Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Structural changes in the crude oil tanker sector: failure of companies to adapt may prove fatal!

The crude oil tanker sector faces the double whammy of excess capacity from overinvestment as well as structural changes in trade flows.  It is not a growth industry.  Developed economies have proved successful in rolling back consumption and diversifying in alternative fuel sources.  Marginal demand growth to fill the slack depends on emerging market economies.  The degree of hard landing in China and future level of growth rates in emerging market economies thereafter is very critical in the short and medium term.   Those tanker companies heavily dependent on traditional crude oil transport – VLCC’s, Suezmax and Aframax – without other revenue sources are severely exposed.  Those with high bank leverage are in severe distress.

Spot market tanker rates can be very volatile. These vessels are dependent on one cargo only: crude oil. Demand is driven by inventory levels; futures pricing, oil production levels and underlying oil import needs. Oil production is in part manipulated by the oil producer cartel OPEC and particularly Saudi Arabia as a swing producer, so productions levels play a key role in available cargo volume for transport. Politics plays a big role with the Iran oil sanctions. Speculation plays a role depending on the future pricing curve whenever it is favorable to buy and store the physical commodity in chartered tonnage for sale at a later date, taking this out of the transport market, leaving less tonnage available for lifting cargos to destination.

As the US has been the greatest consumer of crude oil in cargo volume, the VLCC trades were developed as the most economical means per unit cost to transport crude oil to the Houston area for refining from the Middle East. With the China and emerging market boom of the last decade, there was a deluge of new refinery projects in the Middle East, China and India.

Middle East producers wanted to develop a more value-added economy, investing their profits from oil sales into refineries to produce products at source for export. This led to great optimism in the product and chemical tanker sector that jumped the gun in over investment in these sectors. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, some of these projects have been cancelled, some delayed and some progressed and are on stream. Demand was less than expected for the ship owners.

One of the most novel projects from the Middle East was the Motiva refinery. This is a 50-50 Shell and Aramco joint investment of three new refineries in the US Gulf region. It is the reverse concept of the Middle East refinery projects. They transport crude to the US and refine there. This has been a boon to the product tankers trades in US Jones Act cabotage trade; albeit due project delays and a refinery closure due an accident, it has been slow to come on stream.

Conversely, there have been some overwhelmingly negative structural changes that threaten crude oil trade to the US, namely:

• Technological evolution in the production of tight oil and shale gass, allowing more US domestic energy production, together with the Keystone pipeline project facilitating Canadian oil imports. Whilst this is another potential boost to US Jones Act shipping for distribution of products, it is one of the main contributing factors this year to a dreadful international tanker market.

• Expected increased domestic use of energy resources in the Arabian Gulf, making less crude oil available for export. This is developing on several fronts. First, there is the political front with the Iran oil embargo. Second, there was a drastic reduction of Saudi oil exports during the summer where the oil was diverted to domestic use for electricity production. Finally, the above-mentioned refinery project now coming on stream to produce clean products and chemicals for export. After the GFC, about a third of the projects were cancelled and another third in delay, but the last third is now coming on stream and exporting. This means production at source and less crude oil for export.

The rise of gas shipping as a new growth area is also impacting negatively on crude oil transport. The LNG market is dominated by cargo operators and normally done on long period contracts. Historically, returns have been less than desired and tonnage ordering has overshot the market, but the Japanese tsunami provided the catalyst to rekindle this market to profitable rates with attractive returns to investors. The vessels are much more complex to build than crude oil tankers and capital costs are significantly higher, providing serious entry barriers. The limited number of yards that can turn out such specialized vessels has created a two-year window of opportunity for nice run on rates with existing tonnage in relatively short supply.

Increased LNG production as a long-term secular trend means also downstream enhanced prospects for LPG shipping. Together with the offshore sector, these are presently the major growth sectors in the tanker markets.

Conversely, the crude oil tanker market – except for sudden brief demand spikes in refinery restocking – does not seem to offer good long term growth prospects in the face of these secular trends. A number of established tanker operators like BW Shipping have been shedding VLCC tonnage.  BW like Teekay Shipping and major private owners like Angelicoussis in Greece, foreseeing these secular treds  have diversified themselves in timely fashion into other more attractive areas like LNG shipping and offshore, positioning their businesses with profits from these new growth areas that shelter them from the current losses on their tanker tonnage.

