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.

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