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.

 

Advertisements

Boats of the Highly Levered Seas

There used to be a time when the financing options for a shipowner where simple: seed capital was levered with a ship mortgage from a bank, and the loan was paid off based on an agreed-upon principal repayment profile from the operating profit. The terms of the shipping loans from banks were very similar and often the only differentiating factors for shipping loans were a few quantitative factors, principal among them the so-called spread, the difference over Libor for the cost of the debt.

Obviously, for any rational borrower, the lender with the lowest cost (interest rate) would get the business. When all things were equal, it was easy to note the sole differentiating factor, and push for the lowest number. Borrowers (shipowners) did not really have to create an “indifference curve”, their optimal set of choices. The leverage was in the 60-70% of FMV, the terms and covenants comparable, and thus the choices were limited. The “product” was one-dimensional and business was earned on the lowest spread.

Now that we live in times where by necessity there have been more types of capital than seed capital and traditional debt, such as alternative capital, mezz, senior and junior debt, etc, there is a greater opportunity to see the choices of preference for the shipowners.

There are funds that provide senior lending at only 500 basis points (5%) over Libor, but they do so at rather conservative terms, such as by lending in the 50-60% range of the FMV in today’s depressed asset pricing market environment. We would think that such financing is both cost competitive (in absolute terms) and also acts as prudent financial gearing for an owner to maximize returns and stay flexible when market conditions turn bad.

On the other hand, there are funds that provide close to 80% leverage, or even more, but at much higher cost, typically in the 8-12% range plus expectations of profit sharing, etc. The financial gearing is almost as sizeable as in the go-go days of the stratospheric market of a decade ago, but such levels of financial gearing add a lot to the costs of running profitably a vessel, and also multiplies the risk that when markets turn bad, the whole financial structure will not stand for more after the first few waves of the crisis reach the beach.

The options outlined above are as distinct as they can get, and although there are a few shades of gray between these two opposites, borrowers (shipowners) seem to gravitate to either of these polar opposites in terms of debt financing. And, watching shipowners make choices in the present market offers some insights on he direction of the market, the utility curves of the shipowners, their willingness to pay at various ranges of the curve, their risk appetite or risk aversion, and the inflection points thereof.

Even after the debacle of the last decade and the massive decade and rather fair prospects looking forward for shipping, there is a clear trend whereby shipowners prefer the high leverage, high cost (and high risk) option set over the low leverage, low cost (and low risk) alternative. There are many more shipowners who would rather borrow 80% of the value of a ship at 8% (spread) interest than shipowners who would borrow 55% at 5% (spread) interest. Credit funds and lenders in the former category are much more active than lenders in the latter camp.

Stephen, the Roaring Lion. Image credit: Karatzas Images

Apparently, shipowners (borrowers) seem to think that this is a time for “risk on” investments and thus higher financial gearing (at higher cost) makes sense. Asset prices, in the dry bulk market especially, are up by 30-50% on average in the last eighteen months, and thus, allegedly a high stakes strategy has paid off. Improving world economies and trade, and a historically low newbuilding orderbook add more fuel to the argument. But, playing the proverbial devil’s advocate, adjusted for risk, is a 50% asset appreciation investment justified on an 8% cost of debt?

In general, over the last decade, cost of capital (mostly debt) is going up in shipping. Interest rates have gone up, especially when they are expressed in terms of spreads. And, leverage overall has come down in shipping in the last decade. Likely, when shipowners (borrowers) are slowly adjusting their financing cost expectations, they seem to focus more on (and prefer) higher gearing at the trade of cost. In a theoretical binary choice of “give me more leverage or give me lower cost”, they are for the former, hands down. It may be that it takes a lot of time for habits to die?

High leverage at high cost has its risk, as mentioned. Already there are several transactions in the market where borrowers have already run into trouble and they desperately look to refinance high-priced transactions based on this structure. There are ships that have been arrested or are very close to arrest, ships financed with high leverage at high cost. And this is at a time when 2017 and 2018 freight rates are dreamboats of the 2015 and 2016 monster freight markets. Thus, in a relatively decent freight market, these high leverage preferences do not seem to always work out very well. We are afraid that after the debacle of private equity investments in 2011/2014 going sour in a major way and resulting in massive write-downs, the industry is setting itself up for another round of misguided investments powered by institutional money.

