A really big boat, asset specificity, and Chinese finance….

The picture above is a purpose built vessel, a deepsea mining unit for Nautalis Minerals, currently being built in China at the Mawei yard. It is undoubtedly an amazing piece of engineering, enormous as can been seen: 227m x 40m . A few more shots here:

The problem of course is who is going to pay for it. This is a deal that has been kicking around the market for years, a complex vessel, with few other potential buyers, ordered in the boom times with no takeout financing. Surely, yet again, like the DSVs floating around at the moment the yard is going to be stuck with this?

The economics of this argues that a charter is not the right option for Nautalis here. The vessel is the perfect example of asset specificity where it has a higher value to Nautalis than any other owner, and logic would dictate that Nautalis should raise the capital to pay for it. But Nautalis may get lucky here that the yard knows this and will simply have to charter them the vessel to avoid a firesale for an asset that has few other natural buyers. Delivery date is approaching here and it will start to get interesting.

When you read about the Chinese credit bubble it isn’t all in real estate (although a fair proportion is). This asset is one of number where it seems fairly clear that the losses, or at least the risks in the case of this vessel, will be taken by a semi-private entity at some point, maybe moved to a state bank leasing arm. The question is how systemically important the number is overall for all the Chinese yards? Rumours in China abound that the UDS may end up with the Chinese Navy or Coastguard.

At some point, as the German banks discovered, lending money to make ships that people can’t pay for, even as great short term job creation scheme, has an enormous economic cost.

There is a good article here summarising the Chinese push to become far more active in ship finance as part of a broader strategic plan. I have no idea what the bad loan capacity is for China Inc. as a whole in shipping, in offshore the Chinese lease houses appear to have paid top dollar for some average assets, but so did everyone in the boom and staying power will be important the longer demand stays depressed. In general shipping they may have missed the worst and be coming in at a good time.

Regardless, quite what happens to this vessel will make an interesting case study of how these issues get dealt with. Ship building is a relatively low margin industry that takes massive risks to get orders in the door, often with tacit or explicit state support, but when it goes wrong the potential losses seem so much larger than the upside ever offered. Hopefully the number of speculative new builds for such specific assets, without take-out financing, will drop going forward because it is so economically inefficient. But I doubt it.

4 thoughts on “A really big boat, asset specificity, and Chinese finance….

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