Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Chemical war of attrition

The chemical sector experienced some revival earlier this year, but rates softened again during the summer and there remains a great deal of uncertainty yet about the time of a market upturn. Financially weaker operators like Eitzen and BLT continue their optimism, the more established major operators like Stolt and Odfjell remain cautious and see a longer market recovery period.

The chemical tanker sector was badly hit by the 2008 GFC. Cargo volume dropped dramatically in nearly all trades. Markets during 2009 were sustained mainly by US chemical feedstock exports to China, with tonnage swelling in the FE struggling for return cargo. This year after a stronger first quarter, the chemical tanker market saw a pullback. The transatlantic trades slowed, not helped by continued weak petroleum product markets. Reduced requirements for aromatics from China, which sustained the market in 2009, led to less demand for larger commodity parcels (above 5,000 tons) and with plenty of available vessel space as a result. The biofuel market withered with the US putting a 54 cent/gallon import tariff on most foreign ethanol supply and Brazilian ethanol production has been hurt from high sugar prices and heavy rains in 2009.

Stolt has been outperforming its peers with its solid contract base, diversified income from storage and other activities, and its sound financial position with moderate leverage. Stolt was very fortunate in its CAPEX obligations because delays at the SLS Shipyard allowed them to renegotiate price and delivery of their Dwt 44.000 coated newbuildings placed in 2005 for ME commodity chemical trading and they eventually secured full refunds for their Dwt 43.000 stainless orders. STJS cargo volume transported was up 7.6% from 1Q10 albeit freight rates remaining flat. Stolt finished its 2Q2010 with US$ 27.5 mio net profit.  

Stolt's main competitor Odfjell finished its 2Q2010 with a net loss of US$ 64 mio, but much of this was due to their decision to enter the new Norwegian tonnage tax system at a total cost of USD 42 million. Time-charter results per day increased by 2% compared to first quarter. Odfjell is not running any cash losses, but its balance sheet is somewhat weaker than Stolt with higher bank leverage.

Stolt expects a continued weak market for the rest of 2010 and 2011. Odfjell reports falling cargo volume in 3Q2010 accompanied by weakness in outbound voyages from US and Europe. They see increased competition for cargoes.

Ailing Eitzen Chemical with the recent exit of its CEO Annette Malm Justad and failure of its much touted merger with BLT gained reprieve by selling off its 74.3% stake in Eitzen Bulk, which brought a total profit of US$ 60.7 mio for the 2Q2010. Total freight income in the quarter dropped from US$ 31.03 mio to US$ 29.03 mio as the ethylene market remained weak and there were a number of drydockings. Eitzen has had extensive loan restructuring with its senior lenders and has extended its covenant waivers for several years, but it is far more dependent on a quick market recovery than financially stronger competitors. All the more so because it has a weak contract base, more dependence on the spot market and clean petroleum products.

The most optimistic and aggressive chemical operator, Berlian Laju (BLT), was recently down graded by Fitch, who cut its rating on the tanker owner from “B” to “–B” with a negative outlook. It also dropped its tag on BLT’s $400m unsecured notes from “CC” to “CCC”. Its Indonesian management believes fervently in rapid return to bull market conditions and it maintains a very aggressive new building program. This is an unlimited growth mentality similar to that of Seaspan's Gerry Wang, but without the support of long term SOE charterers to underwrite the business. BLT derives less than 10% of its revenues from Indonesian business, although lately it has shown interest to diversify into Indonesian FPSO and more domestic tanker cabotage business.

The weight of the shipowner’s significant capital expenditure requirements led Fitch to concerns that it may breach certain covenants if current market conditions persist. BLT leveraged up its balance sheet in 2007 when it purchased Chembulk from AMA at the peak of the market boom with a sizeable markup from the price that AMA had acquired this Connecticut-based chemical tanker operator from its founder Doug MacShane just a few months earlier in the beginning of the year. Having paid a premium price, the company strained considerably to raise the cash to complete the deal with AMA, selling and leasing back existing vessels in its fleet as well taking on heavy bank debt.

Eitzen and BLT have smaller vessels than Stolt and Odfjell. Particularly, the Eitzen fleet is concentrated in Dwt 12.000 stainless units and also has a fleet of coated chemical tonnage. BLT has some larger stainless tonnage in the Dwt 20.000 range, but this has come from their acquisiton of Chembulk, left largely with the US management. Their Asian fleet are smaller units. Both companies have smaller contract books than Stolt and Odfjell.

The future depends on how the markets play out. A V-recovery and bull market would greatly benefit BLT due its very high operating and financial leverage. A prolonged slack market will benefit Stolt with its resources to pick up distressed opportunities. Clearly Stolt and Odfjell with their stronger balance sheets and customer bases have more staying power than Eitzen and BLT. Eitzen needs very much a quick market recovery before its lenders become restless again and BLT could face loan restructuring with its senior creditors or even worse, be forced to sell off its Chembulk acquisition to raise cash.  

No comments:

Post a Comment