Norden is perhaps one of the few shipowners that has proven its ability to take volatile, fast-changing markets and generate cash — serious cash.
The owner-operator of bulkers and tankers has been on a mission over the past few years to become more “trading-orientated”, light in assets and heavy on data to inform commercial decisions.
The results have been borne out of the big profits generated this year so far (see box), which have already outstripped the net income Norden recorded for 2021 as a whole.
The big surprise in Norden’s second-quarter results was the unexpected interim dividend of DKK 30 per share ($4.05), plus news that the firm will start a new $40m share buyback programme.
“Rather than sitting on that cash, we thought it would be better to actually pay that out to our shareholders — so it follows our dividend policy, but it is an earlier payment of a portion of that dividend,” chief executive Jan Rindbo told TradeWinds.
Norden expects profit in the range of $560m to $640m for this year and has a policy of returning a minimum of 50% of its annual result to shareholders.
Its Copenhagen-listed shares saw big trading volumes and leapt in price on Thursday, when the quarterly results were announced. The stock closed 19% higher than when the market opened that day.
But Rindbo thinks returning cash to shareholders is just one part of what makes Norden interesting to investors.
“I think there is interest in how you allocate your capital, and I think also this links with our strategy where we are an asset-light company — we own just over 5% of the fleet we operate,” he said.
“I think, in that sense, there is not a huge capex [capital expenditure] need for fleet renewal and that means that we have a good ability to return cash to our shareholders — so I think, from a shareholder perspective, that is attractive.”
The company upped its exposure to the product-tanker market at the beginning of 2022. The move was well timed, but even Norden was surprised by how well.
“We have, in previous quarters, said publicly in our quarterly reports that we felt that the risk-reward in tankers was pretty attractive and therefore we have been chartering in additional tonnage,” Rindbo said.
“Not that we, of course, in any way expected that market would triple during the second quarter, but we did actually already believe there was an interesting story and interesting opportunity in tankers.
“Having taken more tonnage, that, of course, has helped us to generate high margins now where rates have skyrocketed.”
But Rindbo said the company is “concerned” about demand for dry commodities and the possibility of an economic slowdown, particularly in China. Norden has taken a defensive stance against weakening markets by fully fixing its bulker fleet until 2023.
“And, of course, we also have some concerns on the oil demand if there was a hard recession,” he said. “We just think there are other drivers for tanker demand that pulls the market in the other direction — the oil embargo, for example, has not been fully enforced yet. That will only happen at the end of the year.
Norden’s bottom line hit $178.7m for the second quarter, compared to $31.8m during the same period last year.
Much of the quarterly result was generated by Norden’s freight services & trading division, which oversees its operated fleet. The unit generated $153m in profit during the three-month period, up from $30m during the second quarter last year.
Rising product-tanker values also helped Norden’s assets & logistics arm to massively increase its profit year on year from $2m to $26m.
Overall, Norden’s profit for the first half of this year stands at $296m, up from $17m in the first six months of 2021.
This means the firm has already topped what it made during the full year of 2021, when it booked $204.5m in profit.
Norden’s operated fleet currently stands at just over 470 vessels, of which roughly 345 are bulkers and 127 are tankers, including those within the Norient Product Pool.
“There are still a lot of tankers transporting oil from Russia to Europe and that trade will be embargoed from the end of this year. That will mean that more tankers will have to go on longer routes — and that should be a net positive for the tanker market.”
Coal is another commodity for which trading patterns are being reshaped following sanctions on Russia and economic slowdowns in major importing countries.
But Rindbo expects demand for the commodity to hold firm, no matter what happens this year.
“What is interesting right now is that usually when you see an economic slowdown, you normally see demand for coal — as one of these sorts of marginal power sources — you quite quickly see coal demand starting to reduce,” Rindbo said.
“That we are not seeing, and I don’t think we will see that because of the need for energy and alternatives to Russian oil and gas.”
Recession or no recession, firm coal demand will benefit the overall supply-demand balance in bulker markets because it will be carried by vessels on longer routes.
“Although I would add that if we do see an economic downturn or recession, then clearly demand for other dry-bulk commodities — iron ore, steel, bauxite, aluminium and so on — those kinds of commodities will see declining demand,” he said.
The Black Sea, historically, has been a region in which Norden-operated vessels have been active.
As grain exports begin to resume slowly from Ukraine, Norden is keeping its eye on the trade but has not had any vessels in position to participate, Rindbo said. There are also safety concerns about operating in the area.
“It’s been great to see that at least so far the grain shipments have gone without any incidents,” he said. “But I will say, as a company, we still worry about the ships and crew that we would need to send into that region to load these grain cargoes.
“Of course, if it’s a safe trade, then we would like to participate in helping Ukraine export their grain.”
Soon after Ukraine was invaded this year, Norden announced that it would not start any new business with Russia. Rindbo confirmed that this policy remains unchanged.