#HSHNordbank

That sinking feeling?

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We are often told how robust the world economy is. Global trade tends to be a good indicator. Looking at the latest Clarkson’s December 2018 annual review, we can see that the number of shipyards that make the vessels (20,000dwt+) that look after global trade has slid from a peak of 306 in 2009 to 127. Newbuild orders have slid from 2,909 vessels to 708. Wärtsilä is anticipating a gradual recovery in contract new builds as high as 1,200 ships by 2022. Wishful thinking?

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade for 2019 is expected to fall 2.9%. The WTO has fingers crossed for 2020. The charts in this WTO report show the sharp slowdown in freight in Q4 2018 and Jan 2019.

Germany’s five leading ship financiers reported outstanding ship-related loans of 59 billion euros at the end of 2016 with an average problem loan ratio of 37%. In recent years they have been busy reducing or selling off shipping portfolios. HSH Nordbank required a 10 billion euro bailout by its 85% owners, federal states Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein. It ended up being swallowed by private equity and renamed Hamburg Commercial Bank. Nord LB was looking to bail in Bremer LB beyond the 54.8% it already owns. Bremer LB had to write off  €400m of its shipping portfolio.

China has been aggressive, filling the void left by the Germans with high leverage financing to support the longer-term objectives of the Belt & Road Initiative. One wonders whether China plans to spoil the market by squeezing a damaged sector further. It wasn’t so long ago that South Korea’s  Hanjin Shipping went bust.

BTIG reported that ship scrapping in Q1 2019 was up 35% to 107,000dwt. Ship owners tend to scrap ships if the cost of idling or operating them exceeds this. Note Capesize shipping rates have fallen to around $9,000/day well below the $25,000 breakeven rate. The bellwether Baltic Dry Index is 27% down year on year and 85% below the peak levels seen in 2009.

The shipping industry has been sick for a decade. The majors have been busy merging, cutting debt and right sizing. Unfortunately it is  still in a pickle. A global slowdown will only exacerbate the issues in the industry.

The one area that looks interesting is the scrubber makers (eg Alfa Laval, Valmet, Fuji Electric). There has been a sharp uptick in growth for retro-fitting pollution equipment to existing ships instead of buying new equipment. Sometimes the best investments come when industries that require massive consolidation hit breaking point.