DOF Subsea, Bibby Offshore, and The Pecking Order Theory…

We always plan too much and think too little.

Joesph Schumpeter

We were succeeding. When you looked at specifics, this became a war of attrition. We were winning.

General William Westmoreland on US involvement in Vietnam

DOF AS/ Subsea reported numbers yesterday that were frankly terrible. All those who keep telling you the market is getting better seem blithely ignorant of the constantly decreasing financial performance of nearly all the companies in the sector. It’s like Comical Ali or General Westmoreland constantly assuring everyone that victory is just around the corner, if not in fact delivered. Tendering, like the Viet Cong, never ceases to stop appearing in increasing numbers, and it will bring victory…

I have another theory why tendering is increasing: there are a lot of engineers who are worried about their jobs. In a completely rational strategy they are increasing the number of parties who receive tendering documents, spending more time assessing them, and making the tenders ever more complex. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. More people appear to be spending increasing amounts of time and money on the same tenders and it is making industry margins even thinner, and allowing management to claim that completely unproductive work is actually a sign of an industry returning to health.

But back to the numbers… this is the same DOF Subsea that as recently as Q1 and Q2 this year was hoping to get an IPO away. It’s a good reminder, as if anyone needed one, that when insiders are selling out you should be wary of what you are buying. I call it the Feltex Carpets or Dick Smith theory. Economists have however developed a far more robust theory about how firms decide on their capital structure: The Pecking Order Theory. It’s based on the information asymmetry that exists between the insiders of the firm (shareholders and management) and the outsiders (investors and funders). Basically it’s a deeply cynical view (which probably means it is right) that managers and owners use internally generated funds first, then use debt and only issue equity as a last resort.

In a classic paper Myers and Majluf (1984) argue managers and owners issue equity only when they believe it is overpriced. It is very hard not believe that early in 2017 the insiders at DOF Subsea (i.e. the private equity owners) looked at the vessel schedules and the likely win/loss ratio of the tender pipeline (not the amount of tendering), and decided that if they could dump some stock they would. Luckily investors are aware of the asymmetric information problem and “they discount the firm’s new and existing risky securities when new issues are announced“. Or in other words they just refuse to buy at the asking price which is what happened in the DOF Subsea case.

You should always be wary of financial presentations that start with highlights that don’t include any financials (like the latest DOF Subsea one). Just to be clear the DOF Subsea revenue was down 11% on the same period as last year and EBITDA was down 6%. Luckily, they are doing more tendering.

DOF also helpfully provided this chart of the business:

DOF Business Model.png

Basically without the long term chartering business, which is really just a risk diversification move by Technip, there is no business: the 10% EBITDA on the projects side wouldn’t cover the economic costs and frankly potentially the cash costs either. This is a business where unrealised gains from derivatives (probably interest rate and/or currency swaps) were 6 x the operating loss for the period of NOK (41m).  Year to date DOF Subsea has had to turnover NOK 2.8bn to get a mere NOK 45m in profit. It is pretty clear from the above that actually the projects business, with 17 very expensive fixed costs assets, is not an economic entity; and as I have said before you need a very good return on the vessels on long-term charter in Brazil because as the above graphic makes clear if their contracts aren’t renewed (and no one believes they will be on anything like the current terms) then the value of the vessels will drop like a stone if you believe at some point a vessel is only worth what it can earn in cash terms. The number of other activities you can perform with a 650t vertical lay system is actually pretty small which lowers resale value regardless of how much it cost to build. In which case the value of the business is probably much smaller than the current shareholders would be willing to admit to themselves. Time is not a friend to the investors in this deal because everyday they hold this company future investors get one day closer to finding out what happens in Brazil.

DOF Subsea is a pretty good projects house and the EBITDA margin is just a reflection of market overcapacity. If you were going to invest new money in a subsea projects business you would need therefore to look at that as a realistc EBITDA margin you could earn for the foreseeable future until further supply capacity leaves the market or there is a significant increase in demand. Bear that in mind if you were, for example, looking at injecting funds into a company about to default on its bonds…

The Pecking Order Theory is also helpful in explaining (some of) the shennanigans involved in the Bibby Offshore attempted refinancing at the moment. The insider shareholders in this case also saw the writing the on the wall and in January 2016 took a cheeky £20m off the table in the form of a dividend (after a c.£40m dividend recap that was flagged in the prospectus). In the next 12 months Bibby Offshore lost £52m at the operating profit level, and it must have been known to the Directors by June 16 that without some sort of miracle the business would require a restructuring (which to be clear is an event of default as defined by the ratings agencies even if consensual). It was certainly apparent to any responsible Director by Oct 16.

Bibby Offshore cannot realistically make an interest payment in December, and management have qualified the accounts such that it is not a going concern without a refinancing. And now  the insiders (Bibby Line Group and management) have decided they want outsiders to put money in. They don’t think the equity is overvalued (they know it is valueless);  the insiders think the debt overvalued is and there is too much of it. All the talk of a supportive shareholder reveals it for the sophistry it is: the insiders don’t believe enough to contribute financially. BLG aren’t putting in any of the £60m they have taken out not just because they don’t have it but also because they know the business better than anyone and The Pecking Order Theory makes clear they want someone elses money here.

One deal that is on the table is some “Super Senior” financing (i.e. paid before anyone else) provided by the distressed debt desk at Deutsche Bank. Now Deutsche are arguably the best desk at this in the City, but if you need this sort of financing it is pretty much the end of the road. If EY have resorted to the distress desk at Deutsche as an alternative it shows that no long term investor is interested. This form of financing is more suited for a company in bankruptcy (where it is called debtor-in-possession financing) than for one imminently approaching it. The Deutsche plan would be to lend fully secured against the Polaris and the Sapphire and give Bibby enough money to make until next summer when DSV day rates miraculously improve and the business can service this new debt and bonds. But don’t the bond holders own those boats I hear you ask? Yes. And I am not close enough to this to know exactly the specifics but the security agent is only likely to hand over the ownership papers to the vessels if the bond holders agree to this (I guess); and (I guess) Deutsche would only advance the funds in conjunction with a writedown of their claim. Unbelievably management will argue they are they best people to trade the business out of this mess.

