“I’ve long said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell. But it’s hard to see any good news in this.”
“In a business selling a commodity-type product, it’s impossible to be a lot smarter than your dumbest competitor”.
The Bank for International Settlements defines a Zombie Company as a “firm whose interest bill exceeds earnings before interest and taxes”. The reason is obvious: a firm who is making less in profits than it is paying in interest is likely to be able to eke out an existence, but not generate sufficient profits to invest and grow and adapt to industry changes. A firm in such a position will create no economic value and merely exist while destroying profit margins for those also remaining in the industry.
The BIS make clear that zombie companies are an important part of the economic make-up of many economies. I am sure sector level data in Europe would show offshore comfortably represented in the data.
Conversable Economist has an excellent post (from where I got the majority of my links for this post) on Zombie Companies and their economic effects, which timed with a post I have been meaning to right about 2018 which I was going to call “year of the zombie”. Zombie companies have been shown to exist in a number of different contexts: in the US Savings and Loans Crisis zombie firms paid too much in interest and backed projects that were too risky, raising the overall costs for all market players. Another example is Japan, where post the 1990 meltdown Hoshi and Kashyap found (in a directly analogous situation to offshore currently):
that subsidies have not only kept many money-losing “zombie” firms in business, but also have depressed the creation of new businesses in the sectors where the subsidized firms are most prevalent. For instance, they show that in the construction industry, job creation has dropped sharply, while job destruction has remained relatively low. Thus, because of a lack of restructuring, the mix of firms in the economy has been distorted with inefficient firms crowding out new, more productive firms.
In China zombie firms have been linked to State Owned Enterprises, and have been shown to have an outsize share of corporate debt despite weak fundamental factors (sound familiar?). The solution is clear:
The empirical results in this paper would support the arguments that accelerating that progress requires a more holistic and coordinated strategy, which should include debt restructuring to recognize losses, fostering operational restructuring, reducing implicit support, and liquidating zombies.”
The subsidies in offshore at the moment keeping zombie firms alive don’t come from central banks but from private banks, and sometimes poorly timed investments from hedge funds. Private banks are unwilling to treat the current offshore market as anything more than a market cycle change, as opposed to a secular change, and are therefore allowing a host of companies to delay principal payments on loans, and in most cases dramatically reduce interest payments as well, until a point when they hope the market has recovered and these companies can start making payments that would keep the banks from having to make material writedowns in their offshore portfolios.
Now to be clear the banks are (arguably) being economically rational here. Given the scale of their exposure a reasonable position is to try and hold on as the delta on liquidating now, versus assuming even a mild recovery, is massive because of the quantity of leverage in most of the offshore companies.
But for the industry as a whole this is a disaster. The biggest zombie company in offshore in Europe is SolstadFarstad, it’s ambition to be a world leading OSV company is so far from reality it may as well be a line from Game of Thrones, and a company effectively controlled by the banks who are unwilling to face the obvious.
A little context on the financial position of SolstadFarstad makes clear how serious things are:
- Current interest bearing debt is NOK 28bn/$3.6bn. A large amount of this debt is US$ denominated and the NOK has depreciated significantly since 2014, as have vessel values. SolstadFarstad also takes in less absolute dollar revenues to hedge against this;
- Market value equity: ~NOK 1.73bn/$ 220m;
- As part of the merger agreement payments to reduce bank loans were reduced significanlty from Q2 (Farstad)/Q3 (Solstad) 2017. YTD 2017 SOFF spent NOK ~1.5bn on interest and bank repayments which amounted to more than 3 x the net cash flow from actually operating all those vessels. While these payments should reduce going forward it highlights how unsustainable the current capital structure is.
The market capitalisation is significantly less than the cash SOF had on the balance sheet at the end of Q3 2017 (NOK 2.1bn). Supporting that enormous debt load are a huge number of vessels of dubious value in lay up: 28 AHTS, many built in Asia and likely to be worth significantly less than book value if sold now, 22 PSVs of the same hertiage and value and 6 ageing subsea vessels. The two vessels on charter to OI cannot be generating any real value and sooner or later their shareholders will have had as much fun as they can handle with a loss making contracting business.
But change is coming because at some point this year SolstadFarstad management are in for an awkward conversation with the banks about handing back DeepSea Supply (the banks worst nightmare), or forcing the shareholders to dilute their interest in the high-end CSV fleet in order to save the banks exposure to the DeepSea fleet (the shareholders worst nightmare and involves a degree of cognitive dissonance from their PSV exposure). Theoretically DeepSea is a separate “non-recourse” subsidiary, whether the banks who control the rest of the debt SolstadFarstad have see it quite that way is another question? It would also represent an enormous loss of face to management now to admit a failure of this magnitude having not prepared the market in advance for this?
