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

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