Container-ship owners in crossfire as liners slash service

container ship

Container-ship lessors represent one of the most crowded segments in the U.S.-listed shipping arena – and one of the most highly leveraged to COVID-19.

Such owners, known as “tonnage providers,” lease vessels for varying lengths of time to liner companies, which use chartered ships to complement their owned fleets. 

If global consumer demand rebounds robustly, stocks of tonnage providers should surge. If there’s an extended downturn, they face years of pain.

Liners have heavily “blanked” (cancelled) sailings to cut costs and prop up freight rates in the wake of lower consumer demand. The longer fleet capacity exceeds coronavirus-reduced demand, the more likely that liners will permanently reduce fleet size by letting expiring charters roll off without renewal, and possibly even seek to renegotiate rates on long-term charters.

As IHS Markit (NYSE: INFO) Director of Transportation Consulting Paul Bingham recently told FreightWaves, “The whole reason carriers deliberately have a portfolio-management strategy [fleets partially owned, partially chartered] is that you don’t want to get stuck with a 100% owned fleet at a time like this. You’re paying a premium to charter some of your tonnage so you can put it off-hire when demand drops. There’s no question the carriers are going to do that.”

Tonnage provider fallout

U.S.-listed tonnage providers include Danaos Corporation (NYSE: DAC), Costamare (NYSE: CMRE) Global Ship Lease (NYSE: GSL), Seaspan (now a subsidiary of Atlas, NYSE: ATCO), Capital Product Partners (NASDAQ: CPLP), Navios Containers (NASDAQ: NMCI), Navios Partners (NYSE: NMM) and Euroseas (NASDAQ: ESEA).

Danaos reported net income of $29 million for the first quarter of 2020 compared to net income of $33.4 million for the first quarter of 2019.

Danaos CEO John Coustas (Photo: Chris Preovolos/Marine Money)

During the conference call with analysts on Tuesday morning, Danaos CEO John Coustas disclosed, “Charter rates for the ships we are renewing are lower, depending upon the ship size, with average [reductions] of around 25%” and some reductions of as much as 40%.

On a positive note, Danaos CFO Evangelos Chatzis asserted on the call that “we haven’t been asked to amend any contracts and we expect them to hold up.”

Asked about liner blank sailings vis-à-vis overall demand for chartered tonnage, Coustas commented, “We hear bookings to Europe and the U.S. are picking up, but I don’t expect the third quarter to see a full pickup in activity.

“I don’t expect all of the blanked sailings in the second quarter will be reinstated in the third quarter,” he said, noting that around 25% of capacity was blanked in the second quarter.  He thinks the recovery in sailing capacity will come in stages.

Global Ship Lease Chief Commercial Officer Tom Lister commented during a conference call on May 12, “Much of the idle capacity [due to blank sailings] is actually operator-owned tonnage, ships owned by the liner companies themselves, and it tends to be the much bigger ships deployed on the big east-west trades.” In other words, carriers are not removing their chartered-in ships from service, at least not yet.

Global Ship Lease CEO Georgios Giouroukos affirmed on the same call that no carrier customers had approached his company seeking to renegotiate terms on long-term charters.

Charter-rate outlook

In its new monthly outlook released, U.K.-based Maritime Strategies International (MSI) said, “Container-ship time-charter rates have undergone a sharp correction over the course of the second quarter. With liner companies passing through what is likely to be the most severe period of container volume pressure, they are increasing vessel [re]deliveries where possible. Owing to limited visibility about the months ahead, there has also been an increase in fixtures with very short durations.”

MSI’s time-charter index was down by 25% year-on-year in March and by 26% in April. The consultancy is forecasting that time-charter rates for 8,500 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) container ships, which already dropped from $30,000 per day in January to $22,000 per day in April, will sink to $14,900 per day in July and rebound to only $15,900 per day by October.

It expects rates for 6,500 TEU ships to fall from $18,600 per day in April to $11,900 in July and come back to $13,500 per day by October.

Will this time be different?

Container-ship lessors have faced enormous challenges over the decade since the global financial crisis, raising the question: How bad could it get this time?

The troubled history of Danaos offers a case in point for why stocks of container-ship lessors have plunged in the wake of the coronavirus.

Charter revenues began falling due to lower recharter rates in 2010-11, following the financial crisis. Starting in late 2011, Danaos began to lay up ships it was unable to recharter; three ships were laid up in 2012, rising to six in 2013, with two still laid up in 2014. The declining value of container ships (due to lower earnings power) left Danaos unable to maintain collateral ratios and covenant waivers were obtained from banks.

Liner company ZIM restructured in 2014, with Danaos agreeing to lower rates on six long-term charters to the company in return for future repayment through notes. In 2016, Danaos agreed to reduce the charter rates on 13 ships chartered to Hyundai Merchant Marine; the same year, Hanjin Shipping went bankrupt, defaulting on eight charters to Danaos.

Danaos concluded a comprehensive out-of-court restructuring of its debt in 2018, with certain lenders receiving 47.5% of the company’s equity.

Could that pattern repeat itself for the sector in light of coronavirus fallout?

Leasing company executives speaking on recent quarterly calls emphasized how the liner industry dynamics have changed, implying that the tribulations of the past decade will not necessarily repeat themselves.

“The good thing about our customers is that they have managed, through the withdrawal of capacity, to keep box rates at the same level or even stronger levels during the pandemic,” said Coustas. “The biggest problems from demand issues in the past came when there was also a catastrophic fall in box rates.”

According to Lister, “Unlike previous downturns, the lines have kept their discipline in terms of capacity management, and as a result, freight rates have remained high.” Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Greg Miller