What matters more firm or industry?

So for Reach Subsea it all comes down to Q3 and Q4 this year… having raised money in February, the company came in came in with some significant losses in profit and cash flow but is fully confident its all coming right in the next two quarters. I don’t know they people from Reach, all of whom look to be very talented individuals, but I am interested in the company because I can’t think of a more structurally unattractive industry to be in than ROVs at the moment, and all the people I know in the ROV game tell me how hard it is currently with everything going out for free virtually bar personnel.

Reach has a host of competitors: i.e. M2, ROVOP, Bibby, and then the larger competitors. This is a fragmented industry and this is because the entry costs are low and the gains from scaling up the business so small given the fixed cost nature of per unit output. All the smaller companies in particular are simply finding desperate vessel owners and putting an ROV on their boat: it is not an original strategy and not one that strikes me as having great longevity once the market balances more. Every single company with ROVs is trying to hire a few project engineers and say they offer a full service not just taking hire revenue… it’s brutal and E&P companies/contractors/vessel owners are driving very hard pricing and contractual terms.

This chart from Oceaneering shows the scale of competition Reach and the other small companies are up against:

OII Vessel Fleet 31 Mar 2017.png

That is from an asset base of 282 units and strong stable revenue drill support market – although with low margins.

Last week Bibby gave up the game in Asia and sold its ROVs to Shelf for a few million. The transaction will likely reduce their revenue and cash generation potential and will make investors even more cognizant of the fact that the depleting asset base will not make paying the bond investors back possible. But as the noose of an interest bill of £35k per day tightens few options were left. The numbers I have heard suggest a sale way below book value of the asset base and that is common across the industry and the reason for that is like vessels the ROVs cannot generate the amount of cash required to pretend historic values reflect current economic values (~USD 7.5m).

I use Oceaneering as a proxy for the industry simply because with 28% of the total ROV fleet they are clearly representative of the market as a whole. Reach is simply the only listed entity of the pure play ROV companies and it therefore makes it easy to get information but the comments I make about them are appropriate for any of the smaller companies. Oceaneering has also announced it is going to focus on vessel based units and has put 18 units on long-term contract with Heerema and Maersk, and this surely is the future? Consolidation of the contractor base will see larger procurement orders from larger companies, or worse a host of smaller companies on both the vessel and the ROV side stay and operate at a subeconomic level because the exit costs would see them realise nothing?

I find the ROV industry interesting from the point-of-view of firm versus industry effects: In 1985 Richard Schmalensee published a seminal paper “Do Markets Matter?” Schmalensee was trying to ascertain if strategy was simply a matter of picking markets with strong structural characteristics, the focus of the famous “Porter’s Five Forces Analysis”, or if firms had innate features that allowed them to generate returns regardless of poor markets? A later line of enquiry that became known as ‘The Resource-Based View of the Firm (RBV)” and was made famous in management circles by the book “Competing for the Future” where the idea of Core Competencies entered the business vernacular (its digestibility masking the deep academic heritage of the ideas).

For what it’s worth I don’t think the debate on firm versus industry has been completely solved but it points to the likelihood of certain events. As always with economics you can find good arguments for both sides: Rumelt (“How much does industry matter?“) argued pace Schlmalensee that industry effects were outweighed by firm effects, McGahan and Porter (“How much does industry matter really?“) argued that actually the relationship is complex but with a weighting to firm effects being stronger, but more so in service firms whereas Wenerfelt and Montgomery (“Tobin’s q and the Importance of Focus in Firm Performance“) agree industry effects are strong but some firms defy them and outperform. I could go on…

This article seems to suggest why you can find evidence of both firm effects and industry effects:

In other words, only for a few dominant value creators (leaders) and destroyers (losers) do firm-specific assets seem to matter significantly more than industry factors. For most other firms, i.e., for those that are not notable leaders or losers in their industry, however, the industry effect turns out to be more important for performance than firm-specific factors

It’s not everything either… size does matter: profits are positively correlated to size in broad cross-sectional research.

I read it that you are either a statistical outlier or the fact is the industry effects will dominate your likely financial performance. The clues to being an outlier, originally called strategic rent factors by economists, but made far more palatable by the consultants who created entire teams that specialised in “core competencies”, are now well accepted. To be a positive outlier Peteraf outlines:

four conditions must be met for a firm to enjoy sustained above-normal returns. Resource heterogeneity creates Ricardian or monopoly rents. Ex post limits to competition prevent the rents from being competed away. Imperfect factor mobility ensures that valuable factors remain with the firm and that the rents are shared. Ex ante limits to competition keep costs from offsetting the rents.

In diagrammatical form it looks like this:

Cornerstone of competitive advantage.png

Note economists call profits above breakeven “economic rents”. I should obviously point out that while it’s easy to look back with hindsight about this creating these rents is considerably more difficult and represents the dividing line between economics and management.

The diagram in simply says:

  1. Heterogeneity: Firms must be different and the profits must come from limiting the supply of factors (monopoly) or an inability to increase those factors that drive profits in the short run (Ricardian)
  2. Ex post limits: Essentially the imperfect imitability and substitution from the ‘Porters’ Five Forces’… not everyone can copy what your firm does or replace your product service with a substitute
  3. Imperfect mobility: A competitor can’t just go and buy your superior skills on the market. For example anyone could approach Airbus suppliers but could they really build a plane?
  4. Ex-ante limits: Not everyone decides to do the same thing before it becomes profitable.

Prahalad and Hamel became famous because the summed this up with three factors they said made something a “Core Competency” if it:

  1. Provides potential access to a wide variety of markets.
  2. Should make a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefits of the end product.
  3. Difficult to imitate by competitors.

So to bring all this back to the ROV market I think you can argue that a wide base of economic research says this is structurally a very unattractive market: low barriers to entry, easy substituability and imitability, high customer bargaining power, and intense competiton. And I look at most of the small ROV firms, not just Reach, and I see no core competencies or economic factors that would give rise to economic rents (i.e. profits above break-even) and a lot of red ink still being spilled. I see lots of good relationships, smart people, and great technical skills; what I don’t see is a lot of differentiation on anything other than price.

All of which leads me to believe none of the smaller ROV firms satisfy any of the conditions that would allow them to be statistical outliers against industry trends. They are all offering to put cheap ROVs on vessels and work at marginal cost only hoping someone else goes out of business first which makes them a hostage to industry forces only. I can’t see anything other than a wave of consolidation as the larger companies, who can manage their ROVs cost base better by cross-subsidising it while times are poor, taking the smaller companies who eventually struggle to fund OpEx. Sooner or later there needs to be a reduction in the number of operating ROVs to restore the industry to “normal”/breakeven profitability and the smaller companies simply lack commitment that the larger companies have.

I could be wrong… I have been before… I miscalculated for example how good a deal Subsea7 had struck on the EMAS Chiyoda assets … and I think we are in for a better market in some segments in 18 than 17, but continued cost pressure will favour well capitalised substantial companies in this industry not start-ups/growth companies I feel in this market segment… but getting there could be financially painful.

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