In a recent speech, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker recounted his extreme dismay upon learning some years ago that one of his grandchildren aspired to a career in financial engineering. I think that by now, the term has rightly come to be associated with a lot of the chicanery that occurred in the financial world over the past half-decade or so.

Frontline (NYSE:FRO) isn't a name I would lump in with the likes of Citigroup (NYSE:C) or AIG (NYSE:AIG), but I do believe the firm got somewhat caught up in the excesses of the easy-money era. At the time, it made perfect sense to lever up the balance sheet and wring out excess returns for equity shareholders.

Now that credit is no longer freely flowing, however, the firm has far less flexibility. Frontline has recently put more vessels on long-term time charter, and I think the move to secure adequate cash flows is more about self-preservation than opportunism. After all, this market peaked about six months ago.

Of course, these things are always hard to tease out. At first it appeared that DryShips (NASDAQ:DRYS) moved to time charters because it had to, in order to finance its deepwater diversion. Later, the firm spun the move as calling the top in the market -- an explanation I bought into at the time.

That's the thing with these market-timing shipping operators. It's hard to tell exactly what the motivating factors are behind operating adjustments, and whether explanations are really just justifications. I don't even suggest that this is intentional -- hindsight bias is pervasive in human psychology.

Conditions change so fast that firms like Frontline and Tsakos Energy Navigation (NYSE:TNP) can't really give investors the means to evaluate the firms' performance versus plan. Unless you're investing with an eye to the scrap value of a shipper's assets -- which is not a bad approach -- investing in this space arguably requires more trust than the average investment. Trust is a scarce commodity today, and it's no wonder that Frontline is trading at levels last seen in 2003.

Frontline hasn't lost the faith of its Motley Fool CAPS followers, who rate the stock a firm four stars. Weigh in with your own views on the tanker magnate right here.

Fool contributor Toby Shute participates in CAPS under the name TMFSmashy, but he doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.