost of debt financing is too high, many financial sources keep looking entering the market which likely would undermine the credit fund market; we are working with a Chinese-originating fund providing first preferred ship mortgages at 5% interest for 50-60% leverage and very normalized covenants.
  7. disappointedly, for credit funds being private equity funds and well versed in structured finance, their proposed structures are extremely monolithic and inflexible, which will cost them a lot over the long term; being unregulated and flexible, only imagination could limit structures where they could make big returns if they were willing to be flexible and exchange some credit risk for some market risk and some asset risk and some residual risk and some counterparty risk and some… All credit funds have been pigeon-holed into credit, they compete heads-one with every other credit fund, and the only reason they do business now is that shipping is desperate for capital; this market could easily move away. But again, most of these credit funds have been run by former shipping bankers with some trying to exonerate themselves for the shipping bank mistakes of the last decade…

For now for sure, shipping debt is an interest-ing market to watch…

For some, a foggy market… One World Trade Center in Downtown Manhattan. 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.

Credit is due to Shipping Finance

The freight market has been disappointing recently, for dry bulk, tankers and containerships, while asset prices too have been on a softening trend, especially for tankers. As one would expect, traditionally the freight market gets most of the attention in shipping, for signs of strength with the hope that asset prices would be lifted too; however, we are of the opinion that shipping finance may be the key for successfully navigating the shipping markets going forward.

Having traveled extensively recently and having closed several S&P and structured, financial transactions, we can only be more convinced by the day that shipping finance is where the real battlefield lays for shipping nowadays. Access to finance, whether based on own funds or access to financing from third parties, is what sets shipowners apart in terms of survival and growth.

Shipping banks are done with traditional shipping and first preferred ship mortgages. Yes, we have seen a couple of occasions where European banks are still lending at 300 bps spread over Libor, but they are so selective and have such a limited capacity that effectively such lending activity only confirms the fact that shipping banks are not active for most practical purposes. Thus, cheap debt financing is no more.

Shipping credit funds have made lots of noise in the last year, and we estimate that they have deployed close to a billion dollars in the last eighteen months; still, they are too afar from financing the average shipowners, notwithstanding the temptation in this desperate market for debt financing. Credit funds typically look for 8% minimum yield before any fees, equity kickers and other incentives, which limits their applicability to only second hand vessels that are priced at a multiple of the collateral’s scrap value; financing the acquisition of a resale capesize vessel with excess $30 mil acquisition price and paying 8% yield, one may as well try their luck in Las Vegas and try to have a good time while they are at it. Thus, credit funds can have parodical application.

Private equity funds having made ill-timed “bets” in 2011-2014 in shipping (and we consciously use the term “bets”), now they stand licking their wounds and trying to devise ways to cut their losses short. Never mind grandiose plans for IPOs, market consolidation and bringing turn-around expertise and making a commitment to the industry; we have been the busiest we have seen with advisory, market intelligence, valuation, industry expertise services for disputes, arbitration and litigation between shipowners and financial investors. So much for hopes that private equity could feel the funding gap left in the wake of shipping banks leaving the industry.

True, there are still shipowners with deep pockets who have kept buying vessels well into 2017, despite the asset price bounce compared to all time lows in 2016 for the dry bulk market; however, there are few shipowners that indeed still have deep pockets. German owners may feel sick that they lose ships to other markets and especially to the Greek market, and this can be true to an extent, but on the other hand, few shipowners have been buying and can keep buying on a sustainable basis; most shipowners with ‘seed money’ are almost maxed out and looking for third-party money if they were to keep buying.

Shipping finance is really the battleground for modern shipping these days, the industry’s ‘soft underbelly’. While one can keep projecting on tonnage demand growth and developing trade patterns, shipping finance will be the field that will make or break shipowners. Shipping finance is getting to be ever more challenging and there is no realistically any reason that the picture will get brighter in the future. Yes, for few publicly listed shipping companies with critical mass, real business plans and solid corporate governance, capital markets can still be the way to go. But for most of the independent shipowners and several of the penny-stock listed shipping companies, shipping finance would be the critical link in their survival and / or success.

Based on reports from a recent shipping conference in New York – which purposefully we did not attend, we have seen that “M&A” and “consolidation” were the buzzwords of the day. But again, in a market that is as dead in activity as a coffin floating after the sinking of the „Pequod” in Moby Dick, whether for IPOs, etc (even a SPAC sponsored by the blue blood Saverys’ shipping family has failed) or follow-ons, hopes for “M&A” and “consolidation” have to do. And, statements that shipping and commercial banks ought to be considering shipping again, given that the industry is “low volatility”, humored us for reminding us the proposed “Hamburg Formula” for vessel valuations  of almost ten years ago where the shipping industry was suggested to be an industry of low volatility and risk and the suggested cost of capital was a whole of 50 basis points over the T-bill, then.

Solving the shipping finance riddle is really a critical point for most of the shipowners to address going forward, the direction of the freight and asset pricing markets.


This article first appeared on Splash 24/7 on June 23rd, 2017, under the title “Credit is due to Shipping Finance”.


Manhattan, New York City: An ever more critical place for shipping finance. 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.

