Buy Costamare and Sell Seaspan? Analyst Offers a Surprising Take On Container Shipping

By Rich Smith Markets Fool.com

Color me surprised.

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It's not often that I find myself 100% in agreement with Wall Street, but that's exactly what happened this morning when investment banker Morgan Stanley published a pair of reports, praising container shipping company Costamare (NYSE: CMRE) -- and panning Seaspan (NYSE: SSW). Mind you, Morgan Stanley isn't 100% optimistic on either stock, cutting Costamare's price target by $1 (to $7 a share) even as it recommended it. But in back-to-back reports covered on StreetInsider.com today, Morgan Stanley still told investors that they should overweight Costamare stock in their portfolios, but underweight Seaspan.

Here are three things you need to know about these new ratings.

Containerships may not be sexy, but they could be profitable for investors. Image source: Getty Images.

1. In praise of Costamare...

As alluded to above, Morgan Stanley already had an $8 price target on Costamare stock, and a rating of "equalweight" on the shares. Costamare reported earningslast week, however, and what it said in that report has apparently convinced Morgan Stanley to change its mind.

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Costamare's newswasn't all good, by the way, with "voyage revenue" dropping 4.5% year over year in 2016; full-year profits declining by more than half, to just $0.79 per share; and a loss for the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, the results topped Wall Street estimates.

In its note, Morgan Stanley admitted that Costamare is currently enduring a "prolonged period of weak containership rates." That said, the analyst believes that voyage rates have reached their "trough" valuation, which implies they must go up at some point. In the meantime, MS expects to see Costamare use its "excess cash in hand" (S&P Global Market Intelligence says Costamare has $165 million available) "to take advantage of current weakness to buy cheap vessels, providing favorable optionality to a 2019-20 recovery."

2. ...but not of Seaspan

Did you see what Morgan Stanley just did there? Almost unnoticed, the analyst slipped in its prediction that the container shipping industry won't recover before 2019, or even 2020 -- which means that any investors seeking to buy into this industry could have a long time to wait before they see profits.

Seaspan investors in particular could endure especially rough seas, because Morgan Stanley is predicting that "weak global trade and prolonged oversupply of containerships" will result in continued "decliningearnings" among shippers. That's especially concerning for Seaspan, which Morgan Stanley says has a "deteriorating balance sheet and liquidity position," and is burning through its cash at a rate in excess of "~$200m."

3. Declining dividends

Already, this miserable market for containerships has forced Costamare to cut its dividend payout by 65%. Nevertheless, Costamare stock still yields 7.5% today, which is none too shabby. Combined with a predicted 25% rise in price to $7 per share, it creates the potential for a 32.5% profit for new investors in the stock.

In contrast, Seaspan still pays its shareholders a much richer 15.6% yield. But Morgan Stanley believes 2017 is the year Seaspan finally throws in the towel, and announces its own "steep dividend cut in 2017, shifting SSW's valuation away from its yield premium."

Bonus thing: Which of these shippers will survive -- and thrive?

Indeed, Seaspan almost certainly must announce a dividend cut this year. In contrast to Costamare, which at last report was both profitable and generating plenty of free cash flow, Seaspan has reported GAAP losses over the last 12 months, and reported negative free cash flow of $165 million. Morgan Stanley expects to see that cash-burn-rate increase when Q4 results come out, imperiling the company's balance sheet, which already shows $2.1 billion more debt than cash. (By comparison, Costamare is also in a net-debt position, but owes less than $700 million more than it has cash on hand.)

If and when Seaspan announces its dividend cut, Morgan Stanley expects to see the stock underperform. In contrast, Costamare, which cut earlier and deeper and therefore has a head start on its recovery, is likely to outperform the market from here on out.

When you consider how cheap Costamare stock is today -- priced at just seven times earnings, but paying a 7.5% dividend -- and in the opinion of most analysts, likely to post strong earnings growth over its 2016 lows in the next two years, I honestly cannot see how Costamare could do anything but outperform the market from here on out. For this reason, I find myself in agreement with Morgan Stanley today:

Costamare is the container shipping stock to buy, and Seaspan the one to sell.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Seaspan. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.