A Wishful Port Called Consolidation

The maritime industry has been facing headwinds for almost a decade now: chronic tonnage oversupply, intermittent demand growth, new trading patterns, heightened level of regulations, new technologies and vessel designs, and more recently, the prospect of a global trade war.  It’s not easy being a shipowner, if ever it was.

Besides the obvious “academic” solutions of self-discipline when it comes to newbuilding appetite and accelerated schedule of ship demolitions, little can be done strategically to alleviate the industry’s woes.

Since the early days of the present decade, the concept of consolidation has been mentioned as a solution with the best hope for mitigating the industry’s problems. Conceptually, fewer and bigger owners could better sustain the weak times of the industry by sharing overhead and expenses across larger fleets, by having higher fleet efficiencies, and by affording more competitive access to capital; a market dominated by fewer owners can also employ strategic efficiencies whereby fewer players would be more disciplined at ordering newbuldings and also providing a united front against the demands of charterers.

Notable names of the shipping and the finance worlds have been advocating for industry consolidation for some time now, most conspicuously then-private-equity-shipping-investor and now Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Proponents of consolidation have drawn their conclusions mostly from other industries than shipping, such as the steel industry in the case of Wilbur Ross; and, there is a strong body of academic research and case studies taught at business schools supporting the case of consolidation. On the surface, consolidation has saved the steel industry from chronic losses (although ironically part of the current trade war discussion is driven by the consolidated state of the steel industry having cost thousands of jobs). Likewise, the airline industry, via consolidation (and also chronic waves of bankruptcies), have reached now a point of high utilization and profitability, as any weary traveler can attest to these days.

No doubt there are economic benefits for the players in a market that has undergone consolidation; on the other hand, we think that certain markets and industries are more prone to consolidation than others, for many reasons.

Let’s follow the empirical approach to see what has happened so far in this maritime field:

Wall Street and institutional investors are big proponents for consolidation in the shipping industry. Image credit: Karatzas Images

In the tanker market, after Frontline’s failed effort to acquire DHT, the got critical mass to defend itself by buying the BW VLCC fleet, catalyzing, in turn, Euronav’s acquisition of Gener8 Maritime (itself the product of merger of General Maritime and Navig8 Crude Tankers). There is little merger activity in the rest of the crude tanker market, with the exception of Teekay folding two “daughter” publicly-listed companies into one, and also  acquiring the Principal Maritime crude tanker fleet. In the product tanker market, Scorpio Tankers acquired Navig8 Product Tankers in 2017, while recently BW took a bow with publicly listed Hafnia Tankers. If there is a lesson to be learned from merger activity in the tanker industry is that these are a handful of transactions among already sizeable players who are publicly listed and/or driven by institutional investors or financially-oriented managers behind them. The typical, average tanker owner has been least affected, or bothered, at least so far. However one slices the tanker market, there are almost 15,000 tankers of all sizes with a few thousand shipowner groups worldwide; if all these tankers and owners were to be consolidated into groups of big companies, investment bankers in shipping would be among the richest people on this planet.

In the dry bulk market, Star Bulk, publicly listed and driven by institutional investors, have been growing the size of their fleet by acquiring Augustea, Songa Bulk, and Ocean Bulk in the past. Golden Ocean acquired the Quintana capesize-focused fleet, and potentially the acquisition of the CarVal Investors dry bulk fleet by Good Bulk can be considered a case of consolidation; there are a few more meaningful transactions with privately held companies (most the Angelicoussis and Zodiac groups) acquiring massively, and surgically, shipping assets in the secondary market.  There is no doubt that there has been much more S&P activity in the dry bulk, but nothing to qualify as consolidation. The dry bulk market is often described as the textbook case of perfect competition, and as such, it makes little sense to buy (and retire) dry bulk shipping companies – the companies have little to offer in excess of  the stripped assets. Again, zooming out on the sector, consolidation so far seems to be with mostly sizeable companies, publicly listed, often driven by institutional investors, and almost always payment taking place – at least partially – in shares. There is still a very ‘long tail’ of small shipowners in the sector. And, there are more than 12,000 dry bulk vessels and several thousand shipowners active in the market; once again, investment bankers in shipping should be voted happiest people on earth if consolidation was ever to take hold in this market segment.