The real tension here appears to be how much equity the bondholders take, and how consensual the handover is, as the business undertakes a debt-for-equity swap. The bondholders can hold out for 100% of the equity as their only other asset apart from the DSVs (and a couple of ROVs) is the shares of Bibby Offshore, but in  order to follow through on this they have to push the company into administration and a liquidation scenario is completely possible at that point as customers and suppliers refuse to trade. The Bibby/Management/EY plan envisages a far more generous structure whereby any money Bibby Line Group put in is also fully secured and they retain majority control so they can consolidate Bibby Offshore in their Group accounts (20% of net assets). The problem with this is of course that BLG don’t have anywhere near enough money to put in proportionately.

A nightmare scenario for the bondholders is taking over a company in such circumstances where agency conflicts abound and in a practical sense now it is a hostile takeover with management having acted until the last possible moment to realise the rights of the debt holders. It is arguable for all of this year Bibby Offshore should have been run with the creditors interests at the forefront of all decisions and it is clear that this has not happened.

In case you’re wondering what is in it for Deutsche: it’s the fees. They are looking at advancing c. £20-30m on the vessels and it would have to be cleared before the bondholders get paid. They would get a 7 figure upfront fee and an interest rate of c. 15%, and if a default occurred they would sell the assets in a fire sale to get their money as quickly as possible. Which is why you can’t get much money from such deals because the bank needs to be conservative here (and I think this deal will die on broker valuations given the likely fire sale prices of Polaris and Sapphire). The problem is of course that debt got Bibby into this mess and it is very unlikely to be the cure to get them out of it. I don’t think the Deutsche proposal has passed credit committee and even though they would make an eye-watering fee on the this the risk is clear: becoming the proud owner of 2 x North Sea class DSVs (and as their offices are some way from the Thames they wouldn’t even add to the famed Deutsche art collection).

With no significant work booked for next year the Bibby plan relies 100% on day rates increasing significantly above current levels. And therein lies the real problem for the bondholders and any potential distress desk coming in on this: at some point the only solution to a market in oversupply is for some capacity to go. How can Bibby credibly claim to make a better margin than DOF Subsea? At the moment Boskalis look almost certain to enter the market in a big way and other companies are also looking to enter the market. Not only does Bibby need tens of millions of pounds under its current cost structure just to make it until next summer there is actually no certainty that this magical scenario of higher rates will allow them to come close to settling the outstanding debt obligations they are generating to get there.

DOF Subsea made clear that while tendering activity is robust project work is dismal (and indeed they made a specific comment that amounted to a profit warning about it). At 7.0 x debt to last-twelve-months EBITDA DOF Subsea (and everyone else in the market) will be throwing everything into trying to win work… all the non-DSV work will compete with Bibby (no one really expects them to reactivate the SAT system on the Achiever) and they will keep margins at ~EBITDA breakeven in order ot get utilisation. As a committed industrial player that is a rational economic strategy. Subsea 7 and Technip are booking DSV days at less than £120k for 2018 to get utilisation in early and they can clearly keep this up virutally indefinitely. The dumb non-industrial money won’t last as long as those with an operational logic and an industrial strategy + balance sheet in this market.

The problem for the Bibby bondholders is that not only at current prices (.36) have they capitalised the firm at c. £63m, way above what it could hope to earn in an economic sense, it also needs £20-40m just to keep trading until next summer.  The major competitors have no cash flow issues (Boskalis has €1bn in the bank) and every reason to chase market share over profit. There is therefore no rational economic reason why under this scenario North Sea class day rates will rise, particularly if Boskalis enters, and every reason to believe they will stay at current levels. Any rational investor in Bibby Offshore would shut down everything apart from the UK business, but 2 x DSVs in the UK doesn’t justify anything like £60m in value…

The Nor bondholders tried super senior financing on their DSVs in Nov 2016 and it is clear, as they slowly run out of money and cannot raise anymore at anything like the 15% fully super senior they did last time, that when someone says you can’t lose on a North Sea class DSV, you can on some. It’s all down to asset specificity as I have said before. Deutsche and other distress desks will be well aware of the mistake the Nor bondholders made, and frankly if I was going to make a mistake on two DSVs I’d rather do it with the Nor vessels than the Bibby ones.

This will all be resolved soon. A bondholder meeting is scheduled for next week and everyone will lay out their plan. The problem is of course there isn’t one really and it should never been allowed to have get this close to Dec 14 when the interest payment is due. The Bibby plan is for it to continue as a lifestyle business where external investors allow the family and management to stay in control and fund it until the market returns. A few (27) redundancies are underway but in a microcosm of the cost and conflict issues that define the company the CEO’s wife, who runs the Business Excellence department, is staying , as is the Director of Small Pools and Innovation, while the Engineering Manager is made redundant (seriously).

The Bibby plan relies on a small number of bondholders, enough to block the majority, being so afraid of the great unknown they back them to carry on as before. This will just delay things until next summer because the cash burn is just so high that even £20-30m would be gone by this time next year without a wholesale change in market conditions. Handing back the Olympic Bibby cuts the cash burn, and may allow the business to come close to cash break even, although the US will make another substantial trading loss in 2018 as will Norway (and without the Ares why bother?); but doesn’t solve the core problem that the business itself is unprofitable at an operating profit level. Call it the slow-burn and pretend strategy. It was disastrous for Nor as eventually reality comes and the cash is gone. As plans go it is pretty terrible.

But the bondholders don’t have a good one either. The bondholders appears to have spectacularly misread the willingness and ability of Bibby Line Group to support Bibby Offshore as well as how badly the business would perform in 2017 versus 2016 (revenue -50%). Some of the funds involved in the bonds don’t need money from an institution like Deutsche, but unless they control the company they have to hold a bondholder vote every time they want to make any significant moves, and letting the company go into administration risks a total wipe-out of value. Stripping the company back to a smaller business locks-in a loss, continue funding it until the market returns is simply throwing good money after bad and it’s real cash. If they do take the business over they will have an awkward period where almost the entire senior management are changed out and they will be cash funding a business, with an unknown financial commitment, while their consultants re-do the numbers and tell them how much capital they will need to inject. I have done that as a management consultant and it is hugely destabilising while it goes on and makes normal operations almost impossible. If if takes consultants 6 weeks to produce an initial report (30 working days), and Bibby Offshore is losing c. 100k a day in the interim even an emergency facility of £3m + £1m for the consultants is real money given the limited upside sale potential. And then they are only in February with a real funding commitment until the mythical summer season that will save everyone… until it doesn’t…

There is a more complicated scenario here where the Bibby Offshore is restructured through a pre-pack insolvency that the current bondholders control. This will remove the historic liabilities incurred (i.e. property leases, Trinidad tax) and see a new company emerge free of its past shareholders and with a new capital structure. I think this the most likely but it will be a dramatically smaller business and will be run solely for sale ASAP. I also see no guarantee it will realise more value than a liquidation despite it being enormously risky given changing market conditions.

