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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Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman

Once upon a time, there was an independent shipowner with, let’s say, ten modern product tankers. Three of their tankers were mortgaged with a major European bank, a very well-known name and with proven past commitment to the shipping industry. And, the shipowner themselves, have been in the shipping business for more than a couple of decades and enjoying a solid reputation in the shipping community and with charterers. These, being legacy shipping loans, their terms were highly competitive in this market despite some success of the bank to tighten the loan terms since the market collapse a few years ago. Actually, the terms of these loans were exceptional, by today’s standards, as the spread was just 300 basis points. And, of course, the shipowner had watched these loans like the apple of their eye, and they were current with interest payments and principal repayments and the loans were comfortably meeting the loan-to-value (LTV) covenants.

Eighteen months ago, the shipowner got a note from their mortgage bank that since they (the bank) were exiting the shipping industry, the shipowner was given notice to make arrangements to pay back the loans (there was a small discount offered) or the bank would had to take matters in their own hands. Since these were performing loans, the mortgage bank could sell the loans at close to par, likely to a credit fund or an institutional investor, or possibly even to another bank if there were still banks out there buying shipping loans – not a likely cozy prospect under any circumstances.

It took a few months for the shipowner to recover from the first shock, having a brand-name bank giving them notice on performing loans. And, it only got worse from there. The shipowner’s shock got greater as soon as they started “shopping” the market for new financing: few shipping banks had interest in new clients or business or the capacity to finance a three-vessel package. While approaching institutional investors, the strategy was modified to squeeze the mortgage bank for a hefty discount of the loans, but with the institutional investors sharing (a great deal of) the economics of the transaction and not just to provide new loans. Almost a year passed since the mortgage bank had given notice and the shipowner could not find a new “deal” good enough. But again, having to replace shipping loans priced at L+300 bps in today’s market, one feels like they have been punched in the stomach.

And, while the shipowner was taking their sweet time to find the perfect financing they thought they deserved, the product tanker freight market started deteriorating: first freight rates dipped and then halved, and, as one would expect, secondary market product tanker sales started taking place at lower price levels. While the shipowner had a few million in cash in the bank, dry-dockings and other expenses started chipping away on the balances. And, the lower asset prices triggered LTV defaults now, giving much more leeway to the bank to sell the vessels themselves, and not just the loans – an even worse prospect for the shipowner.

And, lower freight rates and lower asset prices were making financing the original loans more difficult: cash flows now would only support lower financing, and institutional investors lost appetite since any discount now had less value in a weakening market.

All being told, the shipowner managed to finance just two of the vessels at today’s prevailing conditions (lower leverage, tighter covenants and cost in excess of L+600 bps.) And, the third vessel was let go and was sold (at a small loss) since no financing could be found within the parameters of a weak freight market and limited “sweat equity” from the shipowner.

This is a real story (unfortunately) and no names or other details can be divulged; but, such details do not matter really. If there are lessons to be learned is that first, in this market, shipping finance is the “determining factor” of the shipping industry, the independent shipowners. Shipping finance is the new battlefield where shipowners will be called to fight; if they cannot sort out their shipping finance game in the new market, they will be driven out of business – as simple as that. Second, in this difficult market, it’s not only “bad shipowners” who have problems; if your bank is not committed to shipping or you or they are having higher priorities unrelated to shipping, that’s the weakest link in the business, even if the loans are good and performing. Third, it pays to be pro-active in this market and tie loose ends as soon as possible; looking for the perfect financing at the expense of time, one can lose much more than a few hundred basis points – not arguing that two hundred basis points are not worth fighting for, but again, this is not a time when banks and lenders can bend much, if at all. And, lastly, independent shipowners had become a substantial part of the industry based on their shipping and operational expertise and efficiencies and not on their financial expertise (shipping banks were lending in the past liberally and just on the basics of how to extend credit); the present market is much more sophisticated than that and hiring competent shipping advisors may very well be warranted; trying to avoid paying an advisory fee can cost one whole ships.

“Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” was a revolutionary, patriotic song for Mao Zedong’s Red Guards in the 1960’s and 1970’s exemplifying the Chairman’s leadership skills, metaphorically speaking. For an independent shipowner these days, sailing the seas depends on the helmsman navigating the new reality of the shipping finance markets.

A long shadow over one of world’s most important shipping cluster. 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.