Just like consolidation in shipping, the bigger, the better… or, the sky is the limit! Image credit: Karatzas Images

Onto a shipping sector with a more disciplined structure, the containership liner market, it would appear that consolidation has offered a proven solution to this market over time; from almost thirty liner companies in existence in the early 1990’s, the number now stands at fourteen (14), a clear trend of consolidation over the last two decades. Again, there does  seem to be the same consolidation pattern of this market segment: most of these companies were big companies to begin with, often publicly listed or owned / managed by sophisticated investors in a market segment with relatively high barriers to enter; nothing new here. Looking onto smaller regional market players, the market has been much more fragmented, and allegedly ripe of consolidation. Some of these regional players are publicly listed or some of them run by investors and financiers, but it’s hard to discern a consolidation pattern on the surface. Probably the transactions that stand out in this sector are those of KG owners that are driven by shipping banks to consolidate, most notably MPC Container Ships, the Zeaborn and the Claus-Peter Offen groups that have keep absorbing smaller players such as Cido (containers), E.R. Schiffhart, Rickmers Linie, Ahrenkiel, Conti, etc (some of these transactions involved also MPP vessels).  And, there has been the absorption of many more smaller KG houses and vessels that popped up in the last decade jus because of the exuberance of the KG market in Germany. What all these stories of consolidation have in common, in our opinion, is that most of these target companies had their financial base completely wiped out, the management teams had no ‘skin in the game’ but mostly, German shipping bank have effectively forced ‘shotgun marriages’ (read consolidation) in this market. Otherwise, left to its own devices, it’s questionable how much consolidation would had taken place in this segment.

Despite the obvious benefits in the shipping market by a less fragmented ownership distribution, with fewer and more stable players, it’s still a very long way, in our opinion, for the industry to really get to appreciate consolidation. It’s been vividly implied in the discussion above that each segment in the shipping industry is driven by slightly different factors, but it’s abundantly clear that consolidation so far has been driven by a confluence of financial owners (this includes shipping banks) building up on the critical mass of already sizeable companies and where egos can be forced aside by the prospects of economic benefits and payouts, often in the form of paper (shares).

For the several thousands of shipowners worldwide, especially when they are the founders of shipping companies or have some sort of competitive advantage (captive cargo, access to terminals, etc), consolidation would be a tall order. Consolidation favors bigger players, but still smaller players can be shaping the market for longer than hoped for.

Darwinism in known to work, but it takes a notoriously long time; economies of scale make for more efficient shipping companies, but again, this takes time. In Darwinism, let’s not forget, some species become extinct. Probably for some shipowners, unless extinction becomes their only choice, consolidation will be getting little attention. The financial markets and shipping finance can impose their will on shipping forcefully, but likely consolidation in the shipping industry cannot be material in the near future, at least for commodity shipping.


Article originally appeared in Lloyd’s List on September 7, 2018 under the heading “Consolidation Players Go Hungry“.


© 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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Karatzas Marine and Slide2Open to Host 2nd Shipping Finance Conference in Athens on January 24th, 2019

Building upon the successful inaugural conference held in February 2018 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Athens, Greece, Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co and Slide2Open are thrilled to announce that next year’s conference will be held on January 24, 2019. Save the date!

An expanded agenda on shipping finance, new environmental regulations, innovation and disruption, but also analysis of international trade and geo-politics, and an alignment of  speakers and thought leaders of the highest caliber in their fields, are guaranteed to render this conference a “must attend” event.

For more information, please feel free to contact us by email at:   info[at] bmkaratzas[dot]com or at info[at]Slide2open[dot]net or make sure to follow our blog for regular updates, or follow the conference website at Slide2Open Shipping Finance 2019!

© 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.

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.

 

Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co. to Host Shipping Finance Conference in Athens, Greece

Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co Proudly Hosts the Shipping Finance Conference 2018 in Athens, Greece, on February 22nd,  in co-operation with Slide2Open and Boussias Communications.

Please join a group of high caliber speakers and thought leaders in the maritime industry discussing the current state of the shipping industry, the challenges and opportunities looking forward, in presentations, panel discussions and Q&A sessions in modules ranging from shipping finance and investment opportunities to disruptive technologies and e-commerce in shipping and related industries. This will the first conference in this agenda-setting must-attend series of events on shipping and shipping finance to  be hosted by Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co and their business associates.

We are looking forward seeing you in Athens on February 22nd, 2018!


© 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.

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.

Shipping’s Best Hope of Forgettable Years

By all accounts, 2017 was a forgettable year for shipping – which it may be the best characterization the industry could possibly have at present. Recent memorable years in shipping have not been very uplifting. Probably many people in the industry are still struggling to forget 2016 and its 296 BDI and 161 Capesize readings in March of that year, the lowest ever readings by the Baltic Exchange.

