Maybe it’s time to start seeing the dry bulk glass as half-full

Marine advisor, Basil Karatzas weighs in on the current situation in the dry bulk market and considers whether now's the perfect time for smart money to look for investment opportunities
Maybe it’s time to start seeing the dry bulk glass as half-full

The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) established a 30-year low point in February this year; actually the lowest reading of the index ever. Since then, the market has been bouncing along the bottom with a very anaemic improvement to show since then.

There are concerns that the industry has entered a long-term phase of malaise with chronic oversupply of tonnage; certain trends point to such direction such as massive orders by cargo interests and end users building up their own fleets (i.e. Cosco, Vale, etc) that will make life for independent dry bulk owners difficult, or at the very least ‘shave the market peaks’.

China is done for now with their exponential growth of their market as they try to position their economy towards services and focus on a more equal distribution of wealth that can assure social peace.

There also have been structural shifts in the markets associated with shipping, such as replacement of coal with natural gas for electricity and power generation; at present the trend against coal is so bad that it seems coal is becoming a ‘four letter word’ as investors, institutions and sovereign funds are competing for the fastest exit from the industry; for sure, natural gas will need also shipping but not on dry bulk vessels; and the coal trade as almost as big as iron ore at almost 1.2 bn tonnes of coal expected to be transported this year vs. 1.5 bn tonnes of iron ore, based on data by Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.

Most institutional investors and shipping banks have turned their backs on the dry bulk market, at least for now; thus, there is extremely limited liquidity, which further compounds the downward pressure on dry bulk asset pricing that are inflicted by the weak freight market. The main sources of financing for dry bulk projects today are from the capital markets (selectively available and often at a substantial discount; $SALT’s secondary offering at 30% discount is a clear example of a fallen angel) or with sweat equity and own equity.

Independent ship owners and sweat equity have their own capital limitations and are likely to opt for older tonnage at rock-bottom pricing, mostly looking for vessels older than 15 years of age at about scrap pricing; if one has access to cargo or charterers or niche markets, buying a vintage bulker at scrap is not a bad investment proposition: for a few million dollars (small amounts in absolute terms that can be afforded by individual investors) and with minimal capital at risk (premium over scrap), if a buyer can squeeze a few year’s of economic life out of cigarette-butt (think of Benn Graham and Warren Buffett), what can go wrong? And, if the market unexpectedly recovers, these buyers will have hit the jackpot.

The access to capital accurately reflects the market dynamics and asset pricing, as big, cash-rich, prime buyers go for beaten-down prices of modern, top quality tonnage, while small, cash-rich owners with access to cargo go for bottom-fishing; thus, there is relative demand from buyers on the opposing ends of the spectrum while demand is sagging for middle-aged vessels; for those involved with volatility analysis and option trading, what’s happening in the dry bulk market reminds of a so-called ‘volatility smile’.

Activity in the dry bulk market is ebbing and flowing, but mostly ebbing as most buyers are taking their sweet time before make any decisions, to buy at all, and if so, at what price. Since asset prices are low and most of the market really is focused on older and cheap tonnage, sale & purchase commissions often are laughable, putting pressure on many smaller brokerage houses.

While dry bulk asset prices have dropped substantially over the last year, the consensus is that the glass is still half empty,still. There many reasons to think so, given still the outstanding orderbook to be delivered, excess shipbuilding capacity, low interest rates and excess liquidity for certain markets, mentions of additional credit lines for export credit from China, and lots and lots of dry powder from institutional investors that can move the market at any given point.

On the other hand, as we outlined in a recent post, smart money is getting a second look at certain types of vessels in the dry bulk market. Prices are low enough to be tempting, despite negative cash flows in the near term that will have to be ‘added’ to any purchase price.

However, delays in deliveries are negotiated each day from buyers, newbuilding orders have stopped – to the delight and surprise of many a ship owner, charterers have gone on a limp to stay away from the period market and delay as much as possible their chartering requirements. There is some smart money that has started thinking that most of the bad news has been priced into the market and, at least in the near future, any surprises are likely to have a positive effect on the market. Maybe it’s time to start seeing the dry bulk glass as half-full.

Maybe it’s time to start seeing the dry bulk glass as half-full

by Basil Karatzas

Founder and CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.

Basil Karatzas is the founder and CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co. a shipping finance advisory and ship brokerage firm based in Manhattan, New York. 

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