Companies, seen as going concerns, are usually valued as a multiple of their earnings or cash flows (selectively), reflecting that a buyer of a company will be generating profits in the years to come based on the business’ assets, contracts, reputation, management, corporate competitive advantage, etc Based on the nature of the business and market conditions, the preferred multiple can differ or modified to accommodate unique circumstances. Of course, there are exemptions to the rule. For instance, who could forget the dotcom years when internet startups where valued on “eyeballs” rather than actual cash flows, reflecting hope and ambition that the distant future will be rosiest?
And, then, there are ship-owning companies – on the other spectrum of company valuations. Shipping companies are asset-heavy entities since they own the vessels, expensive capital assets with long economic lives. The prospect is that these capital assets will be utilized to generate cash flows and earnings – and, logically, shipping companies ought to be valued of some multiple of cash flows or earnings rather than just the assets. Valuing a refinery company, for instance, at the cost of their plant value most likely would imply a liquidation or a fire-sale scenario and not a going concern.
For those paying attention to publicly listed shipping companies, the valuation metric is the so-called “NAV”, that is the Net Asset Value – that is, the current value of the fleet less outstanding debt (mortgages) plus cash in the bank or other tangible assets. That’s how publicly listed companies are valued, as the value of the “steel” (ships) with little immediate consideration for earnings. In general, shipping companies are valued at or below NAV – effectively, if one were to liquidate the business would end up with the same or more hard cash in their bank account. Philosophically speaking, being dead (liquidated) has a higher price than being alive (going concern); this does not exactly sound very inspiring…
Perusing a current research report from a major investment bank one sees that the mean stock price of shipping equities stands at 0.97x of NAV and the median at 0.87x; with the exception of two companies that have long term contracts for their fleets (MPLs in the LNG space) that trade above NAV, more or less, any other shipping company trades at a discount to NAV; even the mighty Maersk with its hundred-plus year old name, gloried history, global reach and household name “doesn’t get no respect” – below NAV valuation, too; one tanker company actually at the time of this writing trades at 0.60x of NAV, meaning that if the stock price per share represents $10 worth of shipping assets, the price of the share stands at only $6. Ouch!
Shipping freight rates fluctuate over time and shipping asset values move accordingly with some time lapse and a varying degree of correlation. And, it’s well known that, unlike other assets that only depreciate, shipping assets do also appreciate in price. In a hot freight market, ships get more valuable despite their age. Low NAVs follow weak freight markets and usually indicate the prospects of freight rates are anemic in the near future, which is the current state of the market.
Theoretically, from an investment point of view, there is an arbitrage opportunity and money to be made between undervalued shipping equities (buy the stock or sell the ships when NAV is low) or sell shares when stock trading above NAV; and there has been just a case of the management team of two affiliated publicly listed shipping companies that have presented to the investment community an arbitrageur model of making money in shipping, buying back their own stock when below NAV or selling their ships when overvalued. Unfortunately such an investment strategy has not played well in real life in this case; many reasons, in our opinion, that the arbitrageur model has not panned out well, but let’s say that real life in the shipping industry is more challenging than an investment proposal often assumes.
The paradox, and a disheartening fact, in our opinion, remains that shipping companies are valued according to the value of their hard assets. There is zip premium for brand name (or “franchise”) value, for intellectual property, for charters and other contracts in place, for intangibles, and, regrettably for management expertise. And, if one adheres literally to the valuation definition, a below NAV valuation implies that the company’s management team not only does not add value to the firm, but, in a sense, is a liability to the firm. One gets the firm cheaper than one can buy the assets. Ouch!
From an investment point of view, one could argue that shipping management teams offer little alpha (α) – the premium return over the market return. Their expertise, knowledge, efforts and hard work mean precious little when it comes to adding value; the shipping equity stocks move along the beta (β) of the market, without adding any value. Ouch, again! Unless, there are concerns with the agency theory…
Shipping company management teams most obviously generate value by timing vessel acquisitions and disposals, mainly by buying ships when they are cheap or undervalued. Effectively, it’s a focus on market beta (β) and market timing versus capturing alpha (α) by building and running a superior business. And, by focusing on beta – instead of alpha – there is a re-emphasis of a trading model at the expense of an operating business model, one to focus on generating profits from running the ships and not trading the ships themselves.
Some have argued that the public markets with their short-termism, regulatory constraints and poor valuation metrics are not the ideal source of capital for the shipping companies. Irrespective of whether such criticism is valid, the shipping industry is ripe for a shipping company management team that will be able to provide a superior business model and convince the investors to value shipping companies on metrics that go beyond the value of the “steel”.
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