The shipping industry faces a looming capacity glut as billions of dollars pumped into it by private equity have stoked a vessel-buying spree, threatening its prospects just as the sector is emerging from its worst downturn in three decades.
Backed by private equity and hedge fund financing, shipping companies have placed orders for thousands of new ships over the past two years, reminiscent of the ship-ordering binge of the mid-2000s that eventually led to overcapacity after the global financial crisis severely hit cargo demand.
The demand-supply equilibrium could tilt into overcapacity again from 2016, straining shipping companies' finances. It may also make private equity's exit from shipping less profitable, shipping experts said.
"Shipping is not a get-rich-quick business. By virtue of the capital that the private equity funds are pumping into shipping, they are in effect destroying the very prospects that they are chasing," said Jan Engelhardtsen, chief financial officer at Olso-listed tanker and terminals company Stolt Nielsen.
"Because the investment horizon for private equity is short-term and shipping is fundamentally long-term in nature, private equity's entry into shipping in most cases is never going to end well," Engelhardtsen told Reuters.
Private equity companies such as Oaktree Capital, Apollo Global Management and Blackstone Group have invested in tankers, container ships and bulk carriers, set up or acquired shipping companies and bought ships and shipping loan books from banks such as Germany's Commerzbank and British state-backed bank Royal Bank of Scotland.
Estimates vary, but maritime fund management company Tufton Oceanic says private equity has invested about $32 billion in shipping in the last two years.
Among major private equity shipping deals are Global Maritime Investments' move to invest in around 20 dry cargo ships. And Oaktree Capital Management bought into Star Bulk Carriers Corp last year, but later trimmed its holding. Star Bulk has 28 dry bulk ships, including 11 that are on order.
The current global ship order book is worth $297.6 billion although $110 billion remains unfunded, according to figures from Britain's Clarkson Research Services and Tufton Oceanic.
The investment will help create a surge in ship deliveries with ships totaling 299 million deadweight ton (dwt) due to enter the global fleet from May compared with a current global fleet of 1.7 billion dwt, according to Clarkson data.
Global seaborne trade, including commodity shipments, is expected to grow 4 percent in 2014, Clarkson has forecast. If trade growth remains at similar levels in the next two years, it will potentially create a supply glut of tonnage from 2016.
Ng Siu-fai, chairman of Oslo-listed dry cargo ship owner Jinhui Shipping and Transportation, in a reference to private equity, said the company had seen new participants placing new orders "with a primary, if not only, objective of speculative gain in asset price appreciation rather than working these.....assets for long-term positive cashflow".
But Albert Stein of debt and restructuring specialist Alix Partners in London, which advises private equity among others, said shipowners must share the blame for the coming glut.
"You can't blame private equity alone. (look at) who sold them the idea that the market's going to expand," said Stein.
Private equity firms typically have a three- to five-year investment horizon and exit through asset sales or initial public offerings.
"PE firms come in all shapes and sizes and have varying investment horizons. However, they're all trying to generate returns of 15 percent plus per annum, which restricts them to relatively short investment periods," said one Hong Kong-based ship financier.
New ship prices have been volatile over the past six years. For example, the price of a new 320,000 dwt supertanker was $105 million in 2010, but dropped to $93 million in 2012, while the current price is $101 million, according to Clarkson figures. Second-hand ship prices now are generally lower than in 2010.
"The majority of the PE who purchased tonnage in 2009-2011 will see healthy returns in the high teens to mid twenties if they can monetize their positions within the next 24 months," said Randee Day, president and chief executive of Day and Partners, a U.S. maritime consulting and advisory firm.
"Sophisticated private equity will not remain in exposed positions over the next 18-24 months," she said.
Weak public investor sentiment has led to the postponement of several shipping IPOs although several more IPOs, backed by long-term shipowner interests, are planned. Wilbur Ross' Diamond S Shipping Group cancelled its tanker IPO in March and Greece's Stalwart Tankers scrapped its IPO last month.
Uncertainty over the success of IPOs and a rise in asset prices has led some private equity to lengthen their investment time horizons.
"I suspect some firms have extended their hold periods on existing investments because it would have been unprofitable to exit at the originally envisaged time - you have to suspect the Diamond S/Wilbur Ross deal is in this category," said the Hong Kong financier.
By Keith Wallis (C) Reuters 2014.