Low order backlog defines and highlights lack of current subsea recovery

Three companies that define the subsea industry reported numbers this week: Saipem, TechnipFMC (imagine if they had brought CGG!), and Subsea 7. All were widely varying but the clear theme of overcapacity/ underutilisation remains with subtle variations. Clearly the place to be if possible is light on core assets and long on engineering and execution capability if possible. The core question for the subsea industry remains what proportion of oil demand will be met by offshore production fields (and to a certain extent what the growth of overall demand will be)?

On future market demand the IEA was in the press again today with this:

Less than 5 billion barrels’ worth of conventional oil resources were sanctioned for development last year, down from almost 7 billion barrels in 2015 and 21 billion barrels in 2014, the year oil prices began their slide. Approvals of offshore projects, which are typically more expensive, fell disproportionately, representing 14 per cent of new project sanctions compared with more than 40 per cent on average over the previous 15 years.

Spending on exploration is on course to fall again for the third year running, the IEA said, reducing it to less than half the level seen in 2014, when it stood at more than $120 billion (£92.9 billion).

I have said here before I don’t see offshore production going away. Offshore will clearly continue to be a crucial part of the energy mix. The question, as always, is how much share as the vessel fleet has been built for a far bigger proportion than is currently being demanded. I heard repeated again last week that underinvestment in the current cycle makes a snap back “inevitable” and when this happens offshore will boom again. I’m just not sure I agree as the supply side seems to be out of all proportion to the market and the working capital subsea companies need who are too long on vessels may make the gap too long to bridge given how long it takes for projects to roll out post FID.

While the IEA warns of the this investment crunch Spencer Dale, Chief Economist at BP, is far more sanguine. I quote this speech all the time but its worth requoting a core point:

The US shale revolution has, in effect, introduced a kink in the (short-run) oil supply curve, which should act to dampen price volatility. As prices fall, the supply of shale oil will decline, mitigating the fall in oil prices.

Likewise, as prices recover, shale oil will increase, limiting any spike in oil prices.

Shale oil acts as a form of shock absorber for the global oil market…

To be clear: shale oil is the marginal source of supply only in a temporal sense. The majority of shale oil lies somewhere in the middle of the cost curve. As such, further out, as other types of production have time to adjust and oil companies have to take account of the cost of investing in new drilling rigs and operating platforms, the burden of adjustment is likely to shift gradually away from shale oil towards other forms of production, further up the cost curve.

 

(Emphasis added).

This was written in 2015 and its obvious now that this is exactly what has happened. The sceptic in me struggles with the core logic that rational economic actors are prepared to forgo potentially huge sums by not investing now. If this was such a slam dunk case as the IEA make out then why don’t some smart private equity firms partner with big oil (for the technical skills) and simply develop these fields, when construction costs are at an all-time low? The answer is because it isn’t that simple I suspect.

I am basically a weak-form efficiency believer. I think the oil market is largely rational in the long-run. The long run is a sufficiently amorphous and indeterminate period of time to say that at certain times it can be “irrational” (i.e. USD 27 was to low, but USD 130 was too high), but on average it helps demand and supply meet. But I do realise that one of the problems in the oil market is that many investors in their equity buy them as a dividend stock. Despite the fact that the underlying commodity is extremely volatile in short term pricing (and is likely to be a random walk in anything other than a 1-2 year period), and that therefore E&P companies should really pay out dividends as a proportion of earnings, they quite simply don’t. To E&P companies the dividend is regarded as sacrosanct. Financial economists know this phenomenan well and its formal definition comes in the “Bird in the hand” dividend theory or the “Dividend Clientele Hypothesis“. BIH argues that investors prefer the certainty of dividends to future capital gains and the DCH argues that certain types of investors favour companies that pay dividends (often because of tax or investment mandates). I think they are both right and that the supermajor shareholders in the main are made up of these types of investors.

This means that E&P companies would forgo likely payoffs in the future to keep shareholders happy now (especially as they could fund future CapEx from higher future prices). So I get this could this be happening. And the downside of course is that if you are wrong, and you have made a superbet on this market shortfall in 2020 (or whenever), you end up with a 25 year asset in (e.g.) offshore Brazil that cost USD 3-5bn that you can’t shut down or exit easily that is producing 100 000 bpd at a cost greater than their economic value. Clearly these sort of risk probably work better as part of a portfolio play and hence why the super majors exist: they are an economically rational response to the market issues.

