OSLO MARITIME STOCK EXCHANGE COURTS US-QUOTED SHIP FIRMS

OSLO MARITIME STOCK EXCHANGE COURTS US-QUOTED SHIP FIRMS

Oslo, the world's leading maritime stock exchange, is wooing U.S.-quoted shipping firms.

Large U.S. funds such as Fidelity and Tiger Management already are active investors in Oslo shipping and offshore oil stocks.Now the exchange wants U.S. companies to come to Oslo for a secondary listing, said Oddleif Hatlem, an adviser to the exchange.

Last year, the exchange attracted four U.S. stocks - Norex Industries Inc. and Nordic American Tanker Shipping Ltd., which have a primary listing on AMEX, Stolt Comex Seaway SA, which is quoted on Nasdaq, and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which is an NYSE stock. The Oslo exchange is a minnow in the world rankings. But its shipping and offshore sector with more than 60 stocks is the world's biggest - larger than the combined shipping sectors of the three U.S. exchanges. The value of Oslo's shipping and offshore stocks doubled last year, to $18 billion, or nearly 24 percent percent of the entire market. There were 18 new listings that raised more than $2 billion.

The market is becoming increasingly international with more foreign firms set to join the 15 non-Norwegian shipping and offshore firms already listed. Foreign investors, mainly American and British, account for over a third of the shares and their influence is growing.

Oslo's pitch for U.S.-listed shipping stocks coincides with New York's rise as the world's most innovative ship finance center focusing on IPOs and junk bonds.

Oslo can't compete with New York as a source of finance, Mr. Hatlem said. But a dual listing will allow companies to tap big U.S. investors in New York and medium-sized and retail investors in Oslo.

Oslo's prime attraction is investors, analysts and brokers who live and breathe shipping, Mr. Hatlem says. Smaller companies can raise equity in Oslo and use it later as a spring board for a New York listing, he said.

Oslo's liquidity is a major attraction for U.S. investors and shipping firms. There is heavy turnover in the shares of Wilh. Wilhelmsen, Leif Hoegh and Bergesen, the leading Norwegian tanker and bulk shipowners, and Atlantic Container Line, the trans-Atlantic container shipping line.

New shares attract a large following among foreign and local investors. Frontline, the Bermuda-registered tanker group, which switched its listing from Stockholm to Oslo last July, regularly sees a daily volume of between 500,000 and 1 million shares and has around 1,800 Norwegian shareholders. The shipping index has outperformed the all-share index for over two years and is extremely responsive to developments that affect trade flows and freight rates. It crashed in December in response to the Asian crisis amid fears of sharply lower trade with the region. But it surged by 3.5 percent on the day after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico agreed recently to cut oil output to support sagging prices. For the moment, the exchange is concentrating on the European market, particularly younger Greek shipowners who are less suspicious of the stock market than earlier generations.

Oslo is seeking to become more accessible to the maritime community. It established separate shipping and offshore listings in January and is introducing a new trading system in the fall that will enable shares to be quoted in other currencies. The exchange also plans to let Norwegian-quoted firms report in dollars.

The biggest challenge facing Oslo would be to attract P&O Nedlloyd, which has said it will likely seek a New York listing in a couple of years.