David Matsuda had never been a mariner or an administrator before he became the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration in 2009. He had been a government lawyer and a congressional staffer, focusing on railroad issues; the ringtone on his phone was the choo-choo of a train. Matsuda had never been a banker, either. This was relevant because MarAd, in addition to its basic duties involving vessels and ports, ran a perennially troubled $2 billion credit program that had propped up U.S. shipbuilding since the Great Depression. When Matsuda took the helm, the program was sinking again, heading for its worst defaults since a massive loan to help the billionaire investor Sam Zell build cruise ships had gone bust in 2001. Whatever Matsuda’s Washington career had prepared him for, it hadn’t prepared him to be Uncle Sam’s repo man on the high seas.
“It was like walking into a nightmare,” says Matsuda, 42, a former transportation adviser to the late Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg. “I looked around and said, ‘Guys, what’s happening?’”
The Bush administration’s last MarAd loan guarantee, a $140 million deal to help a politically connected firm build two “superferries” to shuttle passengers around Hawaii, imploded shortly after Matsuda arrived. MarAd got stuck with the ferries, which it eventually offloaded to the Navy. Then a marine services outfit with a MarAd loan went bankrupt, prompting panicky meetings about whether seizing its collateral—a supply boat at work in Nigeria’s offshore oil industry—would spark an international incident. Then another dying shipping company missed a payment on a loan secured by four double-hulled oil tankers. After weeks of confusion, MarAd’s lawyers informed Matsuda he needed to arrest the four football-field sized ships.