It’s within this context that the results of these offshore contractors need to be seen. The common theme across the industry is that backlog is not returning as quickly as offshore contractors are burning through current work. The other common theme I think is a flight to quality where E&P companies are engaging with tier 1 contractors more and the smaller players will find it increasingly hard. Smaller E&P players Technip and Subsea 7 would never have bothered to court are flattered when they are pursued by these companies offering them the full suite of their capabilities and assets.

Subsea 7 came in with really good EBITDA numbers; but they had the benefit of delivering projects bid at higher margins while procurement is being done at a low point in the cycle. But the other thing Subsea 7 has done really well is utilisation: with fixed vessel costs so high any extra days drop straight to the bottom line. Active utilisation of 65% for their fleet is exceptional in this market (compare to Oympic). I have no idea if this is an apocrophyl story or not but I was told a year or so ago that Kristian Siem instructed Subsea 7 management that he personally has to sign off on all vessel charters using third-party tonnage now, to encourage projects crews to use a Subsea 7 or Siem vessel. Even if its not true I think the mindset is and it fits in with what all the line managers are saying about Subsea 7 in the market: they are extremely aggressive on vessel days (for example remving the Pelican from cold stack for Apache in the North Sea). Don’t get me wrong it’s smart and necessary: Subsea 7, with 34 vessels, just have to get them working or they will have a credit event, and its good execution.

But the Seven Mar and the Seven Navica are in still in cold stack. The Navica in particular is a talisman for North Sea construction activity. Until that vessel is busy doing small scale field developments then by definition the North Sea (an UKCS in particular) will be oversupplied with DSVs and overly dependent on maintenance rather than construction work. The fact that these assets are in cold stack (and it’s not only Subsea 7) means there is an enormous amount of latent capacity in the sysytem that could respond to increased E&P demand very quickly. Portable lay spreads and ad-hoc systems (like the one on the Bibby Polaris) have also grown in number in recent years and could be quickly activated.

Saipem also came in with a poor order book at 0.2x book-to-bill (i.e. it replaced 20% of the revenue billed this quarter with new work). It can overshadow the fact that Saipem is still a really big company with an annual turnover of 10bn, a great franchise in some very difficult regions (which make it less margin sensitive), and a wealth of technical expertise. But the problem Saipem has is that it is an average drilling company and a quality subsea/ pipeline company. All the drilling companies are restructuring and coming back with very strong balance sheets for the next few years and Saipem has some major drilling contract renewals next year and its not hard to see revenue dropping like a stone in that business. Having raised €3.5bn in a rights issue Saipem then had to go back and write €2.1bn off (non cash), but it is trying to pay back its lenders 100c in € whereas all their competitors are engaged in debt-for-equity swaps. It’s totally unsustainable. Not like EZRA where it was obviously going to happen near term, this is a slow battle of attrition as more and more time and equity gets devoted to the Sisyphian task of trying to generate economic value with an overvalued asset base (in a relartive sense) that has a higher fixed cost base.

Which is a shame because the Saipem offshore construction business, with a fleet of quality assets, an eviable project track record, and huge intellectual capital, despite being buried in a Byzantine organisational structure, is a great business. With the right balance sheet and strategic direction the Saipem Offshore E&C business could be a world leader, it is long all the assets you can’t possibly charter (nor would you want to), such as heavylift and and pipelay (J and S), and long on engineering capability. Every other subsea asset you can be short on at the moment because the vessel market is oversupplied and will be for a long time. Even diving for shallow water construction can be handled internally with chartered tonnage.

There is no real resolution here. Saipem is reorganising (again).  But I doubt you could could realistically seperate out the different divisions in an equitable way from a capital markets perspective. From a subsea perspective the remaining three business lines (onshore and offshore drilling) will just detract from the potential of what should be a tier 1 powerhouse (even if it does make the Italian post office look efficient).

Which brings us on nicely to TechnipFMC… low order book in Subsea while reasonably good numbers. It is the industry bellweather at the moment, no one can do in deepwater what they can, and if they cannot replace their orderbook  the total addressable market will be smaller.

I’m clearly no expert on the oil market but it is clear that offshore investment does not appear to have stabilised yet. Until the core companies in the industry have reasonable amounts of backlog it is too early to talk of a recovery. And the IEA may be right that we are currently underinvesting, but for offshore the key is the snapback: if it comes, it is likely to be less dramatic for anyone who is too long on vessel capacity, but for those with delivery capability and intellectual property it is a different story.

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