ECONOMY

Banks hesitant over funding new Greek ship orders

The buoyant picture of the shipping sector, high time-chartering rates and rising prices for used ships have stiffened competition among the 50 or so banks with a base in Greece which finance Greek-owned shipping enterprises. The development, however, is not necessarily good news for the banks. On the one hand, they cannot ignore the current prominence of Greek shipowners internationally, and on the other, many bankers are reluctant to issue loans given current prices for building and purchasing new ships. The steep rise in prices for used ships, especially in certain categories such as tankers and boxships, has resulted in many Greek shipowners making profitable sales of older vessels, causing great fluidity in Greek groups. As a result, many of them have proceeded to pre-paying existing banking loans to upgrade their fleets by getting new loans. As the price of certain vessels has doubled within just 12 months, many bankers feel cornered, as they find it hard to strike a balance between their conservative loan policy toward shipping and increased funding needs, especially as building ships has also become more expensive. Their position is becoming more difficult since many groups arrange quittance of most of their new loans during the first few years of the loan period, noted Dimitris Anagnostopoulos, Greek shipping director at ABN-AMRO Bank (which recently completed 30 years in the Greek market). «Until today, I had never funded the building of a new ship for the next five years while agreeing to the payback of the greater part (of the loan) in the first few years, but I am doing it now,» Anagnostopoulos recently told Lloyd’s List. Banking officials estimate that financing for vessels now on order by Greek shipowners covers 25 percent of the cost. This is bound to intensify competition among banks, particularly since the number of those who have sections specialized in shipping finance have multiplied today. According to the study section of Petrofin Bank, in early 2004 the portfolio of loans to Greek shipping companies was at $25.5 billion, despite the slowing of their issuing rate from late 2003. By the end of last year nine foreign banks were active in the Greek shipping market (10 of which had a branch in Greece), along with 15 Greek ones and another 11 banks either with a small involvement or in a phase of transition to another owner. Greek banks are constantly increasing their involvement, with General, Omega and Aspis Bank being the most recent. However, as the data available makes clear, foreign banks with branches in Greece have the largest slice of the market, totaling a loan portfolio of $10 billion.