August 7, 2020

The Next Crisis for German Banks — Shipping

FRANKFURT — For all the talk about Germany’s financial exposure to Greece, it turns out that some German banks have a problem of more titanic proportions — their vulnerability to the global shipping trade.

Germany’s 10 largest banks have €98 billion, or $128 billion, in outstanding credit or other risks related to the global shipping industry, according to Moody’s Investors Service. That is more than double the value of their holdings of government debt from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. And it is more than any other country’s financial exposure to the shipping industry, which is in the fifth year of a recession.

Moreover, German banks bear a generous share of the blame for spawning that recession. By helping to finance and market funds used to build and purchase ships, a popular tax shelter, the banks helped create a glut in large container ships that has led to a collapse in cargo hauling prices worldwide.

Germans grumble chronically about having to pay for Greece’s bad debts, and German policy makers style themselves as guardians of fiscal prudence. But the shipping-related crisis, and the threat it poses to the German economy from billions of euros in bad loans and losses at shipping-related companies, is a reminder that German banks and political leaders also have plenty to answer for.

Shipping’s recession has been overshadowed by the euro zone debt crisis, but it has many of the same causes. They include complex financial products that turned sour, market-distorting government incentives and a gigantic underestimation of risk.

“The container ship market is completely overbuilt,” said Thomas Mattheis, a partner at TPW Todt, an accounting firm in Hamburg that advises clients in the industry. He blamed banks that granted easy credit, cargo companies that ordered too many vessels and investors eager for the tax-free profits that were part of the allure, thanks to German law.

“When you look back you can say they all had a share,” Mr. Mattheis said.

HSH Nordbank in Hamburg, the world’s largest provider of maritime finance, is expected to raise its estimate of potential losses from shipping on Wednesday when it reports quarterly earnings. The bank, owned by local governments and savings banks, has already warned that in coming years it will need to avail itself of €1.3 billion in guarantees offered by Hamburg and the state of Schleswig-Holstein, putting a further strain on taxpayers.

“I have to admit that grave mistakes were made in the years before 2009,” Constantin von Oesterreich, chief executive of HSH, said in an interview published by The Hamburger Abendblatt on Saturday. In October, Mr. von Oesterreich became the bank’s third new chief executive since 2008.

Other German banks that were particularly active in ship finance, including Commerzbank in Frankfurt and NordLB in Hanover, which both rank in the top five globally in that market, have said they have made adequate provisions for losses and will not need any government aid.

Commerzbank, which is partly owned by the German government after a bailout, shut down a unit specializing in ship financing this year and is winding down its holdings. The bank warned in its most recent quarterly report that it would be at least another year before it could sell units that were set up to finance construction of cargo ships with names including “Marseille” and “Palermo.” While larger, relatively new cargo ships sell for tens of millions of dollars, older, smaller ships often fetch only a few million — not much more than the value of the scrap metal.

Exposure to shipping is one reason Moody’s affirmed its negative outlook for German banks last month. In a report, the ratings agency warned that the global shipping industry “faces weakened demand amid sluggish global economic growth and evolving structural overcapacity.” It said money that the 10 largest German banks had lent to the shipping industry equaled 60 percent of their capital, the funds held in reserve for potential losses.

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