Not that the market seems fooled:
SolstadFarstad is in a poor position anyway, the company was created because no one had a better idea than doing nothing, which is always poor strategic logic for a major merger. What logic there was involved putting together a mind numbingly complex financial merger and hoping it might lead to a positive industrial solution, which was always a little strained. But it suited all parties to pretend that they could delay things a little longer by creating a monstrous zombie: Aker got to pretend they hadn’t jumped too early and therefore got a bad deal, Hemen/Fredrikson got to put in less than they would have had to had DeepSea remained independent, the banks got to pretend their assets were worth more than they were (and that they weren’t going to have to kill the PSVs to save the Solstad), and the Solstad family got to pretend they still had a company that was a viable economic entity. A year later and the folly has been shown.
Clearly internally it is recongised this has become a disaster as well. In late December HugeStadSea announced they had doubled merger savings to 800mn NOK. The cynic in me says this was done because financial markets capitalise these and management wanted to make some good news from nothing; it doesn’t speak volumes they were that badly miscalculated at that start given these were all vessel types and geographic regions Solstad management understood. But I think what it actually reflects is that utilisation has been signifcantly weaker than the base case they were working too. Now Sverre Farstad has resigned from the Solstad board apparently unhappy with merger progress. I am guessing he is still less unhappy though than having seen Farstad go bankrupt which was the only other alternative? I guess this reveals massive internal Board conflict and I also imagine the auditors are going to be get extremely uncomfortable signing vessel values off here, a 10% reduction in vessel value would be fatal in an accounting sense for the company.
The market is moving as well. In Asia companies like EMAS, Pacific Radiance, Mermaid, and a host of others have all come to a deal with the banks that they can delay interest and principal payments. Miclyn Express is in discussions to do the same. This is the very definition of zombie companies, existing precariously on operating cash flows but at a level that is not even close to economic profitability, while keeping supply in the market to ensure no one else can make money either. Individually logical in each situation but collectively ruinuous (a collective action problem). These companies have assets that directly compete with the SolstadFarstad supply fleet, with significantly deeper local infratsructure in Asia (not Brazil), and in some cases better assets; there is no chance of SolstadFarstad creating meaningful “world class OSV company” in their midst with the low grade PSV and AHTS fleet.
Even more worrying is the American situation where the Chapter 11 process (and psyche) recognises explicitly the danger of zombie companies. Gulfmark and others have led the way to have clean, debt free, balance sheets to cope in an era of reduced demand. These companies look certain to have a look at the high-end non-Norwegian market.
SolstadFarstad says it wants to be a world leading OSV company that takes part in industry consolidation but: a) it cannot afford to buy anyone because it shares are worthless and would therefore have to pay cash, and b) it has no cash and cannot raise equity while it owes the banks NOK 28bn, and c) no one is going to buy a company where they have to pay the banks back arguably more than the assets are worth. SOF is stuck in complete limbo at best. Not only that as part of the merger it agreed to start repaying the banks very quickly after 2021. 36 months doesn’t seem very far away now and without some sort of magic increase in day rates, out of all proportion to the amount of likely subsea work (see above), then all the accelerated payment terms from 2022 will do is force the event. But still is can continue its zombie like existence until then…
In contrast if you want to look at those doing smart deals look no further than Secor/COSCO deal. 8 new PSVs for under $3m per vessel and those don’t start delivering for at least another 18 months. Not only that they are only $20m new… start working out what your 10 year old PSV is really worth on a comparative basis. There is positivity in the market… just not if you are effectively owned by the bank.
One of my themes here, highlighted by the graph at the top, is that there has been a structural change in the market and not a temporary price driven change in demand. Sooner or later, and it looks likely to be later, the banks are going to have to kill off some of these companies for the industry as a whole to flourish, or even just to start to undertake a normal capital replacement cycle. Banks, stuffed full with offshore don’t want to back any replacement deals for all but the biggest players, and banks that don’t have any exposure don’t want to lend to the sector. In an economy driven by credit this is a major issue.
I don’t believe recent price rises in oil will do anything for this. E&P budgets are set once a year, the project cycle takes a long time to wind up, company managers are being bonused on dividends not production, short cycle production is being prioritised etc. So while price rises are good, and will lead to an increase in work, the scale of the oversupply will ensure the market will take an even longer time to remove the zombie companies. At the moment a large number of banks are pretending that if you make no payments on an asset with a working life of 20-25 years, for 5 years (i.e. 20-25% of the assets economic life), they will not lose a substantial amount of money on the loan or need to write the asset down more than a token level. It is just not real and one day auditors might even start asking questions…
I don’t have a magic solution here, just groundhog day for vessel owners for a lot longer to come. What will be interesting this year is watching to see the scale of the charges some of the banks will have to make, a sign of the vessel market at the bottom will be when they start to get rid of these loans or assets on a reasonable scale.
Kill the zombies for the good of the industry, however painful that may be.