Shipping is a unique industry with its high volatility and risk at an operational level as this can be counted by the spot freight market (in the last eighteen months, BDI has been up by a factor of 5 but down 40% in the last month or so). Financial gearing over operational gearing can easily get out of hand.

But again, how fortunes have been made… or…

Stitt, the Quiescent Lion. 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 new dislocation: the banking system’s ‘safety trap’

Times for most shipping sectors are very tough, by many standards, even if one takes a long-term historical perspective. The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), the proxy for the broader shipping industry in many ways, is almost 100% up in the last forty days – and still, dry bulk vessels barely achieve operating break-even rates on the spot market.

Dry bulk asset prices, despite the recent rejuvenation of the last two weeks, are very low; bulkers older than ten-year-old typically change hands at multiples of their scrap price. The dry bulk freight market has taken most of the blame, since what kind of buyer would like to buy a vessel – irrespective of attractive pricing – and start losing money from the minute they touch them when the closing and delivery of the vessel is in effect.

No doubt the weakness of the freight market deserves lots of the blame. But, anyone, who has been involved with vessel valuations and shipping investments, knows that vessel asset prices are also materially influenced by several more factors, availability of cheap capital being the primary driver among them.

Dhow boats_Doha_APR2016_BMK_8575 @

Shipping’s Old Model. Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Financing for shipping projects at present is typically rather very expensive. Most shipping banks have already left shipping and a few more have been divesting shipping loan portfolios as fast as practically possible. For the banks still active in shipping, very few and precious, they mostly stay away from soliciting new clients – since their existing clientele can absorb their curtailed availability of funds, and without having to undertake the always challenging KYC approval, etc. For new clients to be considered, they have to be “strategic”, with critical mass of fleet of vessels, sound prospects of business success, and sometimes, already recognizable names from the bank’s private wealth departments. Lending against dry bulk vessels is of no interest to the shipping banks now, tankers older than typically eight years of age are too old to lend against, crude tankers are too risky to touch, containerships need to have long term charters, and offshore is off a cliff for now. In short, for a shipping project to obtain new financing from a shipping bank these days, the ship will have to walk on the water, not just keep afloat!

Obtaining equity for shipping is no much easier, as most funds have lost billions and billions chasing a market recovery in 2013 that never came – or was run over by their exuberance optimism and newbuilding contracts, and now they stay away from the industry. Also, equity funds often invest pro-cyclically, when the market is in recovery, and thus the dry bulk’s negative cash flows are a serious deterrent. There are many funds (credit funds) that provide lending in the shipping industry, and they often charge 6-10% interest rates plus some degree of equity participation. And, the market is so constrained for debt financing, that we know several owners (and actually our firm has arranged such financing for a few more), where shipowners are borrowing at such high terms in order to be able to expand and exploit the present state of the market and the historically low asset prices.

The difficulty of obtaining financing for shipping projects has to do with many factors, some originating from the shipping industry but some not. The excesses of the shipping banks, for example, of the pre-Lehman credit boom still have not worked their way through the banking system. There is still an amazing amount of shipping loan portfolios that are priced close to original cost basis, allowing for little else for the banks but to play for time and hope for a market recovery. There are cases where the ‘non core’ bank is not allowed in any way to assist a potential, legitimate buyer of assets with the ‘core’ department of the same bank – forcing many times deals to be scrubbed or consummated at terms clearly inferior to what could had been achieved if the ‘core bank’ could be engaged; the legal limitations and other considerations for need of lack of coordination between ‘core’ and ‘non core’ are appreciated, but one may be tempted to say that regulators have been overshooting in order to compensate for their undershooting a decade ago.

