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.

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Good Old Days for Shipping

The dry bulk freight market has put an impressive performance of late; the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) has tripled since reaching bottom in February. Now, dry bulkers are in cashflow positive territory, sufficient to cover daily operating expenses (OpEx) and, partially, the financial cost. On the other hand, for tankers, it’s a different story, as tanker freight rates have dropped significantly with primarily shale oil being the game changer; but still, in cash flow positive territory.

On the sale & purchase front, there has been strong demand by buyers for bulker vessels; demand for tankers has been lackluster on the other hand. Prices for bulkers have improved in the last several months by as much as 30% for certain types of vessels. Prices for tankers, on the other hand, have been softening. All along, shipping finance is getting ever more difficult to source; and more expensive.

mv-panangia-tinou-4-bmk_9135

A listing ship and a church. Probably a good reflection of shipping today: lots of troubles and prayers in the same port… Image credit: Karatzas Images

Buying interest for vessels earlier this year had been dominated by a handful of big players who either had raised funds or had their own deep pockets to depend on. Such buyers have bought most of the quality, modern expensive (in absolute terms) ships that owners were forced to sell when the market was abysmal and cash flows were negative. Now, we see a great deal of buying interest from smaller shipowner who have to depend on expensive financing to acquire vessels and who actually will have to stretch themselves for acquisitions, even for still cheap at today’s prices – by historical levels. We have seen buyers putting all the resources together tightly to buy one or two vessels but with little cash reserves on the side for a rainy day. These are the typical speculative buyers who try to time the market by buying low and selling high, and who trade their vessels on the spot market in the interim.

If one were to ‘grade’ buying interest, the strong buying interest at present is definitely of low quality. Earlier in the year, there were substantial buyers with deep pockets buying several sistership vessels or fleets of vessels. Now, small players with no strategic or competitive advantage, with thin pockets and lots of dependence on luck and circumstance are looking to buy a cheap vessel here or a cheap vessel there. Now that freight rates have been improving and the market seems to breathe again some sign of life, they all rush to ride the wave. For bulkers it’s a ‘buy’ mode, but for tankers it’s a ‘stay away’ mode as in the latter market rates have going south and the momentum has been evaporating. All in all, a highly speculative approach to the shipping market, especially by the weaker hands who borrow expensively and they bet that the market will turn around sooner than their short runway will disappear.

We view with concern the recent resurgence of buying interest in the dry bulk market and the flip side, the absence of interest for the tanker market. Buying interest is not driven by access to cargoes or fundamental analysis of stronger demand; it’s mostly predicated on the fact that dry bulk vessels are cheap and the freight market is improving, at least in the short term. Pure speculation without much analysis; honestly, we are not the ones to judge on that, if that’s how one wishes to apply a market model. On the other hand, speculation has brought much of the present tonnage oversupply from owners who were ordering them to shipyards that were building them to shipping banks that were financing them.

Having experienced a cashflow negative market for almost two years which saw many shipowners burn their cash to survive or seen their vessels ‘re-allocated’ by the banks, the amount of speculative action in the market is scary. We appreciate that shipping and volatility (and speculation) go hand-in-hand, but one would had thought that two years of bleeding should had taught a lesson or two.

A sign of froth in the stock market is when small investors get all their little savings together and step to open a brokerage account and try to participate in a rally, buying odd lots of shares, and trying to ride the tail of the wave. It’s interpreted that when weak hands get the itch for speculation and getting sucked in, it’s when one knows that there is little more money to be pulled into the vortex.

We are all for entrepreneurship and active capitalism, but buy because ‘ships are cheap and the market will recover’ is not always the best business plan. Typically assets that are out-of-favor will again be back in favor, no doubt, but there is more to the story in order to make money by other than just speculating. Otherwise, it seems a sucker’s game.


This article was first published on the Seatrade Maritime News under the title: “Is it really the right time to buy ships?” on November 28, 2016. We’d like to thank them for their finding it worth publishing on their esteemed website!

© 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.