Mumbai: With bankers shying away from funding ship purchases, domestic shipping firms are now looking to secure long-term cargo supply contracts before acquiring vessels.
Companies such as Shipping Corp. of India Ltd (SCI), Essar Shipping Ports and Logistics Ltd, Mercator Lines Ltd and Tata NYK Shipping Pte Ltd are among those looking at such long-term contracts.
“Banks are now insisting shipowners bring in more equity when it comes to vessel acquisition,” said Rajeev Kashikar, managing director and chief executive officer of König and Cie Asia Advisors Pvt. Ltd, the Indian arm of a German investment bank.
Troubled waters: A file photo of a ship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai. Shipping firms want long-term contracts to ensure cash flows. Bloomberg
“Banks are only comfortable with long-term cargo support as it will ensure future cash flows and revenues,” he added.
For instance, Mumbai-based Essar Shipping has tied up around 80% of its fleet on long-term contracts with various charterers.
“This model provides visibility to our earnings over a period of time and keeps the company largely insulated from any kind of major turbulence witnessed in the freight markets as has been witnessed during the last one year,” said V. Ashok, director and chief financial officer, Essar Shipping Ports.
S. Hajara, chairman and managing director of state-run SCI, said that locking in long-term charters is an established practice in countries such as China, Japan and South Korea.
“Shipowners place orders for 15 years with charters the moment the order is placed. This will help the charterer to get better freight rates and the shipowner to secure funding at lower interest rates,” he said.
However, a leading shipping expert, who gives advice to local shipping companies for ship acquisition, said it is actually the banks that are forcing the hand of these firms.
“Shipping companies have no option but to look for long-term contracts to get loans,” he said on condition of anonymity.
On 28 July, shipping minister G.K. Vasan told Rajya Sabha that shipping is highly capital-intensive and depends largely on the debt market to finance its acquisitions.
“But the current meltdown in the international financial markets has placed the Indian shipping industry in a situation where assets are available to be acquired at reasonable prices,” the minister said, while pointing out the irony because “…the availability of money on loan has almost dried up through the normal international commercial bank channels. If any credit is available, it is at a prohibitive cost and stringent terms.”
In July, the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA), a lobby group, on the request of the shipping ministry, had constituted a working group to examine credit facilities to shipping companies and concluded that it had no role to play in the matter.
IBA said shipping companies should take up the matter with individual banks.
“Banks are demanding assured cargo. Moreover, business prudence also demands long-term charters because if a ship is not employed, that is going to add to further bleeding for the shipowner in the context of the economic slowdown,” said Atul J. Agarwal, managing director of the country’s second largest private shipping line, Mercator Lines.
According to the 102nd annual report of Tata Steel Ltd, Tata NYK has entered into a long-term charter for eight supramax and eight panamax vessels and orders have been placed to build two new supramax vessels.
Supramax is a mid-size dry bulk carrier and is smaller than both capesize and panamax ships.
“As part of its long-term strategy, the company plans to enter into a long-term charter for capesize vessels in 2009,” the report said.
Tata NYK is a Singapore-based 50:50 joint venture between Tata Steel and Japan’s Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, or NYK Line.
However, Essar Shipping’s Ashok said opting for a long-term contract is a conscious decision by the management.
“The banks are very comfortable providing funding to projects which have largely assured cash flows and hence it is easier to tie up financing for the asset at favourable terms,” said Ashok.
But there is a flip side to this, according to König and Cie’s Rajeev Kashikar. “It is not that easy to get a long-term contract and good rates for a shipowner in the backdrop of the economic slowdown and volatility in the freight rates,” Kashikar said.
“In some cases, shipowners may not want to enter into contracts for lower rates that may not justify the funding terms and conditions.”
“It is a catch-22 state since Indian exports are going down.”