Generational change coming in North Sea DSV market…

I was told DeepOcean has hired Jerry Starling to set up a diving department: this marks the start of the new competitive landscape that looks set to shape up the North Sea saturation diving market. DeepOcean have the perfect competitive position to break into diving with a large backlog of work from windfarms (increasingly at depths that make SAT diving profitable), excellent relations with an IRM customer base, and a very good operations department skilled at running complex vessels like the Maersk Connector. Clients know and like them and diving is just a fill-in service.

But the real significance in economic terms of this is that it signals how the structure of the market no longer provides the profitability it used to. Quite simply a shortage of North Sea class DSVs, and the high fixed cost commitment to either a charter or ownership of one of these vessels, combined with the investment in location specific infrastructure that is expensive, provided a classic “barrier to entry” for North Sea diving that simply didn’t exist anywhere else. Over time these very high margins were noticed by vessel owners, who built new tonnage, and investors (like LDC and Oaktree) who added capacity, meaning even by 2014 margins were declining. Pretenders tried to imitate but either didn’t have the capital (Bluestream with the Toisa Paladin) or infratsructure (Mermaid/ KD Diving/ Mermaid Endurer).

While these very high margins made it sensible for these companies to invest in this business DeepOcean and to a lesser extent Boskalis were working away at the less sexy end of the market in trenching, ROVs, widfarm work under civils contracts. This work looked low margin in comparison but was completely countercyclical.

And then demand crashed and everyone got left with some very expensive vessels and not enough work as the IRM market declined more than people thought and the construction DSVs came down to take maintenance market share. First Harkand folded and now it appears almost certain Bibby Offshore will as well. Both have suffered for the same reason: if you pay c. $100-150m for a North Sea class dive vessel (or take on financial asset exposure to the same amount) you need 250-270 days utilisation to break even at around USD 150-180k per day. Since 2015 there has been nothing like that sort of utilisation, especially for the smaller players.

The market was bid down in 2016/ 2017  by reducing the day rates to effectively cash OpEx only with no return for the vessel. When you have the balance sheet of Subsea 7 and TechnipFMC this is sustainable for a while as effectively the equity portion of your balance sheet adjusts to reflect this. When you are highly leveraged with an undiversified business model, as both Harkand and Bibby Offshore were, that isn’t an option.

The loss is being taken on asset values, eventually DSVs will be mean reverting assets i.e. their value will be derived from the cash flow they generate and this implies a substantial reduction from the book value of some vessels. It is for this reason that I don’t think much has changed for the Nor bondholders: the two DSVs will only generate a minimal number of days work for the foreseeable future, with a high operating cost (including SAT maintenance), and as recent work has shown potentially long transit times. The capital value of such assets isn’t USD 60m and the really interesting thing will be how the next liquidity issue for the bonds is priced?

JS is close to The Contracts Department, who run the Nor vessels, but there has never been a better choice of DSVs. It would be hard to see DeepOcean going for two DSVs in one season so while this is better than nothing for the Nor bondholders it is very hard to see this being the “get out of jail card” they have been looking for. DeepOcean know the market well enough not to overpay for a vessel and it is highly likely they could get a risk based charter from Nor that would be lucky to be even cash flow even in one year. Given that the Atlantis needs serious crane work and a major thruster repair (at least) to get it working there would appear to be no way to avoid another cash call.

But it will be a different story for DeepOcean. They will gain a vessel on an extremely attractive charter and ease themselves into the SAT diving market with an OpEx margin and the vessel risk guaranteed. They will choose from Nor, Vard, Toisa, China Merchants (unlikely I agree), Keppel, and potentially the Topaz in terms of tonnage. DO will then drop a chartered vessel and try for maybe 180 days SAT diving in years 1 and 2, more if they get lucky. But the charter rate to support that, and therefore the capital value of the asset, isn’t USD 110m per vessel, or more for the Vard/ Keppel etc. DeepOcean’s shareholders don’t need to, and aren’t in the business of, helping distressed vessel sellers.

I have made my comments on McDermott and Bosklis before and see no need to repeat myself again. My view is that Boslalis with windfarm work are better placed than MDR to either buy Bibby Offshore or expand organically, as I am not close to McDermott I have no idea how aggressively they will chase this. But there is no doubt with substantial UK dredging, cable lay, and now Gardline Boskalis appear to have the most synergies for any deal.

The Bibby Offshore results were made public this week and I don’t want to say much. This blog was never meant to be anything other than my thoughts on how I had become involved in a credit bubble and other random thoughts.

My own view, as I have said many times before, is that Bibby Offshore will not survive this. The problems involved in a recapitalization are intractable and restructuring is more likely, with a trade sale of certain assets being the most likely outcome, and certainly in the bondholders’ best economic interests should a competitve auction be established. It gives me no pleasure to write this because my time at BOHL was an enormous learning experience and for the most part enjoyable.

I could write a long post but the basic reason is very simple: the company borrowed too much money and the current shareholders simply do not have the financial resources to reverse this course or indeed (just as importantly) the economic rationale to do so. The bondholders lent them too much money, lending bullet repayment on depreciating assets is madness, maybe therein lies a solution, but I doubt it because the MSAs, systems etc have more value to a player growing organically than negotiating a massive writedown and capital injection for the bondholders.

No one in this market puts equity into a business behind £175m of debt and poor cash flow generation. No one will invest a super senior tranche because this isn’t simply a liquidity problem. The entity that has been created and the operating model is inherently uneconomic and the scale of change required too big and too risky for a private equity provider to follow it through in a way that would allow the company to remain independent (in my opinion).

Talk of BOHL lasting until 2018 is simply a fantasy to my mind and doesn’t reflect (again) the seriousness of the situation. Being down to £7.2m at June 30, after having gone through £62m cash in the last 12 months, and allowing a slower run rate loss now vessels have been redelivered/ entered lay-up, implies the cash would be down to about £5-6m now (allowing the 46% DSV utilisation BOHL stated). Someone really needs to explain why the June interest payment was made.

It is impossible to see the OpEx being funded by the RCF, and indeed without serious hope of a new investor, willing to be behind the revolver of £13.1m and agreeing a deal with the bondholders, and no backlog, the RCF offers no solution and only prolongs things.  As soon as those figures were published in SOR every CFO in ABZ told his project staff not to contract with BOHL as the credit risk is simply too great… its like a bank run that becomes self fulfilling.

It must be an extremely worrying time for the staff involved an my heart goes out to them (having been in that position once I can genuinely understand). One thing the Bibby Family/ BLG could do to minimise this is ensure all staff are paid their contractual notice period as under any reasonable financial/ legal assumptions the BOHL simply doesn’t have the money for these to be honoured and the legal structure would prevent them from being treated as preferred creditors.

A North Sea DSV market without Bibby Offshore turns the clock back 15 years. Two large integrated contractors will control the oil and gas construction market and two will dominate the IRM and windfarm market. They will meet in the middle on some jobs. But the overall industry will not return to the supernormal profits of earlier years due to persistent overcapacity of DSV tonnage and lower entry costs. Boskalis and DeepOcean are also likely to bring a degree of civils cost control to the industry that keeps margin depressed: it is a microcosm of the whole industry to my mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s