New Market Landscape to Question Commodity Shipping

In a recent article in the Splash 24/7, a debate was initiated on whether shipping is a “commoditized” business. We define “commodity business” as any business or industry whereby there is little pricing power and the product can be procured from many different suppliers with little effort or additional cost (interchangeable product.)

Certain sectors of shipping, such as the cruiseship business, have positioned themselves as far from “shipping” as possible, and their relevance to the shipping industry is limited to the loyalty and romance and affinity they can offer on behalf of the differentiation of their cruiseship fleet to their guests and passengers. For those who have talked with vacationers who are frequent cruiseship passengers, we all have moved by their affection for the cruiseships individually and their loyalty to the brand collectively and the type of cruiseship they cater to. The cruise-line industry has managed to create a clear image for the industry and individual cruiseship companies have created a “brand” and appeal to a certain segment of the market, ranging from the luxury and discerning high-end of the market to the “cattle class” segment of cruising appealing to the younger crowd on a budget. The cruiseship industry is a clear example of a sector in shipping that has not been a commodity and it has created a brand and has charging a premium pricing for its product.

The dry bulk market, however, with the very long tail of charterers – with some of them trading in obscure ends of the globe and the freight cost being of paramount importance, is a highly commoditized business. As long as a dry bulk ship can transport a certain amount of cargo from port A to port B, price is the only differentiating factor: the age of the ship, the quality of the vessel management, the financial strength of the shipowner, and several more factors could easily be sidestepped. A ship with a shiny, bright smokestack would get almost exactly the same freight revenue as a ship with a heavily darkened-from-smog smokestack; and given that the former ship has a higher cost basis (the cost of the fresh paint, at the very least), the owner of the latter dry bulk vessel was enjoying better overall economics. Dry bulk is the least regulated of the shipping sectors and the sector closest resembling what economists call “perfect competition” and staying closest to a commodity business model has made sense. Charterers objectively would barely differentiate vessels besides pricing, and pricing was set by the market, not a shipowner or a ship.

But again, the last few years forced the shipping industry to take quickly many steps at a time: the freight market crashed and controlling vessel operating expenses became critical, new regulations came to effect (whether for emissions or ballast water, etc), bunkering costs could not be neglected by the charterers, etc Therefore, some differentiation started entering the market in an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, large charterers and trading houses, under the luxury or pretense of a weak freight market, have been pushing for higher vessel and vessel management standards in terms of safety, performance, security, accountability, predictability, efficiency, consistence, etc which further allowed some shipping companies to differentiate their “product”.

The tanker industry, having to live with higher standards ever since the tanker MT ‘Exxon Valdez’ became a household name three decades ago, has forced shipping companies to be more cognizant of their “brand” and reputation. The tanker industry is also driven by a group of select charterers (oil majors, etc) who themselves are held to high standards and a few minimum standards we established for the tanker market (i.e. OCIMF, CFR, etc) Still the tanker market is far away from a “branding” strategy when tanker owners can differentiate themselves, but nevertheless there is a higher level of “name recognition” in this market sector.

The shipping industry is a “price taking” industry where the shipowner has to take and accept what price the market offers at any time. Unlike the yacht industry where the customer invests in a “I want” or desire product, in the shipping industry, the customer invests in a “I need” or mandatory product. In the first case, the level of desire can be graded and the optimal product and pricing can be found. In the latter case, the product is a basic need (transport of cargo) which by itself doesn’t allow for price differentiation. However, for shipping companies that have a strategy of differentiating the product at any market price, likely to be more successful in the future.

Since 2008, there have been tectonic changes in the shipping industry. What worked in the past likely will not work equally well in the future. There are many reasons for that and the fact that the landscape of shipping financing has changed is just one of them. It’s hard to create a brand in a commodity-driven market and charge a premium price, but charterers and financiers and the rest of the stakeholders will want to see distinct companies with a quality product. “Me too” shipowners of a handful dry bulk vessels will be pressed hard to stand out in a new market. Setting a shipping company apart from the competition will eat into earnings (once again, shipping is a “price taker” industry) and shipowners will have to deliver more value for every dollar earned.

It’s hard to create a “brand” in a commodity world, and there is little in extras one can offer for a basic need of transporting raw material (hard to abuse most of the time, never complains, doesn’t have any demand for comfort and pampering, etc). The only way really to differentiate and build a “brand” would be by providing the charter with the offering of a better product: a ship with good performance with tight ranges of consistency, performance, etc, by optimizing voyages and minimizing downtime and damage, by having a solid balance sheet and not jeopardizing vessel and cargo arrests, etc. And, in order to be able to offer these and any more attributes that would define their “brand”, they would need a critical mass of a fleet in order to be able to spread SG&A and overhead across many ships, and also being able to obtain competitive financing in a world where shipping finance is tough to be found.