The Bibby Offshore refinancing is a mess and liquidation is clearly a very real possibility here. Getting to less than 28 days of an interest repayment before trying to finalise a refinancing is irresponsible in the extreme when it has been telegraphed for months and your plan is simply not to hand the company to the bondholders. The only thing I can definitely tell you is that if you brought Bibby bonds at .36 you are going to lose some real money here.

Business Sense versus Economic Sense… UDS and Say’s law …

A product is no sooner created, than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest the value should vanish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable. But the only way of getting rid of money is the purchase of some product or other. Thus, the mere circumstance of the creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products.

Jean-Baptiste Say, Traité d’économie politique, (1802)

[Say’s law: Supply creates its own demand as Keynes described it. ]

 

Men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand.

David Ricardo in a letter to Thomas Malthus commenting on Say’s law (c. 1820).

 

More than one press appearence lately of the UDS Lichtenstein (ex Marmaid Ausana) in transit to the Middle East for Sat diving work in Iran apparently. I am a huge supporter of any new business, and taking over assets that others can’t work is a time tested model in cyclical industries. The question is: who is the winner here and who is going to make money? As anyone who has run a dive vessel in Iran, or tendered for work there, can explain the rates make India look attractive. A plethora of choice from around the region and customers who only care about price, and perhaps the size of the backhander, mean that even a 30 year old PSV with a portable Sat system can struggle to make money… Thus a newbuild 130m+ DSV is not a natural candidate for the region.

But there can be a real difference between business sense and economic sense: if you can convince a Chinese yard to build you a ship without having to pay for it I think it is a great business model, and UDS are well connected in certain regions to get DSVs working, I am just not sure of the longevity. I haven’t seen the deal UDS have agreed but if it is similar to others floating around then UDS will only be paying for the vessel when it is actually working, and even then a proportion of profit the job generates not a fixed fee. In Iran that is likely to be the square root of a very small number, and if it’s linked to actual payment then even that is a long way off.

UDS therefore is likely to be making money. How much it is impossible to say with certainty but it is possible to have a good guess…The beauty of this business model is its splits the oversupplied capital element away from the necessary cost of operating the service. It’s like a good bank/bad bank with Chinese yards operating as central bank. Cash costs are covered by the profitable service companies while asset owners hope The Money Illusion and the miracle of demand saves them. The Money Illusion is just that and this demand chart shows why demand is unlikely to help DSV owners:

Global E&P Capex

Near stagnant shallow water Capex for years meaning an oversupplied maintenance market.

One of the reasons new DSVs struggle to trade at a premium to old DSVs is the lack of functional benefits from a new vessel for the customer. 30 years ago people were diving at 300m below sea level and we still are now (in fact I have been told Tehcnip and Subsea 7 now call all dives over 200m “special” and need higher approval). Sure the newer vessels may use a bit less fuel on DP, carry a few more people, have a better gym etc, but for the customer, especially in a place like Iran, no one actually cares. The fact is an old banger can do pretty much what a new build Chinese all-singing all dancing DSV can do.

In brutal terms going long on a $150m doesn’t command any pricing premium, or only marginally so, it may just help you secure the work. When people are operating at cash breakeven only that may be a blessing for the company who operates the vessel but that extra capacity is curse for the industry.

Not only are customers cheap in every region outside the North Sea, they can afford to be! Environmental conditions are far more benign which means for a lot of jobs you can use a PSV with a modular system or one of the many $50m build cost Asian focused DSVs… they might not be quite as “productive” or “efficient” as a North Sea class but the owner just reduces the day-rate to the customer to reflect this.

What makes this important is this: for as long as UDS can convince (yard) shipowners that they are the best people to manage unpaid for DSVs, or their own, then they should make money. For the yards and DSV industry it’s a difference story…

In normal times people like to make a return on their capital. The reason you invest is obviously because you want to be paid back. Economists have a really easy way to calculate this: economic profit (which is completely different to accounting profit) and is derived by simply allowing for the cost of the capital in the investment. In crude terms SS7’s cost of capital today is ~12%. Assume a new DSV, with no backlog, all equity financed (a realistic assumption as what bank would lend on this (ignore fleet loans)?). So the “market capital cost” per annum of a new DSV for a recognised industrial player is c. $18m per annum ($150m * 12%); at 270 days utilisation the vessel needs to make $67k per working day just to pay the capital provider. No Opex, no divers, no maintenance, just finance. No one in Iran gets more than $85-90 in total, and it may well be substantially less.

Now UDS don’t need to pay that because the yard unfortunately had a customer credit event and got left with a vessel. Mermaid wrote of over $20m so the yard is probably exposed for $130m, and it maybe more because rumours abound of a fisaco with the dive system which will have been expensive to fix. But there is no doubt UDS have added great value to the yard by providing them with the technical expertise to finish this vessel. UDS just needs to cover their costs and the yard can get something which they probably feel is better than nothing, but it doesn’t mean this work is “economic”. The subsidy here is being paid for by the yard’s equity holders, effectively the Chinese taxpayer, who are involved in an extremely expensive job creation scheme… but times were different… who am I to criticise anyone for going long on OSVs in 2013?

The UDS new-builds are a somewhat different story. If a private equity firm were financing a new build DSV their cost of capital would be ~30% (in this environment probably a lot higher); so at 270 days utilisation that would be c. $167k per working day as a cost of capital. That is after paying for divers, maintenance, and OpEx, a market level of return commensurate to the level of risk of starting a new build DSV company would require that just for the vessels, ignore the working capital of the company. Each new build DSV needs to generate $167k per working day to make an economic profit for the investors. Rates have never been that high in the region, which maybe why economics is a “dismal science“, but it also explains why no one has built $100m+ DSVs for Asia: no one will pay for it!

