September 30, 2022

The Global Downturn Weighs on Shipowners and Banks

Similar fleets bob at anchor, with empty cargo holds, off the coasts of southeast Malaysia and Hong Kong. And dozens of newly built ships float empty near the giant shipyards of South Korea and China, their owners from all over the world reluctant to accept delivery during one of the worst markets ever for the global shipping industry.

As recently as six weeks ago large freighters that can carry bulk commodities like iron ore or grain were fetching charter rates of $15,000 a day. Now, brokers and owners say, the going rate is $6,000 a day. If any customers can even be found.

Although the fault lies partly with doldrums in the global economy, the bigger factor is a glut of new freighters. The oversupply is putting financial pressure on the shipowners that bought them and the already struggling European banks that financed many of the purchases.

Shipping industry leaders hold little hope of a quick recovery.

“If the tunnel is 2012, I can’t see any light at the end of it,” said Tim Huxley, the chief executive of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings, a Hong Kong-based shipping line with 29 bulk freighters and tankers.

Back during the global commodity boom, which continued through the spring of 2008, the world’s shipowners could hardly place orders for freighters fast enough. But because of the long lead times in shipbuilding, those vessels only now are being delivered by the hundreds — into a very different, much less robust international economy than when they were ordered.

For the shipping industry, the glut means not only lower charter fares, but also steep declines in the value of their vessels. The bigger losers, though, could eventually be some big European banks, many of which are already struggling with big losses on their holdings of government bonds from Greece, Italy and other heavily indebted European nations.

Basil Karatzas, the chief executive of Karatzas Marine Advisors, a ship brokerage and finance advisory firm in Manhattan, estimated that European banks hold about $500 billion in shipping loans on their books and face nearly $100 billion in losses to restructure them.

Just as American banks have grappled with huge loan losses for houses that are worth less than their mortgages, European banks face tens of billions of dollars in potential losses on shipping loans.

The banks’ “biggest concern is what is the write-off, and how do you treat it from an accounting point of view,” Mr. Karatzas said. “They do not know how to deal with these losses.”

Banks in Europe have long been the world leaders in ship financing because many of the biggest fleet owners are based there. But many have abruptly stopped lending money to shipowners. Some, as they scramble to muster capital to meet tougher reserve requirements demanded by European banking regulators, have even tried to raise money by asking some shipowners to prepay loans in exchange for a discount.

There is a scant secondary market for ship loans right now, except at deep discounts that banks are loath to agree to, according to shipping finance experts. Even for loans on which the vessel is still worth more than the mortgage, these experts say, the discount demanded is about 20 percent.

Commerzbank in Germany and the Lloyds Banking Group in Britain are among European institutions that have publicly said they were reducing their exposure to shipping loans.

Société Générale in France also has been looking for ways to reduce its holdings of shipping loans and instead focus on providing financial advice to shipping companies, according to two people with knowledge of the bank’s moves.

The bank declined to provide a comment on its shipping exposure ahead of the release of its annual financial report next month.

Shipowners, meantime, are nervously monitoring an industry benchmark, the Baltic Dry Index of bulk freighter charter rates, which has lost more than half its value since the start of the year. The index is now at its lowest level since January 2009, during the depths of the economic downturn after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

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Global Stocks Post Steep Declines

Investors continue to fret about the euro zone’s ability to respond to its debt crisis, after talks between Greece and its foreign creditors were put on hold last week and the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, warned Italy to stick to its austerity program.

In afternoon trading, the Euro Stoxx 50 index, a barometer of euro zone blue chips, was down 3.8 percent, while the FTSE 100 index in London dropped 2.4 percent.

Bank shares led the declines. Royal Bank of Scotland gave up more than 10 percent, while Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and Société Générale all fell more than 7 percent.

In addition to growing expectations that many financial institutions will need to raise capital — as the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, suggested last month — banks have also been hit by a lawsuit filed by the U.S. authorities against 17 financial institutions that sold the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac nearly $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities that later soured.

In Asia, the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong fell almost 3 percent, while the Shanghai composite index dropped almost 2 percent. The Nikkei 225 stock average fell 1.9 percent in Tokyo, while in Sydney the SP/ASX 200 index fell 2.4 percent.

U.S. equity index futures declined, though Wall Street was closed Monday for the Labor Day holiday in the United States. On Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average slid 2.2 percent after an employment report showed the United States economy added no jobs at all in August, renewing worries that the country might be heading for a recession.

The U.S. jobs data suggest that economic growth “will temporarily stall in late 2011, with at least a 40 percent risk of recession,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, wrote in a research note. He predicted the Federal Reserve would announce new measures to speed recovery when its policy board meets Sept. 20-21.

In Tokyo, exporters like Sony, Panasonic and Sharp, which derive a large part of their earnings from sales in the United States and Europe, fell more than 3 percent.

“Financial markets continue to be stressed about the lack of growth drivers in the global economy,” analysts at DBS said in a research report on Monday.

“Against this background, members at the G-7 meeting on Sept. 9-10 will have a challenging task to restore confidence in the ability of the advanced economies to support growth and jobs, as well as to restore financial stability,” the DBS analysts wrote. “Hence, risk appetite is likely to be low in markets as long as the advanced economies are seen on the defensive on the growth front.”

Gold was trading at $1,890 an ounce, up 0.9 percent, having risen sharply Friday. U.S. crude oil futures for October delivery fell 1.9 percent to $84.79 a barrel.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies. The euro declined to $1.4118 from $1.4205 late Friday in New York, while the British pound fell to $1.6133 from $1.6218. The dollar also gained against its Japanese counterpart, ticking up to 76.85 yen from 76.81 yen. But the U.S. currency slipped to 0.7857 Swiss franc from 0.7884 franc.

