Monday, August 6, 2012

Is Box Ships latest purchase charter back deal with Overseas Orient really as rosy as claimed?

Michael Bodourglou’s Box Ships (TEU) has been a considerable reprieve from current woes of his bulk carrier business Paragon (PRGN), now a penny stock struggling with sagging profits, charter party defaults and loan covenant breaches from declining hull values. By contrast, Box Ships has seen its revenues double from last year and recently had a successful fund raiser.

We have expressed in the past our reservations on Bodouroglou’s diversification play because we see it as a pure asset and market cyclical play without any inherent competitive advantage. Containerships are attractive because they are very cheap. Charter-free 15-year old containerships are going for scrap value, probably the cheapest shipping assets of any sector of the marine market. The vessels require charters from major liner companies, who have had their own problems with stagnant box rates, price wars for market share and investment in ever large tonnage to lower unit costs and defend operating margins.

The Overseas Orient deal is instructive. It is a purchase-charter back transaction from Orient Overseas (OOIL), which is a solid liner operator concentrating on inter Asia, Australia and trans-Pacific container routes and limited exposure on the currently problematic Asia Europe head haul route suffering from the Eurozone’s self-inflicted recession and debt deflation woes. The two 5.344 TEU vessels acquired by Box Ships are built 1995/ 1996.

Whilst charter free box ships of similar age are valued at scrap levels, Box Ships is paying the handsome price of US$ 62,3 million for these two aging units because OOIL will charter back the vessels at rates of US$ 26.800 per day for three years. Nominally assuming continuation of these rate levels on a five-year basis, this business brings returns on equity in the order of 16% per annum, which is very good performance in these difficult markets. After administrative expenses (namely the sizeable vessel management fees to AllSeas Maritime - Bodouroglou's privately held management company) the actual discounted cash flow returns to investors would be somewhat lower, but still this outshines returns on dry bulk and tanker business presently.

The issue is whether these rate levels are sustainable on renewal in three years’ time. There is as well as the matter of potential impairment charges on vessel values on a charter-free basis. So far the impressive revenue increases in Box Ships are mainly because Bodouroglou has been aggressively buying vessels and expanding the fleet. Yet the Box Ship share price has been steadily declining, initially around the US$ 10-11 level and now trading at the US$ 6-7 range.

Like all shipping transactions, these moves are a wager in hopes that the markets will turn around favorably and the cyclicality will boost returns. Bodouroglou could be well be correct in his investment timing.  Certainly he is getting plenty of banking and investor support in tough capital market conditions.

On the other hand there is tail risk here. In an expansion phase of a start-up venture like this, you double the number of vessels and get twice the revenue but does that is not the same as doubling your revenue on your existing fleet earning twice the freight income over the same expenses. Time will tell whether this strategy works out or Box Ships will disappoint and underperform expectations.

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