Rates have been higher in the North Sea but never anything like that consistently and cannot realistically be expected to grow to even half that economic level.  There is also simply no realistic chance of any of the UDS vessels being a core part of the North Sea fleet where rates could traditionally support a capital cost appropriate to the investment in such a specialised asset. SS7 and Technip simply do not procure 25 year assets by chartering off companies like UDS, and frankly they could get a better or cheaper product in Korea or the Netherlands if they built now.  And even if the Chinese built the most amazing DSVs ever (a big if) no one in the North Sea would believe it and pay for it. Given the high profile problems of chartering North Sea DSVs it simply isn’t credible to have any scenario where any of these DSVs come North of the Mediterranean.

I haven’t even dealt with the most important problem: There isn’t enough work in the North Sea. People relax constraints in the region when they need to but at the moment they don’t. The UDS vessels when completed will not be North Sea tonnage… and the only market I think it’s harder to sell a DSV into than Iran is China…

The UDS startegy seems pretty clear at this point: to try and flag the vessels locally and take advantage of local cabotage regulations (like OSS did in Indonesia with the Crest Odyssey) to ensure some local regulatory support for utilisation. The problem with this strategy seems to be it doesn’t have a meaningful impact on day rates. Asian markets with strong flag state rules have never paid top dollar before and it is hard to see these vessels changing the situation. On a boring technical note it is normally impossible to get a mortgage over the vessel as arresting it can be difficult. It’s probably worth a punt for utilisation but it isn’t going to change the profitability of this and makes the capital commitment enduring for anything other than a token price.

I think UDS has great business sense don’t get me wrong. Owe the bank $1m and you are in trouble… owe the bank $100m and they are in trouble. UDS looks set to owe yard c. $450-600m, depending on how many vessels they take delivery of. UDS has great business sense because the yards have a problem way bigger than any of the shareholders in UDS and in an economic sense the yards are never going to make money from this.

All of which brings me to Jean-Baptiste Say, who in 1802 ennuciated a theory that dominated economics for over 120 years. Say’s law was actually the macroeconomy but that wasn’t invented until Keynes. Say looked at the incredible industrial development of the early 19th century cotton industy and thought the economy as a whole must work like that. Without people building something there would be nothing to sell, and therefore there could be no recessions. To anyone working in oil services Say’s further writings looks close prophetic:

Sales cannot be said to be dull because money is scarce, but because other products are so. … To use a more hackneyed phrase, people have bought less, because they have made less profit.

But this was a world away from when Keynes wrote The General Theory at the start of The Great Depression. Until this time Say’s law was the dominant theory of what Keynes later termed “aggregate demand”. We now know that at a macroeconomic level there can be a chronic demand problem, it took WWII for the world economy to recover from The Great Depression, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of the new view in 1936 when Keynes published The General Theory which intellectually overturned Say’s law. Say had confused what happens with companies for what happens to the economy as a whole.

I am reminded of UDS when I think of Say’s law: they might make money out of this, but whether this is economically rational for the whole economy is another story.  Say was wrong in micro and macroeconomics: supply doesn’t create demand.

All the UDS vessels will do is create extra capacity from sellers who are forced to accept lower than opex from anyone with an external financing constraint. The UDS vessels, and the Magic Orient, and the Keppel Everest, and the Vard 801, and the Toisa new build etc will simply wipe out the equity slowly of all those who stay at the table playing poker.

Sooner or later the funders of this enormous gamble will come out. Unwittingly China Yard Inc. is clearly going to be a dominant equity holder, they might think they have a fixed obligation at this point, but just as Keppel and others are finding out: at this level of leverage debt quickly becomes equity. For existing DSV operators in markets where these vessels turn up they are nothing short of an economic disaster. 2018 is going to be another poor year to be long DSV capacity.

Subsea 7 and Conoco Phillips… industry bellwethers…

[N]othing can have value without being an object of utility.

Karl Marx

[I couldn’t agree more with the philosophy outlined in the Conoco Phillips graphic in the header].

A stark contrast in the fortunes of two companies reporting numbers yesterday and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that an E&P company (Conoco Phillips) is benefitting from a higher oil price while an offshore contractor (Subsea 7) is suffering from lower committed offshore spending. But I think it’s worth delving into a little deeper because the scale of the changes taking place in investment terms I think provide a note of guidance for how the future of the industry will look.

CP makes an excellent E&P company to use as an example. In 2015 CP announced they were giving up deepwater exploration but not deepwater production. All economic change occurs at the margin, the change in preferences of different actors in the economy melding into demand and supply curves which intersect at equilibrium points: in this case the decision to invest in deepwater production, or not, depending on market conditions. CP looks to be a hard task master in this regard: based on the statements and actions they have taken if CP decides to invest in offshore production others will as well.

I start with CP because E&P demand for offshore services is obviously crucial. Firstly, and this is not an original thought, the entire tone of this presentation (Q3 2017) is geared to financial returns to shareholders (you should actually read the whole thing to sense this) at the expense of production growth. Just as Shell, and other E&P companies have done, there is a signalling effect that this is a company that will not turn an oil price rise into a feast of mega-growth projects:

CP Priorities

The whole focus is being able to pay dividends even at a $40 per barrel price, gone are the 2013 days of boasting about reserve replacement ratios in excess of 170%. CP helpfully shows that this focus has helped them outperform their peer group: Executive level pay generally includes a link to performance against a defined peer group, if other E&P managers start losing bonuses by not being as disciplined on returning money to shareholders as CP, and their share price appreciation is less, their strategy will change extremely quickly. But in reality all the big companies reporting now are making “credible commitments” to return any excess cash to shareholders and focus on demand increases through short cycle production. Just as it would take years to turn investment decisions into projects now so much offshore engieering capability has been turned off, so too it will take a long time to change this investment narrative and performance incentive system in E&P companies that drive offshore demand. Any perceived linear link between an increase in the oil price and an increase in offshore demand is wrong in my view.

