Another Shipping Bankruptcy Filing Could Signal More on the Way (GMR, ONAVQ, TNK, OSG, NAT, FRO, NM, DRYS)

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An over-supply of product leading to a steep drop in price has claimed another victim. No, this is not a story about a solar PV maker, but about shipping, where ships that were ordered in 2007 and 2008 have been hitting the water in big numbers this year at the same time that the global economy continues to get weaker.

General Maritime Corp. (NYSE: GMR) filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday citing low shipping rates for its fleet of 33 crude oil carriers and the company’s inability to comply with its debt covenants. Shipper Omega Navigation Enterprises Inc. (OTC: ONAVQ) filed for bankruptcy in July, and there is good reason to be concerned about other shippers like Teekay Tankers Ltd. (NYSE: TNK), Overseas Shipholding Group Inc. (NYSE: OSG), Nordic American Tanker Shipping Ltd. (NYSE: NAT), and Frontline Ltd. (NYSE: FRO).

Tanker rates are far below break-even rates and could stay there throughout 2012. The day rate for a very-large crude carrier (VLCC) is currently around $7,800, far below a break-even rate of around $30,000. To combat the low rates, some ship owners are considering selling their ships for scrap value. According to a report at Bloomberg, the cost to buy a 15-year old tanker is currently $23.5 million, while the scrap value of such a vessel is $17.25 million. That’s the narrowest difference in at least five years.

As much as 5% of the world’s oil tanker fleet could be scrapped in the next 18 months, but that would only raise rates to an estimated $12,817 by 2013, still less than half what is needed to hit a break-even rate. When profitability will return is anyone’s guess.

General Maritime and Omega Navigation depended heavily on the spot market for cargoes, which is a good position when prices are high, but a bad position when prices are low. Teekay has said that it has half its fleet booked through next summer, and could cover its costs even if the rest of the fleet remain idle. But in its third quarter earnings report, the company said it lost $291.2 million on fewer shipments and lower day rates. If there was any good news there, it was that Teekay didn’t lose as much as analysts had expected.

Tanker owners aren’t the only ones now struggling. Dry bulk shipper DryShips Inc. (NASDAQ: DRYS) actually beat estimates in its third quarter, primarily on the strength of the company’s move into offshore drilling vessels, not its shipping business. The company’s posted EPS loss of -$0.58 was better than the consensus estimate of -$0.61.

Navios Maritime Holdings Inc. (NYSE: NM), another dry bulk shipper, reported better-than-expected earnings yesterday, but net income was down year-over-year on increases in finance costs and higher depreciation/amortization charges. The company has said it is seeking a partner bank to acquire assets of distressed shippers at fire-sale prices. Frontline has also made the same claim.

Shares of Teekay Tankers are up about 1.4% in the first half hour of trading this morning, at $4.59, in a 52-week range of $3.48-$12.99. Navios shares are up about 0.8%, at $3.81, in a 52-week range of $2.88-$5.99. Frontline shares are down about -0.4%, at $5.72, in a 52-week range of $3.88-$28.93. DryShips is up nearly 0.8%, at $2.58 in a 52-week range of $1.75-$6.44.

Paul Ausick

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