By Jonathan Saul and Sophie Sassard
LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) – The global slump in demand for dry freight commodities is adding more pain to Greece’s already crisis-hit banks by heaping pressure on many of their shipowner clients, particularly the smaller companies.
This is in part pushing the banks to consider slimming down their shipping portfolios, moves that would also free up needed banking capital, according to bank and shipping-finance sources.
A number of smaller Greek shipping companies have already been looking for non-Greek financing, a maritime lender said.
Greece has secured an extension to its bailout from its European partners, but the danger of it unraveling and of Greece being pushed out of the euro zone still exists, raising the risk that Greek banks could face large deposit losses in the future to add to those they have already had.
But added to this, Greek banks face exposure to dry freight, essentially the transport of non-oil commodities, which is experiencing its worst conditions since the 1980s due to weakening demand for industrial goods from buyers like China.
Greek shipowners together put Greece among the world’s top three bulker-owning nations.
The banking and ship finance sources said Greece’s leading banks are considering offloading part of their shipping debt worth billions of dollars, including dry freight exposure, in a bid to shore up their capital.
“There are several portfolios being shopped around at the moment, including shipping loans,” one banking source said.
“It makes sense for the Greek banks which face a huge liquidity problem to transfer these assets to third parties because they do not have the structures in place to collect bad debt.”
One banker and a ship-finance source said such debt could be attractive for private equity players who have been scooping up distressed assets in shipping due to the sector downturn.
“If they can find buyers, certainly one way to raise cash is through distressed deals. If the pricing is attractive enough, this would be private equity and hedge fund territory,” the ship-finance source said.
A second ship-finance source said Greek banks were also approaching ship owners directly and offering to sell their performing loans back to them at a discount.
“Even at a slight discount, this will help bolster underlying capital and buy some breathing space for the banks. It’s also a good way of getting loans off their books. For ship owners who have cash, it would be a good option too,” the source said.
Bank of Piraeus, Eurobank and their rivals National Bank of Greece and Alpha Bank are estimated to have shipping portfolios of at least $10 billion in total, ship industry sources said.
While this is small in global terms, it represents a potentially useful way of freeing up capital.
Eurobank declined to comment when contacted. An executive at Piraeus Bank said they could look into selling some loans if approached by interested buyers, adding that nothing was imminent.
An Alpha official told Reuters the bank was “not considering selling shipping loans.” Some sources said, however, that Alpha, which late last year raised over $500 million in a transaction back by shipping loans, may still examine such moves.
An official with National Bank of Greece, whose chief executive and chairman are expected to step down, said there was “no such decision” on shipping.
DRY FREIGHT WOES
The Baltic Exchange’s main sea freight index, tracking rates for ships carrying dry bulk commodities and seen by investors as an indicator of global industrial activity, has slumped this month to its lowest ever level.
There have already been casualties with three dry shipping firms in Denmark, China and South Korea filing for bankruptcy this month.
“There is more pressure than before especially for the smaller owners,” a leading Greek shipowner said. “The banks in general have been less keen to extend credit to dry bulk owners and the Greeks are the dominant community within that.”
Svein Engh, group head of CIT Maritime Finance, a unit of U.S. commercial lender CIT Group, said it had been approached by small to mid-sized Greek ship owners looking for “alternative financing.”
“We do have the impression it is difficult for a lot of them as historically they would have banked with the Greek banks and they do not really seem to be able to do much or be very active these days.” (Additional reporting by George Georgiopolous and Lefteris Papadimas in Athens and Steven Slater in London, Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)
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