Hamburg_Cranes Panoramic_Silver Lining_BMK_9721_FEB2016 @

A newer, better model… Image Credit: Karatzas Images

Another interesting observation on misplaced actions by banks (shipping banks in our case) due to regulation is that at a time of low or even negative interest rate policies (NIRP) and still extensive quantitative easing (QE) by the European Central Bank (ECB), banks go for few, selected, concentrated credit risk, especially when such risk is perceived to be superior that would lead to no losses for the bank. As a result, banks (shipping banks) end up chasing a handful of accounts, whether super-major independent shipowners or top-tier corporates, at razor thin margins. Banks these days would rather lend US$ 1 billion at no more than 150 bps spread to an account they deem superior rather make originate several mortgages of US$ 20 mil each, to solid accounts that do not tick all the boxes, at spreads of 500 bps. For the sake of being optically correct and allegedly minimize the probability of originating a loss-making mortgage, banks concede to cut their margins to the bone and accept concentration on a handful of accounts, while 90% of the lending market remains virgin territory. It’s amazing that our office, in our capacity of advisors and private placement agents, habitually is fielding calls these days from American and European and Asian banks desperate for new projects, but always for deals where credit is superior and always at increments of hundred millions. No project finance, no small or medium owners, no private companies: oil companies, large corporates, stand-out clients of private wealth, substantial end users.

We cannot name names but one can peruse the list of serial buyers of modern tonnage, often tonnage unloaded by publicly listed companies and private equity investors, to get an idea who are the clients the banks (shipping banks) want these days as clients. Rumor has it that such names have billion dollar lines with banks at barely higher than 100 bps spread; a ridiculously thin margin and a ridiculously low cost of funding given that interest rates by central banks are at almost all times lows.

Banks seems to have been boxed not by a “liquidity” trap but by a “safety trap” where regulators and central banks demand high credit assets as collateral, pushing banks to do business for what it is considered safe and not necessarily economic (at a price); some say that present policies have even been contributing to stagnant growth overall. Taking a narrow-focused group on shipping, one may wonder whether the banks (shipping banks) are shooting themselves on the foot and whether they are laying the ground for the next bubble: banks prefer to lend US$ 400 mil to one lender for the purchase of ten modern cape vessels at excess 80% leverage and at 150 bps spread, while will not even contemplate doing forty (40) mortgages at 50% leverage at 500 bps spread for ten-year old bulkers priced at 3x scrap value. Over-concentration on one account and asset class and trade at historically low margins (that likely to hurt the banks when interest rates increase) are clearly preferable, in bank’s point of view today, to broader diversification at robust margins that offer better prospects in the long term but also support the shipping market (including the shipping banks themselves in the short term).

In our humble opinion, the shipping finance market is highly dislocated at present (offering many investment opportunities), but more crucially, it seems that the elements of the next crisis are already incipient in the waters.


Article was originally published in the Maritime Executive Newsletter on May 2nd, 2016, under the title: “The Banking System’s “Safety Trap”“.


© 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 Lending’s Good, Bad and Ugly

Six years into the shipping crisis, the debate still rages whether there is light at the end of the tunnel. There have been market gyrations among market segments and asset classes that have been performing better on occasion, but still many doubt whether we are anywhere closer to a structural market recovery. There are factors to flame a doubter’s soul under any circumstances (large outstanding orderbook, excess shipbuilding capacity, equity and debt investors still seeking to enter the market, etc) but there are also artifacts of the excesses of the industry that are still present in the market.

While on an extensive European tour and after having talked to many financial players, shipowners, bankers, vessel managers and shipbrokers, we have noticed a few trends that have been permeating the shipping industry.

It’s well known that the shipping finance seascape, especially as traditional shipping lenders are concerned, has tectonically changed since the inception of the crisis. Many shipping banks have straightforwardly sold their shipping loan exposure and many more are well into their process of divesting their remaining shipping positions. There are a few banks that still have a mandate to lend in shipping and selectively do so (despite that many more bankers would say that their banks are still actively in shipping).

So far, so bad.

