Where Money in the Maritime Industry Will Come From?

Ships are expensive assets, even small pleasure boat owners know. A small handysize bulker of 32,000 dwt has cost no less than $20 mil as a newbuilding even during weak markets; on the other hand of the spectrum, crude oil supertankers (VLCCs) currently cost appr. $85 mil brand-new, while LNG tankers cost almost twice as much.

Being a successful shipowner, therefore, requires access to capital, as plentiful and as at low cost as possible. Even flamboyantly rich shipowners do not have enough money to own outright their fleets (in most cases), and they have to depend on financial “leverage” and financial partnerships.

Banks traditionally had been providing most of the financing in the maritime industry; throughout business cycles, banks could be depended upon to provide 50-80% leverage, usually in the form of a first preferred ship mortgage – just like a bank would provide a mortgage loan for a residential property, with the asset as collateral. There have been dedicated banks to shipping (typically Scandinavian, British and German due to maritime history) and several more banks were transient in the industry when times were good. And, while easiness of financing varied depending on the phase of the business cycle, it was always available, as long as the shipowner had an impeccable record honoring previous commitments to the banks.

A decade after the Lehman Brothers collapse, banks are heavily regulated (although there is talk of late of loosening banking regulations, at least on one side of the pond), and ship mortgages and asset-backed financing are not the preferred line of business any more. In addition, many banks with shipping exposure are actively still selling shipping loans, trying to cut their exposure to the industry to nil. And, for many shipping banks with big losses from their shipping portfolios, it’s hard to convince senior management and shareholders on the appeal of the shipping industry these days anew; in some corners, shipping and maritime have become dirty words.

Besides small lending on a very selective basis by a handful of small banks for ship mortgages, so small that almost does not matter, traditional lending by the banks is a dead business. There is much more activity in terms of corporate lending to shipowners with big balance sheets and consolidated financials, and with long term and “bankable” charter employment, but there are relatively few such shipowners. The majority of the shipowners are smaller companies, trading their vessels in the spot market, and taking preponderous exposure to the vicissitude of the freight markets.

It has been estimated that shipping banks loan portfolios stood at close to $600 billion at the peak of the market in 2008, which is a very big funding gap to fill.

There has been a plethora of so-called credit funds entering the shipping finance market and aiming at filling the funding gap left behind by the shipping banks. Credit funds has been a new mania on the Wall Street, as such funds try to exploit the inability and inefficiency of the regulated banks to service small and mid-sized companies and companies that cannot “tick all the boxes” of a traditional lender. A recent article in the Financial Times states that between 2010 and now, credit funds based in North America doubled in capacity from app. $75 billion to more than $160 billion, so much so that “shadow banking” started being a concern. Credit funds active in shipping are usually funds dedicated to the industry and not part of multi-industry funds, and often are set up and managed by private equity funds and institutional investors with prior exposure to shipping. Fine print aside, credit funds usually charge at least 7% spread over Libor, with several of them well into double-digit territory. No-one expected credit funds to be as “cheap” as bank loans, but at 700 bps minimum margin, shipowners can barely claim that they have access to effective capital. After the honeymoon period of the first entrants to the market, credit funds cannot be the dependable source of capital the shipping industry requires, it seems.

Looking into equity, in the last decade, when the freight market was the best in a lifetime and equity markets were buoyant, there were several attempts of Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) by several shipping companies. Their track-record aside, public equity markets at present are looking for only large (billion-plus balance sheet, etc) and well established shipping companies with a “story”, hopefully a story of growth; for many of the smaller shipowners, the public equity (and debt) markets cannot be considered a source of capital, another dead-end for shipping financing.

Chinese leasing recently has been in the news as many Chinese lessors are looking into expanding aggressively in the international shipping market, and they have been active with sale-and-leaseback transactions. Although more bureaucratic than western financing, their overall terms are rather lenient – but again, for shipowners with sizeable fleets and consolidated financials.

Many industry experts have been contemplating what the source of capital will be for shipping. It’s really a very critical question to answer, and we think, it will affect the nature of the shipping industry in the years to come. Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co even held a shipping finance conference in Athens in early 2018 focused on just such question, and a follow up conference is already in the works for January 2019. Because of shipping finance (and also new regulations, etc), we believe that the shipping industry is at an inflection point where drastic changes are about to take place. Likely shipping in the next decade and the decades to come will be of a different nature, and that’s mainly because the nature of the shipping finance is a-changing. A great deal of shipowners will be materially affected by it, unless they start being pro-active right away.


© 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 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.