A Matter of Shipping Interest

Interest rates are on the rise. The Fed recently increased the so-called Fed Funds Rate by 0.25% and two more increases are boringly expected within 2018. There had been two increases in 2017 for a total of 0.50%, thus, in two calendar years, interest rates moved up by 1.25%. The Fed Funds Rate stands at 1.50% at the time of this writing, which is materially below the historic average. The 2yr Treasure Bill yields appr. 2.27% while 10yr Treasuries yield 2.80%, at the time of this writing.

In the short term, the US economy seems to be approaching full employment, and the risk of inflation (and higher interest rates) cannot be ignored. Of course, there are still many events, emanating both from the US and the international stage, that can affect economic growth, trade, employment, and the course of interest rates. Excluding a major shock to the system, it can be taken as a given that interest rates are on the rise for the foreseeable future.

Higher interest rates and higher interest cost can be good for regulated banks, but it can be detrimental to industries that depend on cheap financing to thrive. The shipping industry, we can all agree, is a capital intensive industry as it requires big investments upfront for the acquisition of shipping assets, and the cost of financing is crucial for the success of a shipowner.

Higher interest rates logically should be a negative development for the shipping industry: for higher cost of necessary leverage (ship mortgages) directly affects the bottom line – and, there are few shipowners who can do without leverage.

There have been few headlines in the shipping / maritime trade press about the higher interest rates. Not sure whether the news has been underestimated, or whether the shipping finance industry is so dislocated at present that rising interest rates are of little concern to the industry, but the subject has almost gone un-noticed.

Traditionally, debt financing in the shipping industry has been obtained from shipping banks in the form of first preferred ship mortgages, at LIBOR (the short-term interbank rate) plus the so-called spread, the lender’s profit margin. Interest rates obtained from shipping banks have varied over time depending on market conditions (interest rates, etc) and also the banks’ own appetite to expand their shipping lending business which has varied through business cycles. Although the loan from a shipping bank was “floating”, as the total interest rate varied with the changing-over-time LIBOR, the hedge desk from the same shipping bank would arrange – at the request of the client, of course – for an interest rate hedge / swap, so that the borrower could hedge, at the time of the loan inception, the interest rate risk. One has to note that the absolute interest rate was depending on two main factors, overall lending market conditions (LIBOR) and the banks’ appetite for shipping risk (spread), and these two variables were not necessarily in sync at all times. The other noteworthy observation is that a shipping bank was offering full service solution to the client, both the shipping loan and the hedge for the interest rate risk.

In the last several years, it’s widely known that shipping banks have been withdrawing from the shipping industry (anyone remembers the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) or even Lloyd’s TSB?), and credit funds have been moving into the shipping lending market. Given that institutional investors are behind such funds with higher return hurdles, the cost of borrowing from credit funds is much higher than that of the shipping banks. Still, credit funds express their interest rate offers in terms of LIBOR plus their spread over LIBOR, with usually the spread ranging in the 6-10% band. As a matter of comparison, traditionally shipping banks were (and, to the extent still active today, are) lending at 1-4% spread.

Reflecting… Image credit: Karatzas Images

No-one can blame the credit funds for being so expensive as their capital base is much different than that of a bank. [And, many would argue that shipping banks were mispricing risk and offering too cheap loans in the first place, but that’s a topic beyond the scope of this article, valid point nevertheless, in our opinion.] Also, no-one can blame credit funds that are not full service financial providers as they do not offer interest rate hedging, and shipowners / borrowers have to source it independently from banks, not an easy undertaking in today’s market when banks are disinterred in the shipping industry or in ad hoc clients and projects. The bottom line is that all ship mortgages and other debt financing instruments and transactions taken place via institutional investors are not hedged and most are fully floating and exposed to the rising interest rate environment. The cost is not inconsequential as 1% increase in interest rates reflects $27 per diem higher interest cost per each million borrowed; for a typical panamax bulker with a $10 mil mortgage from a credit fund, the 1.25% Fed rate bump in two years (included the expected twice in 2018) reflect $320 per diem additional daily financing cost, all being equal. For reference, the Baltic Exchange’s most recent report has BPI time-charter equivalent at $12,011 per diem (which incidentally is much higher than last year). $320 per diem incremental financing cost when the ship earns $12,011 per diem is not negligible, and this is still under an environment of well-behaving financial (and stock) markets presuming very rosy outcomes and being “priced to perfection”.

The shipping finance market is materially dislocated at present and the step-wise increases of interest rates by the Fed are a small problem to have in a much more challenging market. The concern however is that rising interest rates is a headache the market is ill prepared to deal with at present, and given that many borrowers (and lenders) are already stretched, there is minimal room for error. Anecdotally, we are aware of a couple of cases where shipowners trying to replace their 8% spread from credit funds with new financing, and not because they have expectations for lower interest rates.

It’s been a while since the shipping industry has been moving from one ring to a lower ring in what in business is called “vicious cycle”, when strategic errors keep compounding, further driving companies and the industry deeper into Dante’s Inferno.

Higher interest rates, in all likelihood, would push institutional investors and credit funds to increase their spreads as well, as now, in a new interest rate environment, their expected returns have to increase as well. Credit funds may theoretically opt to compete with each other on price (spread) in order to gain market share, or possibly decide to curtail their lending activities in shipping, neither option being a great outcome for the shipping industry.

Rising interest rates is not a laughing matter for the shipping industry, especially for the shipowners who went on the limb to borrow expensively in the hopes of out-running the business cycle. We would expect more news (and honestly more advisory work) from these developments.

Calm seas but not calm shipping… Image credit: Karatzas Images

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