Saturday, September 19, 2015

Is the Greek dry cargo business model now obsolete?

Of the 700 odd Greek shipping companies listed in Greece, the majority are in the dry cargo sector with small fleets of three to ten units, mainly smaller and older vessels.  Apart from the ubiquitous handy size bulk carriers, Greek shipping is also heavily invested in Panamax bulk carriers. Will these companies survive this current freight market crisis?  Will the crisis result in consolidation?  Is the business model sustainable or will it have to change for the times?

Many of the publically listed dry bulk companies ranging from the smaller ones like Free Seas, Hellenic Carriers and Globus to the larger ones like DryShips and Paragon are suffering from legacy debt problems and weak earnings.  The smaller private companies are at the mercy of the local Greek banking system with its insolvency and capital control issues.  The best off are the cash rich, mature private Greek owners like Eastern Mediterranean or the Angelicoussis Group.

The predominate business model in Greece is vessel provider.  The Greek shipping companies are long in shipping assets, but generally weak in commercial platforms.  The majority of the companies are small and lack scale efficiencies.  This is particularly true for the smaller listed companies with fleets too small to support the high administrative expenses for the public listing. 

This business  model is entirely to be expected for historical and structural reasons.  Greece is a major maritime nation. Greek seamen were the backbone of this system.  The biggest strength and competitive advantage of Greek owners was the link between their offices manned by former mariners and chief engineers and their vessels.  They offered low cost, high quality shipping services to charterers and end users.  Greeks unlike their Scandinavian rivals were never big in cargo operations or freight trading, a particular strength of the Danish shipping industry historically.

The nature of the Greek shipping  business model leads to asset arbitraging as a major means of enhanced earnings.  Freight markets in bulk commodities shipping is highly commoditized with low earnings margins from vessel operations.  This waxes and wanes with the shipping cycles, but historical mean averages have been low.

The dry cargo markets in particular are very fragmented with low entry  barriers.  Shipping companies have no market pricing power.    Vessel values rise exponentially on future earnings expectations in good markets, making vessels sales a highly lucrative business over vessel operations.  It was Greek historical acumen in these skills of sale and purchase profits that has made Greek shipping so enticing to US Capital markets over the last ten or fifteen years. 

Major US institutional groups like Oaktree saw the same US real estate paradigm in the shipping markets.  They were attracted to Greek shipping for a similar sort of play. This led to investor partnerships pioneered by Peter Georgiopoulos and more recently by Petros Pappas both very close to Oaktree Capital.  This also extends to non-Greek groups like Scorpio Bulk, a highly speculative dry cargo asset venture on new building contracts, close to a futures market play.

This sort of play to be effective depends on the right kind of financial and freight market conditions. These conditions were at their prime thirty years ago in the heady days of petrodollars, high inflation and eager banks with abundant credit facilities for shipping companies.  Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with ZIRP (zero interest), QU (quantitative easing) and the end of a globalization super cycle, the environment for asset arbitrating on cyclical freight markets is becoming more and more problematical.

There is a glut of overcapacity globally and a dearth of demand.  Banks has weak balance sheets and limited credit availability.  There is enormous shipyard overcapacity.  The Chinese infrastructure boom is over.  Speculative investment money in shipping has more than often been a godsend to cargo interests, providing ample ship supply to service their transport needs, but it has not been kind lately to investors in the underlying shipping assets. 

With the credit crunch is a limited number of buyers for shipping assets compared to prior years, limiting the potential for mark up in prices.  With the general weakness in commodities prices and ship yard over capacity, shipping assets are exposed to deflationary effects and fall in value over time with lower replacement cost.  Falling scrap prices means lower residual values.

The most successful and resilient business models are the cargo operators of which the Navig8 Group has been an industry leader.  They serve end users customers with chartered vessels.  They are popular with ship owners, hungry for employment in weak markets.  Their business has small margins and depends on  high volume for profits. It is an asset light trading model.

These businesses can go both long and short in shipping assets.  They do not carry long term exposure in shipping assets or bank leverage.  For larger vessels on standardized voyages, they can hedge their positions with freight futures desks.  They can adapt quickly to sudden market changes, adjusting their cargo books and positions in vessels.  These are the flourishing businesses of the times as opposed to the suffering Greek vessel providers.

Institutional investors have been lately turning to partnerships with cargo operators like Navig8 to adopt to the times.  Oaktree and Peter Georgiopoulos incorporated this model in the restructured Genmar from the ashes from Chapter 11 reorganization proceedings, by merging with the Navig8 VLCC venture and renamed their company Gener8.  This ties vessel owning long in assets with a lighter more agile trading model including chartering in vessels.

The question for the Greek dry cargo owners is whether their business model is obsolete and they will have to consider moving into cargo operator business models on a hybrid basis like a Norden or a Pacific Basin with mixed fleets or owned and chartered vessels..  Companies heavy in shipping assets but weak commercially lack economies of scale in the market and are weaker in understanding the freight market risks.  They are overly oriented to asset arbitraging, which in present market and financial conditions is a backwards-oriented business strategy of yesterday, not effective in the present environment.  Chartered vessels would create needed fleet scale for companies with smaller fleets

These Greek companies are facing survival risk and becoming dinosaurs.  They face a double whammy of violent changes both domestically in Greece with the failure of the Greek state as well as external forces in the aftermath of the globalization super cycle of the past century.

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