Monday, July 1, 2013

Tail Risk in shipping recovery still very much present!


Lately there is a lot of capital chasing shipping assets, arbitraging on vessel prices.   Oaktree Capital is one of the high profile leaders.  Wilbur Ross was an early forerunner in the Diamond S. venture, doing the Cido deal in 2011.

It has nothing to do with business plans, building value with companies to gain competitive advantage and market share in transport and logistics services. This is pure and crude asset speculation, betting that we are at the bottom of the shipping cycle, vessel values will begin to move up and a quick profit will be made by unloading these assets on the next company, who in turn riding the cycle will hope to gain themselves on the next leg upwards until the last guy in – like a Villy Panayiotides at Excel with the Quintana merger – gets stuck carrying the candle and goes bankrupt with the losses as the market crashes.

My personal view is that Oaktree and others are desperately looking for yield without many options in the present world of ZIRP.  The FED policy under Ben Bernanke’s reflects today's conventional wisdom, trying to push asset inflation to reflate and get out of the current Great Recession aftermath of the 2008 Global financial Crisis.

Shipping assets have caught their radar.  Putting money in risky assets and companies for yield has not always gone very well in past shipping cases.  Berlian Laju, for example, just months after a massive debt restructuring with US$ 200 million in new funds and repeated earlier high cost lease deals ended in debt default just months later, illustrating the risks involved in this strategy.

Whether the present FED policies will ultimately reflate the world economy depends on future real demand for goods and services that generates cargoes for these vessels, pushes freight rates up and then vessel values increase geometrically on the future earning expectations. Until and when this happens, this speculative money is actually generating more over capacity and prolonging any market recovery in the shipping industry.

Meanwhile, we have increasing zombification of many shipping companies like General Maritime now reorganized along with TORM and Eitzen Chemical now renamed Jason, OSG/ BLT are in purgatory with their ultimate fate still in limbo.  Excel Maritime recently moved into a hopefully pre-packed Chapter 11 reorganization.  Genco and others like Eagle are tottering in the brink. The recent Baltic Trading follow on capital raise seems a back door doubling up for Genco - see my recent piece: "Peter Georgiopoulos tries to regain his lost credibility" http://amaliatank.blogspot.gr/2013/06/peter-georgiopoulos-tries-to-regain-his.html.

Their Bankers are desperately trying to keep the dead alive. In turn, speculative capital like Oaktree and others, are buying up distressed debt to keep the banks themselves alive with an increasing number of zombie banks around.  Warehousing of bad assets has become the fashion.  Commerzbank - basically a zombie institution - recently issued a statement that it does expect to sell any shipping assets because they expect the market will bring the prices up...  So why worry about any 'book' losses at current mark to market price levels, capital (in) adequacy, etc.?

Oaktree seems to have a rather chaotic investment approach with different parts putting shipping assets on their books in a rather haphazard way. After all, did it make sense or show good analysis to invest in General Maritime only months from declaring Chapter 11 and needing even more money in a second round?

Normally, investments are supposed to yield value and then second round financing is done to invest in another leg up in the private equity world.  Here Oaktree was doubling down on a bad position, which is not normally good trading practice.  The normal practice would be to lighten up and reduce exposure.  In the current 'pretend and extend' world that we live in, however, everyone is trying hard to avoid cutting losses and many actively practice 'doubling down'. 

Did Genmar ever really have much intrinsic enterprise value as a shipping company beyond its physical assets to warrant the Oaktree "investment" in recapitalization??? I would say no!

Peter Georgiopoulos  never really thought of Genmar as an enterprise - at least in the sense of a logistics transport business serving customers in carriage of cargo.  Peter G. was and is foremost an asset speculator.  He ignored strategic positioning for Genmar to gain market share, improve earnings margins and generate growth through retained earnings. Employment was just a means of holding his assets rather than serving and building a customer base. His biggest sin was ignoring trends in the tanker market and new growth areas. His mindset was on trading assets.  Others like TK Shipping and his nemesis 'Big John" Fredriksen handily outperformed him and provided superior performance to their investors.