Some like TeeKay Shipping have sought to develop a franchise in tanker trades demanding special expertise, namely shuttle tankers offloading directly from oil rigs. These vessels have special mooring fixtures and are equipped with dynamic positioning technology. They require specially trained crews. An extension of this offshore business is the FSO and FPSO business with floating oil storage and production facilities, another current growth area in shipping.

Companies who have been slow to adapt to these developments are generally in deep trouble. General Maritime (GMR), for example, just recently got out of Chapter 11. Peter Georgiopoulos appears to have ignored totally all of these developments. His company was probably the weakest of the large listed tanker operators in terms sound commercial management. Perhaps he was distracted by his ventures into dry cargo. Now he has lost control of his tanker business and is fighting to save Genco and Baltic in the current severe bulk carrier markets correction. What Oaktree gained in taking over General Maritime remains to be seen. Presumably they were attracted by a cyclical asset play because the enterprise value of their acquisition is quite low compared to peer tanker operators.  Oaktree now seems to be ready to do a startup asset play in dry cargo with Petros Pappas of Oceanbulk.  At least this venture promises to have a lower entry and transactions costs than Genmar....

Overseas Shipping Group (OSG) was too little and too late in these structural market developments and left with heavy crude oil spot exposure. It appears to be heading to Chapter 11. Whereas their peer colleague Peter Georgiopoulos by contract proved timely and diligent bringing in Oaktree to support his company, OSG management also appears to be failing with senior lenders in prompt action in debt restructuring. Hopefully, OSG management ultimately will prove adequate to the circumstances.  I have always felt that their age and career path has made it very difficult for them to adapt to crisis management. The OSG Board made a good decision to appoint outside advisers.

In these cases, it is not only the over indebtedness of the companies, but also the failure of the business model that put these shipping groups in their present predicament. Conversely, the successful operators like TeeKay Shipping have outperformed peer tanker operators because they adapted in timely fashion their business model to anticipate structural market changes and have much better business models.

The Leucadia buyout of Jefferies and departure of Hamish Norton to a job in the Greek shipping industry marks a tsunami of change in the investment banking industry for shipping

There have been profound changes in capital markets for shipping since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The market for shipping IPO’s has been severely limited.  Follow-up share issues from solid shipping names can only be placed with discounts to entice investors to enter into the business at levels that they feel comfortable.  A much larger portion of shipping issues now goes to retail investor, giving the large bulge-bracket investment banks with substantial retail capacity considerable competitive edge in placements.  As a result, boutique shipping investment banks like Jefferies and Dahlman Rose have become marginalized in the new market conditions, leading to dramatic changes in both organizations.

After the GFC shock, the shipping industry waxed and waned but never fully recovered from the drop in cargo volume and lower freight rate levels. Initially in 2009 there was a sort of Zarnowitz-style bounce in freight rates that provided a good feeling. Over time, conditions in the bulk shipping markets deteriorated. Cargo demand could no longer keep up with the order book overhang of new tonnage. More recently incremental demand in emerging markets has begun to dry up, leading to significantly bleaker conditions this year for both dry bulk and tankers as well as a new dip in the containership market. Only gas shipping and offshore sectors have healthy demand.

Companies suddenly faced a dramatically different banking climate. The shipping industry, being labor and capital intensive, has relatively low investment returns over time except for cyclical booms. It is has always been dependent on low cost shipping finance to provide necessary leverage for expansion and adequate investment returns. Bank spreads rose to unprecedented levels only sustainable due the very low LIBOR cost of funding.  Even that depended what cost the particular bank could raise its funding. No longer were there banks looking for new customers. Companies become restricted to their existing banks. Credit conditions hardened with far more restrictive loan conditions. Credit generally was hard to find.

Investors lost a great deal of money holding shipping stocks. Many of the new issues in the boom times prior 2008 were startups with little intrinsic enterprise value. They were asset plays on a shipping provider business model. They tried to generate high investor returns with large block vessel acquisition deals that were leveraged with bank finance. As asset values began to shrink and cash flow tightened in weaker freight market conditions, many listed shipping companies began to face covenant violations and required additional capital.

