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Credit is due to shipping finance

The freight market has been disappointing recently, for dry bulk, tankers and containerships, while asset prices too have been on a softening trend, especially for tankers. As one would expect, traditionally the freight market gets most of the attention in shipping, for signs of strength with the hope that asset prices would be lifted too; however, we are of the opinion that shipping finance may be the key for successfully navigating the shipping markets going forward.

Having travelled extensively recently and having closed several S&P and structured, financial transactions, we can only be more convinced by the day that shipping finance is where the real battlefield lies for shipping nowadays. Access to finance, whether based on own funds or access to financing from third parties, is what sets shipowners apart in terms of survival and growth.

Shipping banks are done with traditional shipping and first preferred ship mortgages. Yes, we have seen a couple of occasions where European banks are still lending at 300 bps spread over Libor, but they are so selective and have such a limited capacity that effectively such lending activity only confirms the fact that shipping banks are not active for most practical purposes. Thus, cheap debt financing is no more.

Shipping credit funds have made lots of noise in the last year, and we estimate that they have deployed close to a billion dollars in the last 18 months; still, they are too afar from financing the average shipowners, notwithstanding the temptation in this desperate market for debt financing. Credit funds typically look for 8% minimum yield before any fees, equity kickers and other incentives, which limits their applicability to only secondhand vessels that are priced at a multiple of the collateral’s scrap value; financing the acquisition of a resale capesize vessel with excess $30m acquisition price and paying 8% yield, you might as well try yor luck in Las Vegas and try to have a good time while you’re at it. Thus, credit funds can have parodical application.

Private equity funds having made ill-timed ‘bets’ in 2011-2014 in shipping (and we consciously use the term ‘bets’), now they stand licking their wounds and trying to devise ways to cut their losses short. Never mind grandiose plans for IPOs, market consolidation and bringing turn-around expertise and making a commitment to the industry; we have been the busiest we have seen with advisory, market intelligence, valuation, industry expertise services for disputes, arbitration and litigation between shipowners and financial investors. So much for hopes that private equity could feel the funding gap left in the wake of shipping banks leaving the industry.

True, there are still shipowners with deep pockets who have kept buying vessels well into 2017, despite the asset price bounce compared to all time lows in 2016 for the dry bulk market; however, there are few shipowners that indeed still have deep pockets. German owners may feel sick that they lose ships to other markets and especially to the Greek market, and this can be true to an extent, but on the other hand, few shipowners have been buying and can keep buying on a sustainable basis; most shipowners with ‘seed money’ are almost maxed out and looking for third-party money if they were to keep buying.

Shipping finance is really the battleground for modern shipping these days, the industry’s ‘soft underbelly’. While one can keep projecting on tonnage demand growth and developing trade patterns, shipping finance will be the field that will make or break shipowners. Shipping finance is getting to be ever more challenging and there is no realistically any reason that the picture will get brighter in the future. Yes, for few publicly listed shipping companies with critical mass, real business plans and solid corporate governance, capital markets can still be the way to go. But for most of the independent shipowners and several of the penny-stock listed shipping companies, shipping finance would be the critical link in their survival and / or success.

Based on reports from a recent shipping conference in New York – which purposefully we did not attend, we have seen that ‘M&A’ and ‘consolidation’ were the buzzwords of the day. But again, in a market that is as dead in activity as a coffin floating after the sinking of the Pequod in Moby Dick, whether for IPOs, etc (even a SPAC sponsored by the blue blood Saverys’ shipping family has failed) or follow-ons, hopes for M&A and consolidation have to do. And, statements that shipping and commercial banks ought to be considering shipping again, given that the industry is ‘low volatility’, humoured us for reminding us the proposed ‘Hamburg Formula’ for vessel valuations of almost 10 years ago where the shipping industry was suggested to be an industry of low volatility and risk and the suggested cost of capital was a whole of 50 basis points over the T-bill, then.

Solving the shipping finance riddle is really a critical point for most of the shipowners to address going forward, over the direction of the freight and asset pricing markets.

Basil Karatzas

Basil M Karatzas is CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors, a maritime consultancy and shipping finance firm based in Manhattan, New York.
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