Digging Into the Past – From Handshake to ‘Shareholder Value’ Part I/II (19 July 2019)

Although centuries of merchant shipping have passed, the kind of financing of ships in general has been the same throughout the years. There exist two possibilities: (1) a merchant has enough capital to buy and maintain a ship or (2) a ship is financed through the sale of shares and borrowing to a number of investors willing to participate in the enterprise. Since early times, for this kind of financing it was normal that only a certain amount of money truly existed as cash, with other parts of the money being ‘on the books’ or in bonds or loans (promises). The merchant normally was also the ship’s captain and responsible for the construction of the ship and the management of the whole enterprise. He sought partners and, furthermore, borrowed according to “Shipping Terms” for the sea loans or, in regular terms, in view of establishing a risk sharing mechanism. Only on rare occasions did a vessel belong to a single owner.

At the end of eighteenth century in Greece, for instance—one of the main ship-trading countries of the time—returns on the capital of the ship owner as well as the interest charged on the loans were carefully calculated. Loans were on a per-voyage basis and had a duration of a few months. These loans were subject to the “risks and dangers of the sea”, namely if the vessel was lost no claims could made against the property of the merchant shipowner. It is not known what other specific loan types were available.

The entire capital-raising procedure at the end of the eighteenth century was similar to the one that is followed today in the launching of private equity funds. The launch was carried out in a restricted time interval and the personality of the leading fund manager was instrumental in the success of the fund-raising effort. The call was addressed to the important members of the local society. Surely, the merchant circulated a financing proposal for the particular vessel in a closed circle, providing shipping and financial details, a kind of business plan that must have included some estimate of the required financing as well as a certain forecast of revenues to be expected.

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