Among the exposed companies was DryShips, who very early in the game recapitalized successfully with repeated ‘at the market’ share offerings to retail investors, which resulted in severe share dilution. This marked a shift from the initial placements with hedge funds and institutional investors taking large blocks of shares. Only a large investment bank of the bulge-bracket nature with a large retail operation could do this kind of placement, raising large amounts of money from feeding day traders and others in small amounts over time.

The IPO window closed with the GFC was briefly opened when General Maritime (GMR) jumped in to raise capital for its Metrostar block tanker acquisition deal. Genmar was not in the greatest health at the time, having bruised itself with a bond issue at higher pricing than anticipated when the bond investors discovered covenant issues with senior secured bank lenders. At the time of the IPO despite a minority of the wary, institutional investors bought the deal and Genmar received a rapid placement without suffering any share discount. Unfortunately, the deal proved poison for investors, who suffered severe losses with the subsequent financial difficulties of the company. Chapter 11 wiped out the unsecured Genmar bond holders in a sizeable cram down.

I believe that the Genmar debacle marked a major change in market perception of the risks in investing in shipping shares. The bond of trust between investors and Peter Georgiopoulos could never be the quite the same again.  This appears to have changed dramatically risk perception. The IPO window closed again. Follow-on issues and rare IPO's were only possible for a select number of shipping companies. For new money - even top shipping names - investors were now demanding substantial discounts for entry prices. Despite very soft rates in the US corporate bond markets, shipping bond issues continue to carry substantial premium.

This new climate proved lethal for Dahlman Rose, leading to major shareholder changes and senior executive departures like David Frischkorn to Global Hunter. Hamish Norton was initially successful in holding on at Jefferies longer than his Dahlman peeor.  Hamish had come to Jefferies prior the GFC from a very timely and prescient move from Bear Stearns shortly before the meltdown there. His assistant Nicky Stillman left Jefferies for Clarksons last year. Market conditions, however, severely restricted potential to build a book of business in the shipping space. Jefferies tried to get restructuring business, but the Omega (ONAV) account was small and precarious with limited options.

Jefferies is now selling itself to Leucadia. Perhaps this influenced Hamish’s decision to leave the firm. Jefferies actually outperformed its larger investment bank peers since the GFC, but wanted bigger capitalization under the umbrella of a larger financial group. Leukadia is their biggest shareholder and its unused tax benefits will shelter Jefferies profits.

Hamish is one of the most capable and conscientious investment bankers in the shipping space with solid rainmaker reputation.  When he leaves banking to go to a private shipping industry position with Petros Pappas in a dry cargo joint venture start up with Oaktree, this is a statement in itself of the dire situation in the investment banking industry regarding shipping issues. Of course, who could ever imagine likewise an established blue chip tanker operator like OSG teetering on Chapter 11 proceedings with shell-shocked CEO and former banker Morten Arntzen at the helm!  Times are difficult indeed in the shipping sector.
Shipping is a cyclical industry so there is always hope for a recovery and reversion to boom psychology, but after several years of repeatedly pushing forward market recovery dates because improvement never came, people are less sure of recovery time than before.  No one knows what 2013 will bring.

My personal concern is the increasingly fragile situation in China and emerging market economies, which are the sole source of global incremental demand.  The European Union has been the worst performer with its macabre fascination with debt deflation.  The IMF has signalled repeated EU policy failurs especially in the EU Periphery as high risk to the global economy.  China has a very large and risky speculative position in commodities, having assumed unsustainable double digit forward growth rates that have slowed considerably with negative impact on shipping markets. 

Should commodities prices fall further, this could trigger another leg down in the shipping markets.  Softer iron ore, steel and scrap prices would lead to even lower vessel values.  With dwindling resources have such prolonged weak market conditions, many companies are ill-prepared for a further market leg downwards.  Bankers holding many of these lame duck companies alive fear sizeable losses on their loans.  Understandably, many are hoping for a floor in place from further decline in freight rates and ship values. 

There is the old saying that once you lose virginity, it is impossible to get it back again; but fortunately when good times appear investors tend to have short memories.

