Date: 12/04/2024

Tanker prices at record highs, but attractiveness of investment in question: Analysis

Currently, tanker asset prices are red-hot, with second-hand values and newbuilding prices at their highest levels in the last 15 years amid strong market fundamentals. While high freight rates and tight tonnage availability have underpinned second-hand values, the tight availability of shipyard facilities has inflated newbuild prices, says an analysis by Drewry.
It elaborates:
Although the outlook for crude tankers remains bright as stunted supply and strong demand will favour shipowners at least until 2026, the current high asset prices raise questions about the attractiveness of investment in tankers. The downside risk will keep increasing if asset prices inflate further, unless the forward curve of freight rates shifts further upwards on some unprecedented changes in the market fundamentals. 
Current market dynamics
The rally in newbuilding prices started in 2021, with a flurry of orders in the container sector, tightening the slot availability at top yards. Even though tonnage ordering in the container sector has eased now, the bargaining power of yards remains high because of a boom in new orders in other sectors, including tankers, keeping prices elevated. On the other hand, second-hand values started gathering momentum in 2022, following a surge in charter rates because of the shift in trade patterns due to the Russia-Ukraine war, which aided the demand for tankers. Consequently, a jump in demand for older tonnage from the emergence of the new trade routes also underpinned the second-hand values of tankers in 2022. 
Mid-size tankers were the main beneficiaries of this shift in the trade because of the EU sanctions on Russia; however, demand for VLCCs started to revive in 2023, with strong growth in long-haul trade from the Atlantic market to Asia with a rebound in Chinese demand. Strong demand coupled with a low orderbook, particularly VLCCs, resulted in a strong S&P market, where older vessels are fetching prices surpassing their initial costs. The price for a five-year-old VLCC increased from around $69 million in 2019 to about $110-113 million in 1Q24, a whopping 60% rise in the past five years. 
Similarly, newbuild prices have spiked almost 38% since early 2019. The low availability of prompt modern tonnage and high second-hand values are compelling owners to place new orders. Market players such as Trafigura and DHT have been investing heavily in new VLCCs, even partnering with less-prominent Chinese yards. However, owners placing new orders will not benefit from the ongoing firm charter rates as all these vessels are scheduled to be delivered post-2025. 
With the recent spike in charter rates, the second-hand price to EBITDA ratio has contracted from its 2022 highs. Considering the current ratio, one may think that these high second-hand prices are justified. But the question remains, is this the right time to invest in second-hand tankers?
Equity IRR and project IRR analysis – Investment in a five-year-old VLCC
We have analysed and evaluated the attractiveness of investment in second-hand tonnage, considering a five-year-old VLCC changing hands at USD 113 million. We aim to compare shipowners’ potential returns on investment in these ships against their cost of capital. To estimate potential returns, we used equity IRR and project IRR and then compared potential returns with the cost of equity and the weighted average cost of capital (WACC). Our cost of equity (COE) and weighted average cost of capital (WACC) pertain to a US-based investor having a credit rating of AAA. 
Investment in five-year-old VLCC does not seem lucrative
We have arrived at projected IRR and Equity IRR, taking our long-term forecasts of charter rates, and second-hand price (five-year-old) of $113 million. Based on our calculation, we believe a five-year-old vessel in the period market for 20 years should offer a project IRR of 7.2% and an equity IRR of 9%, using 70% debt/equity in our base case. We found that the Equity IRR of 9% is lower than the cost of equity of 9.7%. Additionally, the project IRR of 7.2% is lower than the WACC of 8.3%. While the difference between IRR and cost of capital looks narrow, if asset prices improve, IRR will further reduce, making the investment even less attractive. 
In a bull case, the equity IRR of 10.5% is higher than the cost of equity of 9.7%, suggesting rising freight rate environment favours shipowners. Project IRR is lower than WACC even under the bull case. In the bear case, both equity IRR and project IRR are lower than the required rate of return.  
Using NPV analysis, we have arrived at an equity NPV of negative USD 2.9 mn and a project NPV of negative USD 8.8 mn, suggesting that investment in a five-year-old VLCC at current prices does not look lucrative.
Key assumptions
We have calculated equity IRR and project IRR (levered IRR) using Drewry’s time charter forecast for the next five years and the mean reversion model for the charter rates beyond five years. We have assumed off-hire days, intermediate and special survey costs based on our understanding of the market and the remaining useful life of the vessel to be 20 years. Our cost of equity and WACC are representative of a US-based investor with low business risk, the highest credit rating and assumes financing at prevailing market rates. We have calculated equity IRR and project IRR under three scenarios - Bull, Base and Bear. These scenarios are based on our time charter rates forecast for the next five years for each of these scenarios and charter rates obtained by the mean reversion model thereafter.
In our view, investing in the second-hand VLCC vessel in the current scenario is not lucrative, as the vessel’s equity IRR is below the cost of equity and the project IRR is also lower than the WACC. Nonetheless, owners looking for replacement tonnage for their ageing fleet have limited options to avoid the ongoing heated secondhand prices; as newbuild prices are also over the roof. Tight availability of modern tonnage in the current high charter rate environment is another challenge for owners looking to acquire prompt tonnage.
Source: Exim News Service: London, April 11