Shipping is a B2B (business-to-business) model where the end consumer has little saying. It would be impossible to have an “Intel Inside” marketing campaign to differentiate the product and drive demand via “pull” by the end-consumer (except possibly in the containership sector), but still, charterers and financiers and stakeholders would like to see a product that stands out in terms of quality and value. Probably such a model may not offer the best profitability that the competition over time, but most likely, it may ensure survivability when the market takes another dive. Charterers likely to “fly to quality” and shipping companies that have moved away from a commoditized world with a better product have better odds of survival.


Article originally appeared in the Splash 24/7 website under the title: “New Market Landscape to Question Commodity Shipping”. 


The containership terminal of the Port of Piraeus: trying to get more efficient with commodity shipping under new ownership. 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.

Basil M Karatzas and Karatzas Marine Advisors Quoted in the News

We are delighted that Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co., and its founder Basil M Karatzas have become the contact to have for shipping market expertise; with prompt access to market information and a vast network and access to senior executives worldwide, in the shipping industry and several complimentary industries, the company has had a front row seat to today’s developments in the maritime industry and has been enjoying an active deal-flow and the trust of many in the shipping industry.

Five shipping and logistics influencers you should follow (Veconinter, March 13th, 2017)                                                                                                                            Basil Karatzas was named one of the shipping industry’s influencers by Veconinter, a Venezuela-based logistics company; tweets on shipping, and everything about it, by Basil Karatzas can be followed at @KaratzasMarine and @BasilKaratzas

Πήρε «φωτιά» η αγορά πλοίων μεσαίου τύπου για ξηρό φορτίο (Ναυτεμπορικἠ, March 14th, 2017)

ZIM Shipping Names New CEO in Face of Possible Sale (The Wall Street Journal, March 10th, 2017)

Gibraltar Shipping Interview: Basil Karatzas Talks Alternative Bunkers, S&P Markets, Vessel Financing, and Trump by Gibraltar Shipping (March 10th, 2016)

Ναυπηγήσεις – διαλύσεις, διπλή πρόκληση για τα bulk carriers (Ναυτεμπορικἠ, March 6th, 2017)

Still at sea Shipping’s blues: The many barriers to scrapping cargo ships (The Economist, March 2nd, 2017)

Σε «bad bank» το 5% του παγκόσμιου στόλου των containerships (Ναυτεμπορικἠ, February 15th, 2017)

Sinking Feeling: Shipping Is Latest European Banking Worry (The Wall Street Journal, February 10th, 2017)

From the crossroads to the world… 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.

2017 03MAR07 N Ναυπηγησεις-διαλυσεις, διπλη προκληση για τα bulker carriers

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.

Looking at Shipping’s Crystal Ball for 2017

We are pleased to reproduce an article that Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co. was invited to contribute for BMTI’s annual review earlier this year. BMTI is an independent research firm which produces daily and bespoke reports in the dry bulk market with special emphasis for smaller tonnage, MPPs, and other specialty assets. Their website can be accessed by clicking here, please pay them a visit! To read our article, please click on the icon herebelow.

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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’s new dislocation: the banking system’s ‘safety trap’

Times for most shipping sectors are very tough, by many standards, even if one takes a long-term historical perspective. The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), the proxy for the broader shipping industry in many ways, is almost 100% up in the last forty days – and still, dry bulk vessels barely achieve operating break-even rates on the spot market.

Dry bulk asset prices, despite the recent rejuvenation of the last two weeks, are very low; bulkers older than ten-year-old typically change hands at multiples of their scrap price. The dry bulk freight market has taken most of the blame, since what kind of buyer would like to buy a vessel – irrespective of attractive pricing – and start losing money from the minute they touch them when the closing and delivery of the vessel is in effect.

No doubt the weakness of the freight market deserves lots of the blame. But, anyone, who has been involved with vessel valuations and shipping investments, knows that vessel asset prices are also materially influenced by several more factors, availability of cheap capital being the primary driver among them.

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Shipping’s Old Model. Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Financing for shipping projects at present is typically rather very expensive. Most shipping banks have already left shipping and a few more have been divesting shipping loan portfolios as fast as practically possible. For the banks still active in shipping, very few and precious, they mostly stay away from soliciting new clients – since their existing clientele can absorb their curtailed availability of funds, and without having to undertake the always challenging KYC approval, etc. For new clients to be considered, they have to be “strategic”, with critical mass of fleet of vessels, sound prospects of business success, and sometimes, already recognizable names from the bank’s private wealth departments. Lending against dry bulk vessels is of no interest to the shipping banks now, tankers older than typically eight years of age are too old to lend against, crude tankers are too risky to touch, containerships need to have long term charters, and offshore is off a cliff for now. In short, for a shipping project to obtain new financing from a shipping bank these days, the ship will have to walk on the water, not just keep afloat!