Greece as Iphigenia: the consequences of poor judgment in public policy decision-making in both Greece and the EU

After months of negotiation for the next bailout loan tranche, the plot thickens for Greece in downwards debt deflation and deep recession.  The much touted spring PSI+ loan restructuring now appears too little and too late with the IMF now arguing for OSI (official sector) participation, opening political drama in EU donor countries.  How to explain to their taxpayer- voters these losses from very unpopular bailout loans to Greece? The IMF is expressing deep concerns about deteriorating economic fundamentals in the EU as a major threat to the global economy.  The Greek economy continues with GDP sliding at 7% per annum and 25% unemployment with total GDP shrinkage from the outset of these EU bailout programs surpassing Great Depression levels.  The utopia of the single currency zone has become a nightmare for the Greek people as well as most the Eurozone Periphery.  

Greece is a European periphery country and traditionally a sea power with a larger merchant fleet. Shipping is a major offshore industry, which is as an important national franchise as the City financial services are to the UK. The Greek Diaspora lives in large numbers outside the European Union. The clientele of Greek merchant fleet is mainly emerging markets, all in the US Dollar zone. Neighboring countries like Turkey and Israel as well as the Arab world are outside of the EU. Fundamentally, Greece never met the Mundell criteria for optimal currency zone membership in the Eurozone.

For these reasons, it is very hard to understand why Greece chose to enter the Eurozone and did not take a more prudent stand following the Scandinavians like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, not to mention its traditional ally, the UK. Conversely neighboring Turkey, who at present is only part of the EU trade union without full EU membership and outside the Eurozone, achieved far superior GDP growth rates with a new class of entrepreneurs and burgeoning exports. The Greek economy was not able to keep up. Now Turkish GDP overshadows Greece in totally different league of successful emerging market countries, whereas Greece is locked in an economic zone of losers.

Why did not the business savvy Greek shipping community follow the example of their financial brethren in London City and see the dangers and risks of Eurozone membership, lobby against it to protect their economic interests and thus spare millions of Greek compatriots from the current pain and misery of rapidly declining living standards, business failures and massive unemployment?

Austerity fatigue is rampant in Greece with the third bout of austerity measures passing by a slim parliamentary majority of 153 votes and the New Democracy party dependent on the PASOK Socialists, who have less than 8% of the vote by latest polls.

The pattern over the last few years is Greece falling consistently behind targets with an ever deeper recession and then required to make additional austerity measures for the next tranche of EU bailout money to stay in the Eurozone. The tax code changes every few months as the government runs out of money. No one in Greece except its political class expects that they will ever see the end of new and harsher measure down the line. Accordingly, the Greek political elite has largely lost any credibility with the Greek electorate.

It was amusing in the parliamentary debate to see Alexis Tsipras of the leftist SYRIZA party citing IMF reports about Greek debt unsustainability and need for further public debt restructuring (OSI) - in front of Harvard Business School educated PM Antonis Samaras, stone-faced clinging to the confidence fairy of debt deflation, as the only remedy – something that American economists like NYU’s Nouriel Roubini, Princeton’s Paul Krugman or Wharton’s Franklin Allen sharply dispute. What an incredible role reversal!!!

Economics minister Ioannis Stournaras made straight face budget projections of GDP shrinkage of 4.5% in 2013 at the same time, talking about additional austerity measures for billions of Euro that he was unable to extract this year due falling tax revenues from a moribund Greek economy. Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras was probably more realistic in his projections of 7-8% GDP shrinking in 2013. Stournaras has been systematically wrong in his projections since 2010. He was part of the team who fudged Greece’s ill-fated entry into the Eurozone with EU collusion, yet Samaras rewarded him the Economics ministry portfolio, not a sign of great leadership or critical thinking!

Whilst the Greeks are in an increasingly difficult position to comply with EU demands with the severe carnage that the EU internal devaluation dogma has on their domestic economy, Northern European taxpayers are increasingly outraged by the Greek bailout and concerned about throwing good money after bad.

This was evidenced in the slow pace of negotiations between Greece and the European Union since the June 2012 elections and increasingly tough conditions set for Greek compliance to release the bailout money tranche. The IMF suggestion of an OSI restructuring poses a substantial political dilemma for northern European politicians. Understandably the Germans are avoiding the subject with upcoming parliamentary elections next year.