Shipping industry’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”

2016 for the most part has been a difficult year for every sector in the shipping industry: weak rates for dry bulk, containerships, offshore and even tanker vessels exacerbated the financial distress for many owners and their lenders. Recently however the market has shown signs of hope, here and there, with freight rate and asset price improvements, but in general, the greatest hope of all has been that the worst days in shipping, likely, are behind us.

Great name for a bank by the water, but regrettably no shipping loans offered. Image credit: Karatzas Images

One driver in shipping that has not shown any signs of promise are shipping banks in terms of expanding their book in the industry. The market collapse since 2008 has been especially hard for the shipping banks which first saw their clients (shipowners) facing a weak freight market and rendering them unable to sustain the original ship mortgage payments, and then, a precipitous decline in the value of the assets (ships pledged as collateral for the ship mortgages) killed any motivation to keep making payment on underwater assets. Most shipping banks are in an expressed course of departing from shipping and actively have been selling their existing shipping loans for the last several years. The news of certain shipping banks turning their backs to the industry is challenging, but the more disheartening prospect has been that shipping banks still dedicated to shipping have not been able to adapt their models for the current market developments; probably because of the fact that they have to act within strict regulatory and auditing guidelines, shipping banks still active in shipping have been maintaining an almost religious focus on a handful of clients who seem to ‘check all the boxes’, while the vast majority of the market remains un-serviced.

As we had mentioned in the past, the funding gap left in the wake of shipping banks has provided opportunities for institutional investors to enter the ship lending market. Whether these funds are categorized as credit funds or lending funds or alternative capital funds or even disguised as leasing funds on occasion, effectively they are providing capital to the industry in the form of debt, as supposed to equity, and effectively in a sense are substituting for the role of a bank as a lender. On the surface of it, shipping is a capital intensive industry and someone, sooner or later, would had to step in to fill the gap left by the banks.

Credit funds, being institutional investors, have by default higher cost of capital than the funding cost of a bank (read customer deposits), and therefore one would expect that obtaining debt from a fund would have to be at a higher cost. And, indeed, debt financing from a fund typically starts in the low double-digits, all in, even for relatively conservative projects. In a sense, it’s unfortunate that credit funds cannot adjust downwards (below their threshold) the cost of debt of a project depending on risk, since their investors (LPs) have been assured of a certain minimum return, typically in the high single digits after expenses and fees. As expensive the cost of debt financing from credit funds as it may sound, one has to compare it not to what shipowners were accustomed to (and possibly spoiled by indulging shipping banks) a few years ago of a couple of hundred basis points (bps) above Libor (L), but to the real risk of the industry overall and the intricacies of the transaction in particular. If risk can accurately be described by variance and volatility, what risk a rational investor would assign to the dry bulk market when the BDI has varied between almost 13,000 and 300 points in a decade, or when the BDI has varied between 300 and 1,300 points in timeframe shorter of a calendar year?

In need of capital… ‘Ships in a Harbor’, ca 1873, Oil on canvas, Claude Monet; Denman Waldo Ross Collection (1906); Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Image credit: Karatzas Images

As expensive the cost of debt from a credit fund as it may sound, it’s still a relatively low return given that institutional investors typically aim at returns in excess of 20% by taking (mostly market) risk. In a sense, it begs the question why institutional investors would bother with debt investments in shipping. Probably, there are several answers to that: many private equity funds entered shipping aggressively in the last few years and their equity investments have shown a misunderstood industry and its risks; debt investments, on the other hand, either by the same institutional investors or funds who were browsing the industry, is a more measured undertaking of risk, in an industry notoriously volatile. Further, the state of the shipping industry has been so bad that shipowners these days casually consent to high debt financing given the alternative, or lack thereof. Thus, market conditions have pushed shipowners to modify their financing cost expectations and move from bank-related debt financing and closer to fund-related debt financing. And, last but not least, let’s not forget that we are living in an usually low interest rate environment where investors are starved for yield and returns from credit investments in shipping can be acceptable given the interest rate environment.

Depending on how one counts this, more than $5 billion have been committed to credit funds and platforms by institutional investors in the last three years. The mandate of some of these platforms includes investments in shipping loans in the secondary market (not just originations); and, discouragingly enough, some of these credit funds are not completely realistic in their expectations, so we hold doubts on whether their capital can be deployed (still, we cannot get over a really nice ad in the Financial Times a few years ago for a fund having just raised $1 billion to invest in distress, including shipping; they managed to deploy exactly zero dollars in the shipping industry so far, and their in-house shipping guru departed for balmier seas). And coincidentally, $5 billion is still a minuscule amount of money for the debt needs of the shipping industry given that the market of shipping loans stood at more than $700 billion at the top of the market a few years ago. Credit funds will not be able to fill the gap left behind by the banks, but again, that’s not their main mandate or concern.

Can credit funds be considered a strategic partner to the shipping industry? Probably a hard question to answer given that credit funds are still driven by institutional investors who are industry agnostic and tend to gravitate to industries / sectors / geographies in distress, and will not be able to accommodate shipping over the long term. But, for time being and for as long as credit funds are active in shipping, their relatively high cost of capital and their more conservative approach (than equity funds of recent or shipping banks of the last decade), one can be assured that shipping asset prices or newbuilding ordering will not get out of hand, as it has happened twice in the past decade. Credit funds may not be suitable for establishing ‘ceilings’ in the shipping industry but mostly to provide ‘floors’ and holding the market from dropping lower.


© 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.