COP Works.png

Secondly: CapEx: for the 2018-2020 period CP is guiding sustaining CapEx at $3.5bn per annum and $2.0bn for expansion. Of the $2.0bn expansion $1.2bn is short-cycle unconventional and only $0.5bn for conventional/offshore and $0.3bn for exploration (split evenly between conventionals and short-cycle). To put that in context in 2012, when the offshore industry was going long on boats and rigs based on future demand, CP guided 2013 CapEx at USD $15.8bn! Of that 10% alone ($1.6bn) was for the North Sea and Alaska (i.e. offshore), 26% ($4.2bn) was for short-cycle, 15% ($2.4bn) for offshore Angola and GoM, and another 14% ($2.1bn).

Graphically it works like this: To keep production constant CP will spend $3.5bn

2018-2020 Flat Production.png

The green is entirely offshore. But to increase production:

COP Growth Production.png

The green in the second graph is almost all historic commitments. That is the future of offshore in a microcosm for the largest independent E&P company in the world and historically a major investor in deepwater offshore. The point is, for those bored of the minutiae, that CP have knocked ~$9.5bn off theirCapEx (60%) in 5 years (they have also divested assets so its not a straight relative comparison) and that the portion devoted to offshore is really related to legacy investments only now, not new fields or developments.

Third: productivity. I keep saying this but the productivity improvements look real to me the economist, as opposed to some of the geologists I know, who argue shale is bound fail:

CP Shale Productivity.png

The last line: >50% more wells per rig line! It’s all about productivity and scale and large companies investing in R&D are extracting more for less on a continuous basis from their shale wells. This is becoming a self-reinforcing cycle where they invest, improve, and re-invest. As I say here often: Spencer Dale is right.

This is the link point to Subsea 7, and all the other subsea contractors frankly. Subsea 7 have performed better than most other contractors throughout the downturn (not McDermott), but the issue is backlog and the pace of future work delivery: as CP seeks to please the stockmarket by avoiding all but the most promising of offshore investments (if any), SS7 and others must show huge declines in their order backlogs which de-risk a hugely expensive and specific asset base. I have said before I think you almost need to value subsea contracting companies like a bank: they fund long-term assets with a series of shorter duration contracts of uncertain redemption value, yes they have a much higher equity cushion, but they need it as they are borrowing short from a market to fund long term assets. Certainly smaller contractors are susceptible to “runs”.

In the last quarter SS7 had revenue of ~$1bn but it took in orders of only .5 of that (book-to-bill ratio) in new orders which left it with a backlog of $5.3bn (against liabilies of $2.4bn). At Q4 2013, when companies like CP were spending all their CapEx, SS7 had backlog of $11.8bn (against $3.8bn of liabilities).

Now SS7 is a well managed company and as can be seen they have reduced debt as the downturn continued, continued to return chartered tonnage,  and they have over $1.2bn in cash, so there are no problems in the short-term. But if you were owed money by SS7 I would rather be owed a higher amount backed by nearly 3x backlog than owed a smaller amount by 2x (a declining) backlog. The problem is the pace at which all the contracting companies are eating through their backlog of contracted work that was at a significantly higher margin than the work they are bidding for now. The actual booked backlog number is the only certainty guiding real expectations of future profitability.

It is a function of the SS7 business model that they have an extremely long position in very specialist assets that sap meaningful amounts of money from companies if they are not working as the graph from the FMC Technip results makes clear:

Technip margin erosion.png

The single largest fact in Technip’s declining subsea margin is lower fleet utilization. If Technip and SS7 are expecting poor utilization in 2018 then it is locked in for the rest of the supply chain.

The fact is the huge offshore CapEx pull back and reallocation by the E&P companies is continuing unabated. Offshore allocations may not be declining in real terms any more but E&P companies are making clear to their shareholders that it isn’t going to materially increase either. The offshore fleet built for 2014 isn’t getting a reprieve from the Oil Price Fairy, the gift from that fairytale should it come true for the E&P companies will be given to shareholders, who after the volatility they have suffered in recent years feel they are owed higher risk weighted returns. E&P companies are locking in systems and processes that ensure their procurement in the supply chain will systematically lower their per unit production costs for years to come and ensuring that other asset owners get lower returns for their investments is a core part of that.

And it’s not only backlog the SURF business now is declining year-on-year of you look at the Q3 2017 SS7 results:

Q3 2017 BU performance.png

~$50m is a meaningful decline in revenue (6.3%) for SURF alone and the decline in i-tech shows that the maintenance market hasn’t come back either. Both CapEx and OpEx work remain under huge margin pressure and in the maintenance market the smaller ROV companies with vessel alliances are all mutually killing any chance of anyone making money until a significant amount of capacity leaves the market. The point of reinforcing this is that it is clear that the E&P companies do not view higher prices the start of a relaxation of cost controls: this is the new environment for offshore contractors.

Subsea maintenance costs involving vessels are time and capital intensive. Internally E&P companies are weighing up whether to invest in maintenance CapEx for offshore assets or new CapEx on short cycle wells. At the margin many like CP are choosing short cycle over offshore and hence the demand curve for offshore is likely to have shifted permanently down and price alone is simply not clearing the market.

I have only used SS7 as they are the purest subsea player in the market. I definitely think it is one of the better managed companies in the industry buut it is impossible to fight industry effects this big when demand is falling, and therefore the size of the market is shrinking, and you have such a high fixed cost base. Not everyone can take market share.

SS7 will be a survivor, and longer term given the technical skills and scale required to compete in this industry I think it likely in the long run they will earn economic profits i.e. profits in excess of their cost of capital, along with the larger SURF contractors excluding Saipem. But they will do this by being brutal with the rest of the supply chain that has gone long on assets and simply doesn’t have the operational capability and balance sheet to dictate similar terms. For everyone below tier one the winter chill is just beginning.

So what does this point to for the future of the industry?