2017 was rather good for dry bulk (pleasantly great if one opts to compare it to an abysmal 2016) while tankers, containerships and offshore were mildly disappointing markets. Shipping segments are not often in sync with each other and segment gyrations are to be expected. Although the fundamentals driving each segment differ nominally, there have been a few common underlying trends across segments at present: the outstanding orderbook has been low in each and every segment, actually the lowest in recent memory. Tonnage demand keeps increasing on the strength of global economic growth. Tonnage supply keeps growing but at lower levels, so much so that tonnage demand hesitantly exceeds tonnage supply growth in certain markets. And, lack of shipping finance negatively affects all segments of the industry, further curtailing the possibility for an exorbitant wave of newbuildings. When one examines shipping closely, as a pure tonnage supply and demand equilibrium, 2018 and the near future seem rather promising.

However, shipping is an industry known to get people by surprise and looking forward there are reasons for a market participant to be concerned. Several factors, complimentary to the industry, are cause for concern; probably not as bad as to make the proverbial list “what keep’s you awake at night” but again, not an era of assured smooth sailing.

The shipping finance market has been dysfunctional for the last few years, but at present, the dislocation in the market is reaching unprecedented levels. As traditional shipping banks keep leaving the industry and institutional investors have lost any interest in private equity investments and some public market investments as well, the cost of capital keeps increasing steadily. It’s not unheard of for independent shipowners to be borrowing at 8% spread for first preferred ship mortgages with tight covenants and terms these days. For a capital intensive industry, the high cost of capital is an accident waiting to happen for shipowners and financiers alike. Also, lack of debt financing is shifting the market, even forcing smaller players to shut down and slowly driving a consolidation wave. Probably too soon to notice any immediate effect in 2018, but watching the Greek and German markets over the last few years, one can note the trend forming.

Many hopeful shipping business plans and corporate presentations pride on the industry’s low outstanding orderbook. It’s absolutely marvelous that shipowners have shown self-discipline in the last few years and abstained from speculative orders; however, the counter-argument is that shipbuilders are immediately ready for new orders and can deliver new ships as soon as within nine months. Low outstanding orderbook implies plenty of spare shipbuilding capacity. And, while there has been talk about inconsequential Chinese shipbuilders getting weeded out in the last couple of years, the truth of the matter is that shipbuilding capacity is highly elastic and all those now defunct shipbuilders would be entering again the market the minute that hot new orders start arriving. It’s a good thing that institutional investors and shipowners have lost interest in “speculative” newbuilding orders, but a strong freight market could likely incite many new orders that can start flooding the market very soon and thwarting a full market recovery. Barring an exogenous stimulus such as export credit incentives or materially lower newbuilding contract prices, a “forgettable” and un-inspiring freight market may be the safest way of navigating these narrow shoals.

While when talking about shipping the focus is on freight rates and asset prices, one cannot neglect the regulatory and operational nature of the business. The ballast water treatment management plants (BWMS) have already been costing the industry additional capital, and new emissions regulations are fast afoot. New regulations are costing the industry billions of dollars when the industry can poorly afford them, and one would expect even tighter standards going forward. Higher standards for vessel performance, tighter standards for safety and security, likely soon IT security to make ships relatively secure from hacking and ransomware, and all these, before one takes into consideration technological obsolescence factors: if for instance natural gas bunkering is the way of the future, what would happen to today’s modern world fleet? We do not want to be the Cassandras and the pessimists of the business, but one has to think about the long future very hard when ordering vessels that have twenty-five years of design life.

Further, while the vessels themselves can be the subject to higher standards and technological obsolesce, how about the cargoes and the underlying trading trends themselves? The cost of producing solar and wind energy has been dropping precipitously and jeopardizing the importance of coal, and possibly crude oil, as the world’s primary energy sources. Electric cars have slowly been passing the “novelty” phase of new products and becoming mainstream that would further impact the energy transport market. And, as shale oil and natural gas keeps improving lowering its production cost, likely to be less need for transport. Probably an isolated example, but the current polar wave of freezing weather in North America barely registered on the crude tanker market; there was a time when crude tanker rates were shooting skywards as charterers were scrambling to import more oil to the US to cover increased energy demand every time there was a cold front in North America. Energy trends take a long time to materialize, but on the other hand, one cannot dismiss that a new baseline that’s forming for the immediate and distant future.

We do not want to be pessimists and do not want to be the ones who are pointing to a half-empty glass. 2017 has been a respectable year, and, with a bit of good luck, 2018 would be equally fair. After many years of persistent fireworks in the industry, some “forgettable” years would be a welcome change. But just like navigating in unchartered waters, one has to keep paying attention to the dangers lurking in the ambient environment and under the surface of the sea.

A Happy New Year to all, especially the seafarers in the middle of the ocean an away from their families!

Happy Shipping and Happy New Year! Virginia Beach, VA. Image credit: Karatzas Images


An edited version of this article first appeared on Splash 24/7 on January 3rd, 2018, under the heading “A forgettable year is our best option”.


© 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.

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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