Many of the traditional shipping banks (primarily in Europe) have been preoccupied with their capital ratios and the so-called Asset Quality Review (AQR) until very recently; capital ratios will keep being of constant concern going forward, especially given the new regulatory environment expected to come into place (Basel III, etc). The European Central Bank (ECB) has aggressively been working on ‘motivating’ European banks to stop hording deposits and cash, and rather utilize ECB’s ‘liberal’ state of policy of low (possibly negative interest rates) to start lending and stimulate local economies. Given the circumstances, therefore, one would think that European banks would be selectively forthcoming with new shipping business, at least with corporate clients, ‘balance-sheet-lending’ supported by cash flows and that smaller owners seeking asset-based-financing (ship mortgages) would have a harder time to access financing. At least that would have been a rational assumption to make.

While discussing with traditional shipping lenders, we have noticed an increased concern about ‘spreads’ (margins over LIBOR) and maintaining market share or relationships with shipowners versus maintaining proper, healthy margins and return on equity for the banks themselves. We have heard stories of a French bank in Greece providing asset based financing (ship mortgages) to good clients at 190 bps spread, and many Greek banks (and certain UK or German banks) feeling obliged to provide competitive debt financing at no more than 300-400 bps for clients ranging from good in quality to long term in reference to the relationship. Again, we are barely out of the crisis, if at all, with the ink on the AQR still wet, and many of these banks fighting for market share today were bailed out by their governments, had their original shareholders highly diluted, and, quite frankly, a few of these banks were left for dead at the rage of the European banking and sovereign crisis a few years ago. And fighting for market share over spreads probably it’s an uncalled-for price war, as many shipping banks have left the industry thus there is less competition effectively, and the few remaining banks do not have the capacity to lend as much money as the market demands (actually much less than that) thus supply is much lower, and, also importantly, a great deal of the bankable borrowers in shipping are realizing (and prepared to pay) higher interest rates as a result of the developments in the banking sector over the last few years. Probably that’s ‘bad’.

Of course, a great deal of borrowers and shipowners are not highly bankable any more, having burnt much cash reserves in the bad years or having to restructure on their super-expensive tonnage. For many of such owners, traditional lending from banks is not effectively an option, and thus they have been looking for alternative sources of capital, such as borrowing from private equity and hedge funds, credit funds, etc usually at interest rates ranging from 8% for relatively plain vanilla mortgages to as high as 12% and possibly equity participation (convertible) for any ‘projects with hair’. There is an active market for such financing where our firm Karatzas Marine Advisors has been highly active, as there are borrowers needing working capital to drydock vessels or cover operating expenses or some time to buy. This is true for projects in traditional shipping countries like Greece and Germany, where paying interest rates close to the double-digit mark were an anathema even a couple of years ago. How times change when there are borrowers in shipping (often with legitimate projects) prepared to pay 8% interest for a plain vanilla ship mortgages! Probably, that’s the ‘ugly’.

And of course, there are the major shipowners with consolidated financial statements, economies of scale by owning an operating more than hundred vessels, and having access to cargoes and strategic charterers. Usually such owners have access to the capital markets and also can borrow at slim thin interest rates, fully exploiting the strength of their balance sheets in a low interest rate environment. Usually such borrowers can access the international banking system, including international US and UK banks (not always traditional shipping lenders), but also borrowing from Norwegian lenders, who have been traditionally in the market, but they have more and more focusing on corporate and balance-sheet lending, with a preference for offshore and energy associated shipping projects, and preparing for the new regulatory banking framework (Basel III, etc). Probably, that’s the ‘good’.

In a bifurcated market where big, solid shipping companies can access debt inexpensively, there is a debt funding gap in shipping for the vast part of the industry including the competitive local markets (Greece and Germany). However, a great deal of concern is about spreads and pricing, when really there should not have been an issue. As good, bad or ugly as all these seem, one has to question whether the artifacts that generated the crisis are still in place even at the trough of the market.

After all, one of the biggest Greek shipowners during a Posidonia panel discussion in June 2014 placed the blame for the shipping crisis squarely at the door of the shipping banks! Too much cheap money made too many shipowners buy too many ships! Simply just that! And, a banker from a major bank admitted during our recent European tour that in 2008, the bank’s cost of funding was 35 bps and after including 15 bps overhead, any loan (irrespective of covenants, leverage, asset class, credit, etc) was fair game.

Money! Shiploads of it!

Money! Shiploads of it!


© 2013-2014 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.