  1. It is a safe bet with all the major E&P companies CapEx locked in for 2018 now and all the OpEx budgets done that demand isn’t going to be materially different from 2017. Slightly higher oil prices may lead to some minor increases in maintenance budgets but nothing that will structurally affect the market
  2. A smaller number of larger offshore projects of disproportionate size and importance fot the larger contractors and industry. Only the largest will have the technical skills and capability to deliver these (hence SS7 ordering a new pipelay vessel). These projects will have higher flow volume and lower lift costs and will be used by E&P majors to underpin base demand
  3. A huge bifurcation in contractor profitability between those capable of delivering projects above and the rest of the industry who will struggle to cover their cost of capital for years
  4. An ROV market that uses surplus vessels and excess equipment equipment that keeps margins at around OpEx for years as vessel owners seek this option for any utilisation
  5. E&P companies consistently seeking to standardise shale production, treat it as a manufacturing process that drives down per unit costs, and increase productivity. Any major offshore CapEx decision will be weighed against the production flexibility of shale
  6. Structurally lower margins in any reocvery cycle for the majority of SURF contractors

Affirming the consequent: Standard Drilling and vessel recovery…

A ship is at best an opportunity and at worst a liability.

Anon.

If you wanted to pick on one company to highlight how diminished expectations are of the offshore sector SDSD, down 66% for the year, would be a good candidate.

I think its great that if investors want a counter-cyclical investment vehicle they have one, but I just don’t think there is any industrial strategy here at all, and it is really hard to see how this can ever make money without some sort of extraordinary market movement. Depreciating 2007 and 2008 built PSVs, some of which required upgrades to DP II,  must be the ultimate “have faith in offshore” investment. Let’s have a look at the SDSD strategy:

Strategy.png

The thing is that Standard Drilling sold all the KFELs units prior to delivery, so maybe its been lost a little in the translation: but quite why buying assets in a booming market and selling them prior to delivery illustrates the success of buying minority shares in PSVs and putting them in lay-up in the worst downturn to hit the offshore vessel sector is beyond me? Just because I am good at rugby is unlikely to make me good at cricket (and the company isn’t called Jeff Wilson Drilling). The logical error is I believe called affirming the consequent.

It doesn’t mean you can’t make make money from this: but you are taking not only asset risk, on the vessel prices, but market risk on the stock price as well. So it’s not ideal (although you would think in this case they are highly correlated).

My broader point is that offshore supply is probably at the absolute nadir for demand. The PSVs working are supporting working operational infratsructure, or the few rigs working, and it probably cannot get any lower. But as Maersk Supply reported this week there remains an industry characterised by revenue at opex levels and huge oversupply. The SDSD are primarily older and/or in layup. The original plans to operate the vessels at cash break even, or above, and try and pay dividends. Even if one or two projects manage to achieve this there is no chance of this happening at a corporate level. Quoting historic vessel values I also think is a little absurd given the whole point of accepting the scale of the current downturn must mean they want revert to their previous implied value?

Look I don’t have an issue with this: SDSD has allowed the public a show of the price discovery mechansim that is identical to how many distressed funds viewed these types of investments. The fact is at this time last year, when the world seemed a different place, people thought the market couldn’t get any worse, and the plain fact is that it has. Substantially both at an asset value level and an operational level.

In specialty vessels Nor Offshore raised USD 15m almost to the day at this time last year. Now the reports are Fearnleys is basically trying to get them out completely as you can see from the SDSD share price graph that the cost of equity financing these vessels without visible backlog must have materially increased.

Longer term I don’t really get though how European companies, burdened with bank debt that the banks are reluctant to write-off, are going to compete with the likes of Tidewater and Gulfmark? SolstadFarstad must be the most worried of all the European companies given their commodity tonnage exposure. Sitting on a bunch of Asian built AHTS and PSVs from DeepSea Supply with inflexible European banks and no Chap 11 possibility must seem like a Sisyphean challenge at this point in the cycle.

But in the Tidewater’s case all the investors had an incentive to save the operational company to maximise value, whereas in the SDSD case the asset manager is paid regardless and isn’t making the returns required to back the assets.

Bassoe noted this week that they expect nearly 340 rigs to leave the market permanently. If you assume that supply vessels now are serving the base load of work on production assets and maintenance associated with them, and that a meaningful part of the E&P rig fleet that drove demand  will be scrapped, you need a real good story to explain a recovery play in offshore supply. There is more pain to come for investors before the market stabilises I feel.

 

I was wrong about Bitcoin: it is an asset class not money…

These curious capabilities make Bitcoins a combination of a commodity and a fiat currency (creating the coins is referred to as “mining” and they have value only because people accept them). But boosters inflated a Bitcoin bubble. Shortly after the currency launched, articles spread around the internet arguing that Bitcoins would protect wealth from hyperinflation and that early adopters would make a fortune. The dollar price of a Bitcoin currency unit climbed from a few cents in 2010 to a peak of nearly $30 in June 2011 (see chart), according to data compiled by Mt Gox, a popular online Bitcoin exchange. Inevitably, the currency then crashed back down, bottoming out at $2 in November 2011.

The Economist on Bitcoin in 2012 when the price was USD 12 per coin

 

This commodity [gold] is a material to be almost indestructible, and one of which therefore the accumulated stocks are very large in proportion to the annual fresh supply. Gold tends, therefore, to have a remarkably steady value.

R.G. Hawtrey, The Gold Standard

The Economic Journal, Vol 29, 1919

I have been prety vocal in the past about Bitcoin as a bubble. Stories like this seem to reinforce that image in me:

Eugene Mutai’s Nairobi apartment is filled with the sound of money: That would be the hum of a phalanx of fans cooling the computers he’s programmed to mine cryptocurrencies around the clock…

“The entire ecosystem could be the biggest wealth-distribution system ever,” Mutai said as his 2-year old daughter, Xena, named after the warrior princess, played with a tablet, swiping from app to app. In the world of internet-based currencies traded without interference from banks or regulators, “big players can’t deny anyone from participating in the financial system.”

