Industry consolidation and market power… Is consolidation really the solution?

Last week the creation of a new offshore company was announced: Telford Offshore. I presume financially related to Telford International. The company has purchased the four Jascon vessels for USD 215m and looks to be setting up a UAE/ Africa subsea construction and IMR business. I know one of the guys there and wish them all the best of luck, they are a strong team and seem likely to make it work having both financial backing, local connections, and managerial skill.

From an industry perspective though it is a microcosm of why I think industry profitability will elude those long on vessels for a prolonged period of time without a significant change on the demand side. Telford isn’t taking capacity out of the market, it is merely recapitalising assets at a lower valuation level, and giving them the working capoital to operate, and it will compete with other existing companies for work in the region. That excess capacity competes on price is as close to an iron law as you can get in economics and something everyone in the offshore industry knows intuitively to be true at the moment.

The talk in the industry at the moment is all about consolidation and how that will save everyone… but I don’t see it? Consolidation is only beneficial if it generates maket power and therefore some ability to charge higher prices to E&P companies: A bigger company in-and-of-itself is of no economic benefit unless it can generate economies of scale or scope i.e. a) lower unit costs, or, b) lower integration costs of supplying a range services . At the moment, in both subsea and supply, there is no evidence that this is the case.

The large subsea companies are currently all reporting book-to-bill numbers of less than 1 (apart from maybe McDermott), that means they are burning through work faster than they are replacing it, and this is consistent with the macro numbers. This is happening because the market is contracting in both volume, and especially, value terms. Simply adding another UAE/ West African contractor to the mix will only prolong this problem in the region. Not that it is unique to the region, as the industry grew up until 2014 a host of tier 2 construction companies grew their geographic footprint and asset base as well. Now they are committed to those regions because they have no economic option but to stay. Over time, as all the companies compete against each other for minimal profits, not everyone will be able to afford to replace their asset base, that is how capital will leave the industry and how it will rebalance on the supply side; but when you have gone long on very specific 25 year construction assets it takes a long while!

It is a fundamental tenent of ecoomics that industry profits, outside of firm specific events, is a function of industry concentration. Every person who has done a ‘Porter’s Five Forces’ analysis is actually using a microeconomic model that has a deep intellectual heritage in examining if the structure of markets drives profitabilty. More recent research has highlighted firm specific factors in determining profitability, but market power, firm concentration, normally the result of consolidation, is always crucial. That is why competition authorities focus on market power when looking at whether they should allow transactions that heighten market power to progress: because scale allows firms to drive pricing power.

A normal threshold for competition authorities to get concerned about market power is ~40% market share level for any one company, and often they like to see 3 or more companies in total, below this level it is understood that consumers have options and companies will compete on price to a certain extent. While Technip and Subsea 7 dominate the market for subsea installations they have nothing like that level of market share. Any large project could theoretically go to Saipem, McDermott as well at a minimum, and below large projects an E&P company is spoilt for choice. In other words there is no pricing power at all for offshore contractors, and as all they have all committed to assets with high fixed costs, and low relative marginal costs, vessel days are essentially “disposable inventory” that must be sold or paid for anyway (just like a low-cost airline) and have no other uses.

The scale of consolidation that would have to occur in order to generate any pricing power for the contracting community defies any realistic prospect of execution for the next few years. It will happen, and slowly, but the scale of the change will be enormous, and as it nears its final stages expect the E&P companies to protest vigorously to competition authorities. Instead of the vessel companies and the subsea production system companies getting closer, eventually, the vessel companies will start to be acquired or merge. But until savings in replacement capital can be made, a while away given the huge new building programme we have had in the vessel fleet between 2010 and 2014, then it will not make sense for an acquisition premium/ nil premium merger to unlock these cost savings. One day it will be cheaper, for example, for Subsea 7 to buy the Saipem business than set out on a new build programme (through both cost savings and reduced CapEx)… but we are some way from that point and a long way from the institutions themselves accepting this.

It is even worse in offshore supply. A measure for assessing market power in economics is the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (also used widely by competition authorities) to assess if markets have concentration levels that would allow their participants to extract excess profits through concentration. I went to calculate this quickly (the math is not difficult) based on this data from Tidewater:

Tidewater scale and scope.png

The US Justice Dept gets concerned if the HHI number comes in at 1500-2500 and is likely to take action if the number is above 2500 and there is a 200 point movement based on anyone transaction. The supply industry has an HHI well below 1000. Bourbon, the largest company with a 6% market share, only has an HHI score of 36! All the named companies on this slide could merge and chances are the DOJ would wave the deals through because it wouldn’t think the enlarged mega company would still have any pricing power (this is a reductio ad absurdum here and clearly a real situation would be more complicated) and would therefore be able to extract excess rents.

Not only that entry costs/barrier in offshore supply are nothing which just dilutes any possible positive effects consolidation could bring: Standard Drilling can buy supply vessels for $12m and park them in a reconstructed North Sea operator and compete against SolstadFarstad and Tidewater? So how does merging all of the PSV assets that makeup HugeStadSea make any difference?

In offshore contracting it is not just construction assets like Telford, a host of ROV companies now don’t need to buy or charter vessels but merely pay on use allowing a host of small companies to enter the industry. ROVOP, M2, Reach, and a host of others have entered the industry and kept capacity (or potential capacity) high and margins low with vessel operators supplying vessels below economic cost while the ROV contractors make a margin on equipment they brought at 30c in the $1 and well below replacement CapEx levels. MEDS despite defaulting on a number have charters have been given the Swordfish to operate on charter!

The high capital values of these assets encourages investors to supply working capital to keep the assets working knowing they are competing against others who paid a higher capital value. It is a very hard dynamic to break and I don’t see a huge difference between offshore supply and subsea in economic structure which is why I deliberately merged the industries here.

Part of the reason consolidation doesn’t work is because the costs of the fixed assets, and the costs to run them, are so high in relation to the operational costs. The fixed costs of the vessels, and the non-reducible operating costs dominate expenditure, getting rid of a few back-office staff, who represent less than a few % of the day rate of a vessel just doesn’t make a big enough difference overall.

Another reason is the banks are still pretending they have value way above levels where deals such as Telford are priced at. No amount of consolidation to remove some minor backoffice costs can make up for the scale of capital loss they have in reality will solve this. If Standard Drilling is buying large Norwegian PSVs in distress for $12m, and SolstadFarstad has similar vessels on the books for $20m, then you can’t consolidate costs that would be capitalised at $8m per vessel no matter how many other companies you buy. The same goes for subsea only the numbers are bigger and more disproportionate.

So when someone tells you the answer is consolidation the real question is why?

 

That consolidation is the answer is simply an economic myth. Gales of Schumpterian creative destruction are the only real solution here barring some miraculous development on the demand side of the market.

3 thoughts on “Industry consolidation and market power… Is consolidation really the solution?

  1. A well thought through article and especially very valid points on the so-called consolidation mantra as well as the emphasis on SG&A expenses. One more dynamic that I would like to add is the advent of new technologies which is eventually going to further impact utilization levels especially on IMR related activities (same is true with drilling programmes which impacts rig as well as supply vessel utilization).

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  2. i have been following your posts and been very impressed by your deep thoughts. It does seem that there is no way out of the current situation for vessel owners unless bank give the vessels for free or virtually free and that all excess capacity (like beyond 10 years vessel) retired or scrap ? I am curious if you have any advice or solutions to vessel owners who are stuck with their precious vessels purchased in the boom time – 2011 to 2014?

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