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

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