Greek shipowners stay on top of the buoyant wave in global market

The especially successful performance of Greek-owned shipping in 2004 is reflected in the sizable foreign currency inflows – recently shown in the Bank of Greece data – which exceeded those of tourism. Greek shipowners fully tapped the buoyant conditions of the global shipping industry and achieved high profitability and growth. In the first 10 months of last year, Greece’s foreign currency earnings from shipping reached 10.9 billion euros, against 10.2 billion from exports and 9.2 billion from tourism. This performance acquires added significance when account is taken of the fact that 2004 was the year of the Olympics. In September, tourism industry agencies announced an increase in the number of visitors compared to a year earlier. Still, shipping industry sources argue that the relevant figure is a poor reflection of the profitability of Greek shipping firms, as the sector is traditionally characterized by a lack of data and there are few such firms listed on stock markets around the globe. The buoyancy of Greek shipping groups is also indicated by the fact that, as banking sources note, several shipowners used the favorable conditions to pay off existing loans, thus improving their net position. Many others took out new loans to finance new ship orders. According to recent estimates, Greek shipowners have placed about 350 such orders, totaling a capacity of approximately 30 million dwt. This would represent roughly 18 percent of the world’s current total orders, in line with the percentage of Greek ownership in world shipping. Industry sources argue that the figure would have been much larger had world shipbuilding capacity been greater. Most shipyards project full-capacity utilization until 2008, which has delayed some of the recent orders from Greek shipowners. The move that stole the show was the Restis group’s First Financial Corporation, which bid $740 million for 32 bulk ships from the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation. Another big move was Petros Georgopoulos’s acquisition of 16 bulk vessels from Chinese company Cofco. According to sources, the amount involved was $420 million. In the tanker segment of the market, Greek companies are facing concentration trends. The recent $843 million acquisition of Athens-based Stelmar, of the Haj-Ioannou group, by the Overseas Shipholding Company, surely stands out. Another big buyout may also be in the offing – of Georgopoulos’s Genmar by the giant of the sector, Frontline. At the same time, Dynacom Tankers, of the Prokopiou group, has acquired two VLCC tankers (of more than 300,000 dwt) from Saudi Aramco for $316 million. The group is also among three Greek concerns that have decided to enter the liquid natural gas (LNG) transportation segment and has placed a number of orders for new vessels. Due to the hazardous contents and particular construction specifications, LNG vessels are especially costly but their operation also yields higher returns. As a rule, such vessels are operated on chartering contracts. Forecasts for 2005 are in a similar vein, as many Greek shipowners are again expected to play a prominent role in developments, both regarding stock market deals and privately. The moves of the large groups are expected to be of particular interest; in recent months, they have shown a rather conservative attitude, preferring to tap profitable opportunities by selling part of their fleets at especially good prices.