And sure enough the CEO of Credit Suisse also explained that:

[f]rom what we can identify, the only reason today to buy or sell bitcoin is to make money, which is the very definition of speculation and the very definition of a bubble

I am not sure I believe that big players are excluding people from the financial system… but it is certainly part of the marketing of Bitcoin. The FT also has a great article on a how people are being marketed the dream of riches via bitcoin (read the whole thing the promoters are “interesting” to say the least:

“Ninety-five per cent of people you’re going to talk to about cryptocurrency, they say to you it’s a bubble. Correct?” he said as the 30 or so men and women packed into a small, hot room on the fourth floor nodded in agreement. In fact, he declared, “the bubble will never burst…

Pro FX Options launched in 2016 and says it can turn people with “zero trading knowledge” into skilled traders. It claims its software can detect short-term trading trends and help ordinary people make consistent profits from binary options, where a bet is placed on whether a stock or currency pair will be higher or lower at a predetermined time in the future. “What we’ve done is really made it simple, simple for anybody from any walk of life to take advantage of it”

But I am erring more now to the fact that while the top prices may be “bubble like” in that they deviate from the mean significantly over time, that some cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, look likely to be a permanent asset class. I don’t think the CEO of Credit Suisse is right, buying and selling for profit only is speculation, but that doesn’t make it a bubble.

Bitcoin isn’t a currency as defined by monetary economists in the classical sense, but it appears to have become an asset class, which seems likely to give it some enduring value. It just needs enough people to believe it worth something at it will have a floor of demand that should give it some value, even if intrinsically it generates no income. There are enough reports now that people are starting to treat it like gold, risk small stakes and hoping to profit wildly. All it needs is this number to keep growing faster than the Bitcoin system mines coins and the price will go up. Last week CME announced they would start a futures service for Bitcoin. It seems almost inconceivable that a global market this big will simply vanish, the price may go down as some buyers lose confidence, but there is surely enough market depth now that this is simply becoming a recognised asset class, albeit one with likely extreme volatility in demand/pricing.

The mistake I made was treating it as currency and as money. I am not the only one this attempt to value Bitcoin on a rational basis was :

based on the presumption that bitcoin’s core utility value is serving as a currency for the dark economy.

Bitcoin is clearly neither money nor a currency but it is becoming an asset class.

The reason I missed 9 of the last 0 housing recessions in NZ is simply because I was too rational in my analysis on the overall return not the capital gain: Asian buyers and peoples innate desire for a secure house has increased faster than the stock of housing and ergo the prices have boomed.

newzealand-house-prices-gdp-per-cap

Its all about the capital gain in NZ but that doesn’t make the gain any less real if you cash it in.

I’m not pretending Bitcoin is perfect: there are security issues, and the price will be volatile, to name just two. But there is a longevity in the prposition that simply didn’t exist with Dutch Tulips (a fashionable perishable item amongst a small domestic population) or the South Sea Company (effectively a financial engineering that overreached combined with fraud).  Some of the Initial Coin Offerings are clearly fraud and a bubble but the more I read the more I can see a case for investing in Bitcoin: the rate of supply will grow less slowly than the rate of demand.

Gold has no value beyond what someone is willing to pay and and 37% of its demand come from people who just hold for “investment purposes”. A fraction of those people worldwide who decided to invest in Bitcoin would likely make it a great investment.

Gold-Demand-by-Source

But I still would pay someone £1100 for a three day couse to learn how to trade the stuff. I may regret that later but that is a bubble.

Interest rates rise in the UK after 10 years…

Liquidity used to mean cash in hand; now it means access to credit.

Henry Kaufman

When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results.

Warren Buffett

Given this blog is partly a diary I wanted to note for future reference. This is a bit wonkish and unless you are interested in the wider economic issues I’d suggest you ignore this post. It’s something I want as a note to self.

Last week base rate was raised in the UK by a mere .25% to .5%. I think its been lost is how long and extreme these rates have been and the side-effects of such extraordinarly low rates. Base rate dropped from 5.75% in 2007, to .05% in 2009 and remained there for the best part of 8 years.

I have been interested in interest rates from a young age, as I have written before one of my defining economic memories was the wage and price freeze in New Zealand. My parents were civil servants with fixed salaries, that were frozen by the government in an attempt to control inflation in 1982, a Labour government was elected and interest rates rose again and mortgage rates peaked at  over 20% briefly in 1985, and my parents nearly lost their house.

NZ Mortgage Interest Rates

NZ Interest rates

If you tell most people now that mortgages rates were 20% they would struggle to comprehend it. Yes inflation was much higher, but that’s my point: just how different the modern economy is. It changes so incrementally you can easily lose sight of the changes and also we are used to a lack of volatility in the economy.

The New Zealand Experiment, as it was later dubbed, included many measures that are standard economic perscriptions now, but they included being the first country in the world to grant the central bank autonomy to set interest rates taking into account inflation and monetary stability only.

The defining economic period for my professional career has been called “The Great Moderation”, the taming of business cycle volatility led to fairly consistent economic growth . The term is normally applied to the US where the name originated but was a fairly consistent pattern in the Western World. The downside was it created hubris amongst central bankers, who ignored the genius of Minsky and the financial imbalances building up in the economy, and led to the Global Financial Crisis… The apogee of this institutional arogance could well be this cringe-inducing speech Gordon Brown gave at Mansion House on the 20th of June 2007:

So I congratulate you Lord Mayor and the City of London on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.

And I believe the lesson we learn from the success of the City has ramifications far beyond the City itself – that we are leading because we are first in putting to work exactly that set of qualities that is needed for global success:

  • openness to the world and global reach,
  • pioneers of free trade and its leading defenders,
  • with a deep and abiding belief in open markets,
  • champions of diversity in ownership and talent, and of flexibility and adaptability to change, and
  • a basic faith that from wherever it comes and from whatever background, what matters is that the talent, ingenuity and potential of people is harnessed to drive performance.

And I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created.

In August 2007 the interbank market effectively froze while the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve were forced to inject massive liquidity into the system. The US housing market collapsed over the following summer and Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15 2008.

The three main reasons advanced for the Great Moderation are:

  • Good luck: The shocks that derailed growth and price stability in the 1970s and early 1980s failed to rear their ugly heads over the subsequent 20 years.
  • Structural change: Improved information technology, especially related to inventory management, and financial deregulation resulted in much smoother economic progress.
  • Better monetary policy: Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker set a precedent of aggressively reining in inflation.

Unsurprisingly St Louis Fed officials think the last two reasons were more important.

And the rest is economic history as even the Queen realised. And Brown’s 2007 view of a new industrial revolution based on self-regulation of the finance and shadow banking industry turned into an enormous taxpayer funded rescue of that same industry. Although I will give Brown some credit for ensuring the UK didn’t join the Euro he really didn’t deserve to ever be PM after such an enormous lapse in judgement and is a prime example of what economists call regulatory capture.