Clearly, there is increasing pressure to limit losses and cut Greece loose from the Eurozone, but the Greek political elite seem ill-prepared for such an eventuality. Ironically the only politician, who has dared to publically to raise the subject of a Plan B for Greece going back to a national currency as suggested by eminent people like Nouriel Roubini and Franklin Allen cited earlier, is Alekos Alavanos, former leader of SYRIZA.

Added to this is high drama of the Lagarde list. In 2010 Christine Lagarde, then financial minister of France, sent a list of 1991 names of Greek customers with bank accounts at HSBC's Geneva branch to the Greek government. This list traces offshore companies to their principals and word has it that it contains significant representation from the Greek shipping community – not only high profile Greek ship owners, but also middle level Greek management.

Shipping is an offshore industry and under law 89, shipping companies have no tax liability. Bonuses and salaries are commonly paid in US dollars. It is no secret that some circles German creditors have been pressing for abolition of the Greek shipping free zone. Greek politicians have done their best to avoid the subject but as economic and social conditions deteriorate in Greece and the EU increases its demands for more bailout money, anything could happen.

The Greek shipping community not only risks the Greek government confiscating a significant portion of private savings money in foreign currency accounts abroad for the ultimate benefit of foreign Greek creditors for debts and mismanagement that they played no part in creating; but even more sinister, the eventual abolition of their off-shore business zone status as part of the price extracted for Greece to remain in the Eurozone in these interminable and indeterminate bailout negotiations.

How many in Greece are now seriously considering that the price of remaining in the Eurozone is becoming intolerably high simply to perpetuate the whims of the Greek political elite, who have so mismanaged the country and have no alternative games plan?

Jettisoning the current failed and discredited Greek political leadership may well prove a more prudent sacrifice…. Returning to the Drachma may well prove a salvation from the current economic and social hell in the Eurozone.

Greece should denounce the Troika for wrecking its economy with five years of debt deflation that has created suffering and poverty for large parts of the population and bankrupted over 20% of the private sector, press hard for OSI debt restructuring as per IMF recommendations and ask to leave the Eurozone consensually with a bridge package for the transition instead of any more Ponzi bailout loans.

PS I am appending the impressions of Nouriel Roubini from his spring trip to Greece. I find very true what he says about the present psychology and unsustainability of the present course:

I attended a public debate on whether Greece should exit the EZ; three-quarters of those who attended were against that option. One caveat is that most of the attendees were middle class folks who work in the private sector, speak English, are europhiles and blame the government and public sector for all of Greece’s problems. Lower-income individuals, employees of the large public sector and left-of-center voters have different views.

In my conversations with a large sample of private-sector businessmen — shipping magnates, other manufacturers, representatives of the financial sector — and members of the government, a similar view emerged: No one wants to even consider an exit from the EZ. Many forcefully argued — without any evidence — that Greece doesn’t have a competitiveness problem — despite data suggesting that unit labor costs rose by over 40% in the decade before the crisis — and blamed all of the problems of the private sector on the inefficiencies and tax burden of the public sector. Again, this sample of prominent Greeks is obviously as europhile as one could get, so can be regarded as somewhat biased.

… it was quite dissonant if not outright disturbing to hear 5 billionaire shipping owners claim that they care about Greece, but forcefully argue that they should not pay a single penny of tax because: Their shipping businesses are highly competitive globally; they cannot afford to pay tax; and, if the authorities try to tax them, they would move somewhere else. With its own business elite being so willing to contribute to Greece’s fiscal problems, one may rightfully despair that the country can ever successfully tackle its tax evasion problems.

Like what I saw in Argentina in 2000-01, when most Argentines wanted to stick with the currency board and fixed peg to the U.S. dollar, most Greeks have an irrational faith that, by some miracle, economic growth and competitiveness will be restored without an EZ exit. Frankly, most discussions with Greeks become emotional rather than rational assessments of whether an exit from the EZ — with all the collateral damage that it would imply — would be preferable to 5 more years of depression after 5 years of a deepening recession.