Bettina Wassener reported from Hong Kong.

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Stocks End Sharply Lower Amid Fears About Europe

After sweeping declines on Monday were followed by huge gains on Tuesday, stocks on Wall Street finished steeply lower on Wednesday as each of the three main indexes dropped more than 4 percent. Wednesday’s trading completely wiped out the gains of the previous day in the broader market as measured by the Standard Poor’s 500 index.

The last time there were three consecutive days of 4 percent moves on the SP was in October 2007.

In the United States, the financial sector again took a beating, shedding more than 7 percent.

Analysts said a variety of worries have clouded the markets in recent weeks, but on Wednesday they singled out fears about exposure to French banks as a factor as shares in those institutions dropped during European trading. The concern is whether big countries like France in the heart of Europe might now be called upon to bail out their own banks as well as economies like Spain and Italy.

“Today it’s fears about French banks and France,” Michael Gapen, United States economist at Barclays Capital in New York, said, singling out the French bank Société Générale, whose shares fell about 18 percent. “SocGen is the name that is really driving trading.”

The plunge on Wall Street on Wednesday, a day after the biggest daily gain in the Dow and Standard Poor’s 500 index since March 2009, drove home a powerful message to investors: For now, at least, in this market, a rally has no basis to last.

Stocks on Tuesday had turned around, racing up after Monday’s steep declines, in response to a Federal Reserve announcement that, while it would not be coming to the rescue with some new program to stimulate the economy, it would leave rates low until the middle of 2013.

“The market psychology is such that investors no longer seem to know who or what to root for and all that they do know is, according to the Fed, that rates will remain low until the middle of 2013,” said Kevin H. Giddis, the executive managing director and president for fixed-income capital markets at Morgan Keegan Company.

In recent weeks, investors have been focused, to varying extent, on factors including the Standard Poor’s downgrade of the United States credit rating; weak data related to the United States economy; and contagion fears related to the euro zone’s fiscal problems. Some said that the market was already unsettled, and that the downgrade and the debt ceiling negotiations that preceded it made things worse, or that the downgrade had already been priced in by the market but added another layer of uncertainty over how the domestic and global economies would be affected.

For its part, the Fed is hoping that its statement, which three of the 10 members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted against, will encourage investment and risk-taking by keeping the cost of borrowing extremely low until at least mid-2013. Still, it suggested that the United States monetary authorities are now adopting the same policy pursued by the Bank of Japan over the last decade with marginal effect.

“It has been a very eventful two-week period,” said Robert S. Tipp, managing director and chief investment strategist for Prudential Fixed Income.

“What the markets began to digest though with the downgrade, and have continued to chew on with the Fed’s announcement yesterday, is the fact that the economy really is in much worse shape than most people realized,” Mr. Tipp said.

He said those developments have “taken the wind out of the sails of the equity market” and pushed yields lower.

On Wednesday, the Dow was down 519.83 points, or 4.6 percent, at 10,719.94. The Standard Poor’s 500-stock index fell 51.77 points, or 4.42 percent. at 1,120.76. The Nasdaq were was down 4.09 percent, or 101.47 points, at 2,381.05.

The action in government bonds highlighted where investors were calculating their priorities. Even after the credit rating downgrade, the flight from risky assets heated up, with a rise in 10-year government bonds prices rose. Yields declined to 2.14 percent from 2.25 percent on Tuesday, when the yield also reached fell to 2.03 percent.

“It is rivaling the lows hit at the end of ’08,” said Mr. Tipp, referring to the yield. “You are basically at historic lows here.”

Bruce Bittles, the chief investment strategist for Robert W. Baird Company was watching what he described as “waterfall” declines on the monitors following the stock market on Wednesday. He said the debt ceiling problems and downgrade by the S.P. set off underlying market-moving concerns about another recession that had already existed, as well as worsened the uncertainty about what further action the government and central bank could take.

“The government has used up a lot of bullets,” he said, “And the problem is its global in nature.”

The markets now need to see corrective government policy action on the fiscal and debt problems, he added.Gold, a traditional safe haven, surpassed $1,800 an ounce at one point during the day. And the VIX, a measure of the fear in the markets, sharpened to 42.9 from its level of 35 on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Asian markets drew from the strong rally on Tuesday in the United States and rose but European shares fell back.

The Tokyo benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average rose 1.2 percent. The main Sydney market index, the S. P./ASX 200, gained 2.6 percent. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index rose 2.5 percent, and in Shanghai the composite index added 0.9 percent.

The FTSE 100 Britain closed at 5,007.16, down 157.76 points, or 3.05 percent. The DAX Germany closed at 5,613.42, down 303.66, or 5.13 percent. The CAC 40 France closed at 3,002.99, down 173.20, or 5.45 percent.

The downturn in Europe was led by banking shares. French banking stocks dropped amid rumors that a downgrade of France’s AAA credit rating was imminent, but the agencies and the French government have said France is not in danger of a downgrade.

In addition to the decline in the French bank Société Générale, its rival BNP Paribas fell more than 9 percent. Intesa Sanpaolo, the Italian lender, fell almost 11 percent.

Laetitia Maurel, a spokeswoman for Société Générale, said the bank’s fundamentals remain strong, with a first-half 2011 net profit of 1.663 billion euros, even after booking losses for its share of the Greek rescue.

Graham Bowley, David Jolly and Bettina Wassener contributed reporting.

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