Cometh the hour and cometh the man… Ben Bernanke, a great and assiduous scholar of the Great Depression is in the Fed along with the intellectual Mervyn King at the Bank of England, and reluctantly Mario Monti at the ECB. Recognising that banking failure was a great cause of prolonging the downturn they flooded the market with liquidity and a core part of doing this was keeping interest rates low, but not saisfied with that they enourmously expanded the money supply. While there is no doubt the measures undertaking to keep the payments infratsructure working and financial markets open stopped another great depression there was a flip side:

since the 2008 credit crisis, it has risen sharply: the level of global debt to gross domestic product is now 40 per cent — yes, 40 per cent — higher than it was in 2008. The world has responded to a crisis caused by excess leverage by piling on more, not less, debt.

Major Central Bank Balance Sheets (Assets)

Major CB BS

The resulting asset price inflation that can be seen post 2008 is obvious:

Asset price inflation.jpg

This isn’t really the place to go into it but there is a big debate in economics between those who argue the structure and function of the financial infratsructure is important, and therefore favour raising interest rates, and another camp of economists who view money as merely a signalling device and believe in the “neutrality of money”, and want to keep interest rates low until economies revover to an output level that relfects the long run trend (since the 2008 crisis all G8 economies have grown below this). Despite promoting Keynsian type measures it should be noted Keynes rejected the neutrality of money both in the short and the long run. It may surprise non-economic readers to know the core models most economists in use assume the neutrality of money yet most economists who work in financial markets don’t accept money neutrality either.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the market itself is driving interest rates down, Bernanke argues there has been a savings “glut” with Asia pushing capital West to find a safe home. As Cabellero et al., note:

For the last few decades, with minor cyclical interruptions, the supply of safe assets has not kept up with global demand. The reason is straightforward: the collective growth rate of the advanced economies that produce safe assets has been lower than the world’s growth rate, which has been driven disproportionately by the high growth rate of high-saving emerging economies such as China. If demand for safe assets is proportional to global output, this shortage of safe assets is here to stay.

My core problem with this, if anyone is still reading, is the structural reliance of debt in the economy without the safety of equity,. When the dotcom crash happened in 2000 it has minor effects on the rest of the conomy because it was equity financed. Credit recessions have more severe macro economic effects. The tax shield provided to debt over equity encourages share buybacks and leveraged finance over more cautious capital structures. I’m erring with the crowd who believe perpetually low interest rates are distorting the financial infratsructure.

And ultimately, as this seminal paper shows the economy has fundamentally changed as debt becomes a greater part of economic activity (see figure 1 at the top):

In the past four decades, the volume of private credit has grown dramatically relative to both output and monetary aggregates. The disconnect between private credit and (traditionally measured) monetary aggregates has resulted, in large part, from the shrinkage of bank reserves and the increasing reliance by financial institutions on non-monetary means of financing, such as bond issuance and inter-bank lending.

Private credit in advanced economies doubled relative to GDP between 1980 and 2009, increasing from 62% in 1980 to 118% in 2010. The data also demonstrate the breathtakingsurge of bank credit prior to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. In a little more than 10 years, between the mid-1990s and 2008–09, the average bank credit to GDP ratio in advanced economies rose from a little under 80% of GDP in 1995 to more than 110% of GDP in 2007.

What has been driving this great leveraging?…

[m]ortgage borrowing has accelerated markedly in the advanced economies after WW2, a trend that is common to almost all individual economies. Mortgage lending to households accounts for the lion’s share of the rise in credit to GDP ratios in advanced economies since 1980…The main business of banks in the early 1900s consisted of making unsecured corporate loans. Today, however, the main business of banks is to extend mortgage credit, often financed with short term borrowings.

 

Fig 3 The Great Remortgaging

The counter-arguement from (the Nobel Laureate) Shiller and the SNB. Although anyone still reading who has been in offshore or shipping will appreciate this diagram from the SNB:

Excess credit

Ultimately for 8 years, a third of my professional life, the economy has been marked by low interest rates and prior to that it was the great moderation. Ironically within this I choose to work in sector with enormous volatility which just highlights the huge variance within the averages of a modern economy.

Structural and cyclical cost reduction and demand

A good article in the FT (behind the paywall sorry) but the core point is that the supply chain had better get used to a low cost procurement environment for a long time:

[C]uts have been made across the industry, pushing investment down to historic lows. The average number of new oil and gas developments given the go-ahead globally has fallen from 35 a year between 2010 and 2014 to just 12 since 2015, according to Patrick Pouyanné, Total chief executive. This number will have to increase, he said, if a supply crunch is to be avoided in the 2020s. He and other executives stress that reduced spending also reflects efficiency gains in the industry, allowing companies to do more for less…
Many of the savings stem from cuts forced on suppliers, such as rig operators, which were in no position to resist as business dried up after the oil price crash. But Bernard Looney, head of exploration and production for BP, insisted that two-thirds of reductions are structural, rather than cyclical, and would be sustainable. “It’s as much a story of how bad the past was as how good we have become,” he said. “We got the cost of Mad Dog 2 [a development in the Gulf of Mexico] down from $20bn to $8bn but frankly we should never have been at $20bn in the first place.”

The fact is for both rigs and vessels there is huge latent capacity and this will mean the supply chain is under pricing pressure for years. Offshore supply has structurally changed: it will become dominated by a few large players with massive fleets and low margins that mean scale is vital. Subsea contracting looks set to be dominated by a few large profitable contractors, in a flight to quality, while offshore support vessel owners who supply them will find it harder to make money due to long-lived over capacity. All this is a structural change in the industry and there is likely to be lower industry profitability regardless of how big a rebound is (when compared to 2010-2014).

When the number of projects starts to rebound, and it will take a long time to re-employ the engineering capacity required to do this, there will be a cyclical upswing as overall demand for these assets increases. But this is unlikely to see the entire industry benefit as a smaller number of companies at the contracting end of the market will still be able to use their market power to charter in excess capacity at a low marginal cost.

Whereas pretty much al business models used to work in offshore  that is patently not the case now.