Container Shipping is on Fire: Opportunity in Leasing Stock Triton $TRTN

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As everyone I am sure is aware, container shipping rates right now are astronomical. The re-opening of the economy and associated supply-chain bottlenecks has created a situation where people will pay up just to make sure their items are actually on that boat!

This has caused blow-out earnings for the shipping lines. Maersk reported a 166% increase in EBITDA for Q1’21 for example.

However, I don’t think this is sustainable and no one else does, probably. Shipping is also a fraught industry to invest in – when times are good, capacity is brought online. These ships are long-lived assets so when times aren’t good, the supply is still there.


There’s alternative however, with a much stronger industry structure, ROEs, cash flow, on and on. That is container leasing. Triton is the largest player in the space after it merged with TAL in 2016.

I like Triton stock because:

  • Leader in the market – scale in the leasing industry matters and drives much higher margins + lower cost of capital
  • Fundamentals are in terrific shape
  • They are signing long leases at high rates – abnormally long and abnormally high (over a decade) – which will give strong visibility into cash flows for foreseeable future
  • Can flex capex spend with the market – has a history of shutting of capex and buying back stock + dividend
  •  Triton stock trades for ~6x ’21 EPS, 1.3x ’21 BV – historically generated mid-teens+ ROE in normal times. This should improve

The business historically went something like this:

  • Triton buys containers and places them on lease with shipping companies.
  • Historically, these would be 5 year leases. However, with limited technological obsolescence (just renting a steel box in most cases), the age of the asset didn’t really matter. So they can pretty quickly re-lease the box, but the lease rate may change
  • The assets (boxes) last about 15-20 years with pretty minimal maintenance. Maybe slightly more for a refrigerated box, called a reefer (yes the actually  name), but the lease rates would also be higher. So historically there’d be 3+ leases involved
  • End of life – they sell the box for some residual value, which also helps recoup part of their investment. It used to be they buy a box for $2,000-$2,500 and could sell it for ~$1,000. Right now, they can sell the used box for about $1,500, which is pretty nice.

Why do shipping companies lease instead of owning their own containers? It outsources capex in an already capex-heavy industry. It’s off balance sheet financing for them. The shipping lines do still own their own containers (about half of the market), but that’s been trending down pretty consistently over time. It just makes more sense for them to focus on shipping and flex leases up and down with the market.


Investment Thesis

I don’t think I need to dwell on why fundamentals are good right now or why buying Triton stock at 6x earnings is optically cheap. I’m going to focus on the lease rates and new longer duration contracts being signed right now.

If you are worried about the current conditions being unsustainable, long, contracted lease rates help that. As shown below, Triton is trying to tell investors that not only is it leasing more containers than basically ever….  putting assets to work… the lease durations are now approaching 12-13 years.

If you like SaaS, you’ll *love* container leasing companies.

We’ll have to think about these rolling off in 2031-2033, but meanwhile, the company will be earning above average ROEs.

Here is a chart from their Q1 basically showing lease rates are 1.6x the general average. You can see there was a dip in 2019, but the company pulled back – the size of the bubble indicates how many containers were put on lease (so very few). In a sense, Triton is an asset manager just like a Blackstone – you kind of need to trust that they will be deploying capital when times are good and pulling back when times are bad.


What could go wrong?

I should mention what could go wrong. We have seen this situation before – following the GFC, world trade snapped back and lease rates surged. Unfortunately, they all basically expired in 2015/2016. This was also when we were in a quasi-industrial recession. This was also when steel prices were in the gutter, which makes up most of the price of a box and makes it tough to sell used boxes at a fair price. Hanjin, a major shipping line, also effectively liquidated (in a BK case, most of the time a shipping line will just keep its assets rolling in a Ch. 11 because the containers are critical assets to operating – Hanjin just disappeared.)

In many ways, 2015/2016 was worse that the GFC. I mean, it actually was worse. The GFC wasn’t actually that bad because global trade remained pretty steady.

Even with a trade war, it’s hard to knock off the secular trend of the western countries importing from Asia. If it isn’t from China, it is from Malaysia, Vietnam, and so on.

Did I strike to buy Triton stock in 2015-2016?? No. I was gun shy as I’ve been following the industry for quite some time and they never seemed to generate real FCF (CFO-Capex). It was an asset gathering game.

But then in 2019-2020, when the market wasn’t particularly great, they actually proved they could shut-off capex. They starting generating a ton of FCF and showing signs to shareholders that they care about the stock (they even issued a pref as well to help fund buybacks)

Another sign they care about capital allocation is this fantastic sources and potential uses of cash in their deck:

Basically they are telling you they could buy back 12% of the stock in one year. Share count is down about 15% in 2.5 years, but now I think they’ll be deploying cash into higher ROE opportunities, which is fine by me.


Financing

One thing I should mention is typically Triton finances itself through the ABS market. They get 80-85% LTV against the asset value for very long duration. Happy to answer any questions on this, but I’m not too concerned with the ABS market financing.

Triton issued $2.3 billion of ABS notes during the third quarter at an average interest rate of 2.2%. Most of the proceeds were used to prepay $1.8 billion of higher cost notes, which is expected to reduce interest expense by more than $25 million over the next year

They are also diversifying financing – so they just issued an IG secured bond and have talked about moving up to IG ratings. If their cost of capital goes even lower, it will be great for the business in the long run.


EPS Estimates

Last thing I’ll say is basically Triton is covered by one company. You’d think modeling it would be easy enough, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of containers, utilization can change, etc etc. However, I think EPS estimates are probably still too low in the long-run. It’s been that way in the short-run, so far, but we shall see. It’s hard for sell side to model operating leverage + high lease rates + deploying cash into such a significant amount of assets.

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