In the case of Petros Pappas, the Oaktree approach is to fund Pappas like a bond trader. Pappas has a successful record in asset trading. Oaktree has Pappas like a stock picker in different vessel classes. Pappas trades largely on his own instincts with his own money on a 50-50% basis with Oaktree. His own skin in the game satisfies Oaktree for the moral hazard. Neither Pappas nor Oaktree are looking to build businesses or really have any business plans at all beyond the asset trading.

A recent Tradewinds interview with Lazard’s Head of Shipping, Peter Stokes, sheds a lot of light on this matter. In fact, I am amazed and somewhat gratified to see someone like Stokes, thinking and saying publicly, many of the same things that I have been saying privately and publically when I was recently a keynote speaker at the Hong Kong shipping forum.

Stokes sees two basic scenarios ahead (see "Bungled QE exit could 'burn out' ship values" http://www.tradewindsnews.com/weekly/w2013-06-21/article319083.ece5)):

  • Scenario A: - conventional wisdom ‘muddle-through’ recovery in the next few years that is likely to be subpar in quality, partly because of so many trying to ride the coat tails of same scenario.  If everyone is arbitraging, then each is cancelling out the other in any meaningful price action.  Further this self-defeating over time in creating over supply with a new wave of speculative ordering that will grow with any upwards price movement.  There is too much speculative money and too much yard overcapacity.
  • Scenario B - complete collapse with another leg down, where investment firms like Oaktree, shipping banks, etc. experience painful and unavoidable losses. The zombie shipping companies finally die. Assets are written down to true values and finally there is a proper shipping recovery based on an industry shake up where only the fit survive: much dreaded Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’. 
A  preview of scenario B is the recent reportage in Tradewinds about an apparently unsuccessful attempt by Wilbur Ross, First Reserve, etc. to float an IPO in the Oslo capital markets for their Diamond S venture that was built on a huge block purchase of product tankers from Cido a few years.  My previous two pieces on the Diamond S venture make interesting reading in retrospect: 
Obviously, the latter Scenario B would be a devastating setback for governments (especially the European Union political elite) and many financial institutions.  Such an outcome might ruin their careers and threaten the integrity of their institutions. On the other hand, they are slowly running out of resources for the constant backstopping. “Pretend and extend” credit policies with the massive socialization of losses is far more costly than they are representing to their voters.  So far little of this has proved helpful to an economic recovery. Only the US has had some relative success, but their boost in energy resources may be a more substantive driver in this tepid recovery than FED financial engineering pulling on strings.

The two key elements ahead that may affect shipping asset prices are the US and its tapering to wind down the FED asset purchases and the Chinese restructuring, given that the Chinese marginal rate of investment is unsustainable and the losses are corrupting their banking system. The US and Chinese both realize that this needs to be done and it is unavoidable, unlike their EU counterparts with their “muddle through” theories, eternal dissention and dream-world mentality resembling Mann’s Magic Mountain novel.

Admittedly, I am strongly influenced by my friend Michael Pettis in China. I believe Chinese growth will ultimately disappoint.  The volatility concerned that Pettis expresses about the very large Chinese speculative position in commodities worries me given the potentially negative impact on shipping markets. So I would not be surprised about Stoke’s concern about further drop in shipping asset prices, driven by lower replacement cost in steel, etc. All this shipping investment is predicated on Chinese growth reflating the markets again – lots of very concentrated risk if this does not pan out.


On the other hand, the politicians, particularly the EU elite – our PM Samaras with his never ending Greek success story being the success story of the Eurozone – and Oaktree Capital are really betting the house that the worst is over and there will be happy days again with a robust recovery in just a few months.

Former colleagues of mine like the present Head of National Bank of Greece, Alex Tourkolias, saying that a shipping recovery will lead Greece out of its crisis and John Platsidakis of Intercargo, saying that two years from now the Greek debt crisis will seem like a bad dream gone away are lately exhibiting lots of boosterism.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, the shipping circles were subdued and cautious about a quick recovery in the markets.  Some companies like Pacific Basin have been aggressingly buying newer second-hand units, but these purchases are to renew their fleet and backed against a substantial cargo book, not the kind of overt and open speculation mentioned above by the likes of Oaktree.
So who knows? Stokes and I could be incorrigible pessimists and totally wrong. All I can say is that I still see a lot of tail risk around in shipping and elsewhere.



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