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.

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Issuing Shares, yet Another Way to Loosen the Shipping Finance Conundrum

While most of the debate in shipping is focused on any recovery of the freight markets, the small world of shipping finance keeps living one day at a time, one long day after another that is. Freight markets have been moving up and down in the last year, and so have done shipping asset prices; however, for shipping finance, most of the news has been disheartening for the ship owners.

Shipping banks keep divesting of their shipping portfolios, whether those are consisting of bad or good loans. To the extent that certain shipping banks are still viewing the shipping industry as a “core” industry, a handful of big players – who check all the boxes for compliance, regulatory, strategy and value – soak up quickly any liquidity, leaving most of the remaining market as “un-bankable”.  Private equity investors have lost most of their faith in shipping by now, and the alternative funds that have been angling for a lending spot under the shipping sun, are getting ever demanding with each passing day.

The IPO market for shipping has been dead given the uncertainty with the freight market and the prospects of a recovery; and, the much advertised Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) (a.k.a consolidation) wave has been surgically applicable. In the liner business, where there is ample reason for consolidation (latest example of OOCL’s acquisition by Cosco) there has been more hope, while in the dry bulk sector, a fragmented market is the preferred way of doing business for the foreseeable future.

There have been, however, a few recent transactions in the M&A front in the tanker and dry bulk sectors that had gotten attention to the extent that the sellers opted to accept payment in cash and shares (in the buyers’ business or in the new business entity formed).  The newsworthy point is that shares have been used as currency in order to make the deals happen in the first place, and also in a manner that could allow for more value creation for both the buyer and the seller if there is a market recovery.

Lower Manhattan and Financial District (FiDi) skyline, home to many shipping financiers and shipping finance companies. Image credit: Karatzas Images

A few cases in point: a few months ago, Golden Ocean acquired Quintana by assumption of debt and by issuing of shares valued at appr. $110 mil. to the seller. Hard cash is a valuable commodity for most shipowners these days, and thus the lack of transaction activity in the market to a certain extent; the purchase of Quintana by issuing shares (or “paper”, in the investment lingo), had been the key to the transaction, a key that only publicly listed companies hold. The Quintana shareholders exchanged their stock of a privately held company (Quintana) for shares in a publicly listed company (Golden Ocean); seeing through the transaction, in a circumventional way, Quintana accomplished their long aspired goal of going public; in this case, not by having an IPO but by selling to an already listed company. In a similar way, earlier this year, the BW Group sold their VLCC business to DHT for appr. $540 mil, $260 mil of which were in the form of newly issued DHT shares.  Again, it had been rumored for a while that the BW Group had explored the IPO venue for a public listing; however, a sale for cash and shares partially accomplished the goal of a public company, allowing not only for liquidity for the BW Group shareholders but also preserving for all the equity benefits, especially those emanating from a recovering and booming (VLCC) market.  Also, in a weak tanker market, Tanker Investment Limited (TIL) – a purpose-set public company sponsored by Teekay and private equity funds to exploit tanker asset appreciation, was folded into one of the Teekay companies (Teekay Tankers) in exchange of shares payable to the institutional investors, while Navig8’s aspirations for a monstrous IPO in the tanker space had to materialize in the form of a sale and payment in shares to Scorpio Tankers.

Issuing shares for the acquisition of assets or companies is standard procedure in the M&A world. By issuing shares, the buyer can lessen the burden of taking on too much debt and jeopardizing the transaction and the overall outcome of the transaction by overleveraging. For the seller, accepting, at least partial payment, in shares provides for a better alignment of interests and ensures that they will work hard to see the transaction through; also, it indicates that the seller has faith in the buyer and the market and that they take a position to benefit from an improving market.  Quite frankly, none of the four transactions above would had happened if the buyer was not able to issue shares, and vice versa, none of these transactions would had happened if the seller was not agreeable to a partial payment in shares. And, in our opinion, all these transactions happened since payment in shares was the closest the sellers would have gotten to obtaining liquidity and/or public status, given the IPO market is closed shut at present.

Issuing new shares and paying in shares is a distinct benefit of being a public company. Privately held companies (shipowners) have to pay in hard cash for any acquisitions but publicly traded companies can offer their shares as currency, too. Of course, paying in shares is not always indicated (such as when the shares trade below NAV), and not always the buyer is prepared to accept payment (total or partial) in shares – among other considerations, the shares have to have some “value”. In a world that’s getting trickier for shipping finance, for a shipping company to have the luxury to issue shares and transact with own shares is a distinct advantage that publicly listed companies have over the privately held ones.

Too bad that many of the shipping IPOs of the last decade have degenerated into “penny stocks” with their shares of little or no value that no-one would accept as payment. Too bad that quite a few of the shipping IPOs of the last decade were no more than quick “cash grabs” that have deprived their shareholders of the optionality to presently be able to thrive when the market and competition is stuck in the low shipping finance lane.

Paying in shares is not panacea and it has both practical and financial, and also regulatory, limitations. Once again, in a world where shipping finance is in a bind, shipowners are  compelled to explore every option, and payment in shares is fair game. Actually, there may also be cases where the envelope seems to be pushed to the limit: in its latest announcement, Nordic American Tankers (NAT) announced that payment of the company’s 80th consecutive dividend will be paid in cash and in … shares of another company, Nordic American Offshore (NAO), a daughter company of NAT in the offshore space where the prospects have not played out very well so far.

The “sharing economy” seems to get a completely different meaning for the shipping industry.

Lower Manhattan and Financial District skyline, the World Trade Center and the Upper New York Harbor with its busy shipping traffic lanes…where money and shipping meet. Image credit: Karatzas Images


A version of this posting was first published on the shipping portal Splash 24/7 on August 14th, 2017 under the heading: “Issuing shares helps loosen the shipping finance conundrum”.


© 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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