Obtaining equity for shipping is no much easier, as most funds have lost billions and billions chasing a market recovery in 2013 that never came – or was run over by their exuberance optimism and newbuilding contracts, and now they stay away from the industry. Also, equity funds often invest pro-cyclically, when the market is in recovery, and thus the dry bulk’s negative cash flows are a serious deterrent. There are many funds (credit funds) that provide lending in the shipping industry, and they often charge 6-10% interest rates plus some degree of equity participation. And, the market is so constrained for debt financing, that we know several owners (and actually our firm has arranged such financing for a few more), where shipowners are borrowing at such high terms in order to be able to expand and exploit the present state of the market and the historically low asset prices.

The difficulty of obtaining financing for shipping projects has to do with many factors, some originating from the shipping industry but some not. The excesses of the shipping banks, for example, of the pre-Lehman credit boom still have not worked their way through the banking system. There is still an amazing amount of shipping loan portfolios that are priced close to original cost basis, allowing for little else for the banks but to play for time and hope for a market recovery. There are cases where the ‘non core’ bank is not allowed in any way to assist a potential, legitimate buyer of assets with the ‘core’ department of the same bank – forcing many times deals to be scrubbed or consummated at terms clearly inferior to what could had been achieved if the ‘core bank’ could be engaged; the legal limitations and other considerations for need of lack of coordination between ‘core’ and ‘non core’ are appreciated, but one may be tempted to say that regulators have been overshooting in order to compensate for their undershooting a decade ago.

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A newer, better model… Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Another interesting observation on misplaced actions by banks (shipping banks in our case) due to regulation is that at a time of low or even negative interest rate policies (NIRP) and still extensive quantitative easing (QE) by the European Central Bank (ECB), banks go for few, selected, concentrated credit risk, especially when such risk is perceived to be superior that would lead to no losses for the bank. As a result, banks (shipping banks) end up chasing a handful of accounts, whether super-major independent shipowners or top-tier corporates, at razor thin margins. Banks these days would rather lend US$ 1 billion at no more than 150 bps spread to an account they deem superior rather make originate several mortgages of US$ 20 mil each, to solid accounts that do not tick all the boxes, at spreads of 500 bps. For the sake of being optically correct and allegedly minimize the probability of originating a loss-making mortgage, banks concede to cut their margins to the bone and accept concentration on a handful of accounts, while 90% of the lending market remains virgin territory. It’s amazing that our office, in our capacity of advisors and private placement agents, habitually is fielding calls these days from American and European and Asian banks desperate for new projects, but always for deals where credit is superior and always at increments of hundred millions. No project finance, no small or medium owners, no private companies: oil companies, large corporates, stand-out clients of private wealth, substantial end users.

We cannot name names but one can peruse the list of serial buyers of modern tonnage, often tonnage unloaded by publicly listed companies and private equity investors, to get an idea who are the clients the banks (shipping banks) want these days as clients. Rumor has it that such names have billion dollar lines with banks at barely higher than 100 bps spread; a ridiculously thin margin and a ridiculously low cost of funding given that interest rates by central banks are at almost all times lows.

Banks seems to have been boxed not by a “liquidity” trap but by a “safety trap” where regulators and central banks demand high credit assets as collateral, pushing banks to do business for what it is considered safe and not necessarily economic (at a price); some say that present policies have even been contributing to stagnant growth overall. Taking a narrow-focused group on shipping, one may wonder whether the banks (shipping banks) are shooting themselves on the foot and whether they are laying the ground for the next bubble: banks prefer to lend US$ 400 mil to one lender for the purchase of ten modern cape vessels at excess 80% leverage and at 150 bps spread, while will not even contemplate doing forty (40) mortgages at 50% leverage at 500 bps spread for ten-year old bulkers priced at 3x scrap value. Over-concentration on one account and asset class and trade at historically low margins (that likely to hurt the banks when interest rates increase) are clearly preferable, in bank’s point of view today, to broader diversification at robust margins that offer better prospects in the long term but also support the shipping market (including the shipping banks themselves in the short term).

In our humble opinion, the shipping finance market is highly dislocated at present (offering many investment opportunities), but more crucially, it seems that the elements of the next crisis are already incipient in the waters.


Article was originally published in the Maritime Executive Newsletter on May 2nd, 2016, under the title: “The Banking System’s “Safety Trap”“.


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