Is it really the right time to buy ships?

The dry bulk freight market has put an impressive performance of late; the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) has tripled since bottoming out in February. Now, dry bulkers are in cashflow positive territory, sufficient to cover daily operating expenses (OpEx) and, partially, the financial cost.

On the other hand, for tankers, it’s a different story, as tanker freight rates have dropped significantly with primarily shale oil being the game changer.

On the sale & purchase front, there has been very strong demand by buyers for bulker vessels; demand for tankers has been lackluster on the other hand. Prices for bulkers have improved in the last several months, by as much as 30% for certain types of vessels. Prices for tankers have been softening. All along, shipping finance is getting all more difficult to source; and more expensive.

Buying interest for vessels earlier this year had been dominated by a handful of big players who either had raised funds or had their own deep pockets to depend on. Such buyers have bought most of the quality, modern expensive (in absolute terms) ships that owners were forced to sell when the market was abysmal and cash flows were negative. Now, we see a great deal of buying interest from smaller shipowner who have to depend on expensive financing to acquire vessels and who actually will have to stretch themselves for acquisitions, even for still cheap at today’s prices – by historical levels. We have seen buyers putting all the resources together tightly to buy one or two vessels but with little cash reserves on the side for a rainy day. These are the typical speculative buyers who try to time the market by buying low and selling high, and who trade their vessels on the spot market in the interim.

If one were to “grade” buying interest, the strong buying interest at present is definitely of low quality. Earlier in the year, there were substantial buyers with deep pockets buying several sistership vessels or fleets of vessels. Now, small players with no strategic or competitive advantage, with thin pockets and lots of dependence on luck and circumstance are looking to buy a cheap vessel here or a cheap vessel there. Now that freight rates have been improving and the market seems to breathe again some sign of life, they all rush to ride the wave. For bulkers it’s a “buy” mode, but for tankers it’s a “stay away” mode as in the latter market rates have going south and the momentum has been evaporating. All in all, a highly speculative approach to the shipping market, especially by the weaker hands who borrow expensively and they bet that the market will turn around sooner than their short runway will disappear.

We view with concern the recent resurgence of buying interest in the dry bulk market and the flip side, the absence of interest for the tanker market. Buying interest is not driven by access to cargoes or fundamental analysis of stronger demand; it’s mostly predicated on the fact that dry bulk vessels are cheap and the freight market is improving, at least in the short term. Pure speculation without much analysis; honestly, we are not the ones to judge on that, if that’s how one wishes to apply a market model. On the other hand, speculation has brought much of the present tonnage oversupply from owners who were ordering them to shipyards that were building them to shipping banks that were financing them.

Having experienced a cashflow negative market for almost two years which saw many shipowners burn their cash to survive or seen their vessels ‘re-allocated’ by the banks, the amount of speculative action in the market is scary. We appreciate that shipping and volatility (and speculation) go hand-in-hand, but one would had thought that two years of bleeding should had taught a lesson or two.

A sign of froth in the stock market is when small investors get all their little savings together and step to open a brokerage account and try to participate in a rally, buying odd lots of shares, and trying to ride the tail of the wave. It’s interpreted that when weak hands get the itch for speculation and getting sucked in, it’s when one knows that there is little more money to be pulled into the vortex.

We are all for entrepreneurship and active capitalism, but buy because “ships are cheap and the market will recover” is not always the best business plan. Typically assets that are out-of-favour will again be back in favor, no doubt, but there is more to the story in order to make money by other than just speculating. Otherwise, it seems a sucker’s game.

Basil M Karatzas is the founder and ceo of Karatzas Marine Advisors, a shipping finance advisory and shipbrokerage firm based in New York. For more details, please see:

Posted 28 November 2016

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Basil M Karatzas, ceo, Karatzas Marine Advisors

Basil M Karatzas, ceo, Karatzas Marine Advisors

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