HugeStadSea goes wrong…

If completed, the Combination is expected to provide Solstad Offshore, Farstad and Deep Sea with an industrial platform to sustain the current downturn in the offshore supply vessel (“OSV”) market and be well positioned to exploit a market recovery. The Board of Directors of the three companies consider this to be a necessary structural measure that will enable the Merged Group to achieve significant synergies through more efficient operations and a lower cost base. The Combination will influence the SOFF Group’s financial position as total assets and liabilities as well as earning will increase substantially.

SolstadFarstad merger prospectus, 2017

This was always going to happen… nice timing though… just a few days before Easter, with everyone looking the other way, and only a short time before the Annual Report was due (with its extensive disclosures required), SolstadFarstad has come clean and admitted that Solship Invest 3 AS, more familiarly known as Deep Sea Supply, is in effect insolvent, being unable to discharge its debts as they fall due and remain a credible going concern:

As previously announced, Solstad Farstad ASA’s independent subsidiary, Solship Invest 3 AS and its subsidiaries are in discussions with its financial creditors aiming to achieve an agreement regarding the Solship Invest 3 AS capital structure.

As part of such discussions, Solship Invest 3 AS and its subsidiaries have today entered into an agreement with its major financial creditors to postpone instalment and interest payments until 4 May 2018.

I am not a lawyer but normally getting into agreements and discussions like this triggers the cross-default provisions of debts, including the bonds which look set for a default… and this would make all of the c. NOK 28bn debt become classed as short-term (i.e. payable immediately). Maybe they saw this coming and omitted those clauses when the loans were reorganised, but its a key provision, and I struggle to see it getting through compliance and lawyers without this? But it strikes me as a crucial question. The significance of this for those wondering where I am going with this is that it would be hard to argue SolstadFarstad is actually a going concern at that point. Maybe for a short while, but getting the 2017 accounts signed off like that I think would be tricky (ask EMAS/EZRA).

Investors, having been told  how well the merger is going, may want to have a think if they have been kept as informed as they would like here? There is nothing in this statement on 19 Dec 2017 for example to reflect clearly how serious things were at Deep Sea Supply. Indeed this statement appears to be destined for future historians to recall a management team blithly unaware of their precarious position:

With the reduced cost base we will be more competitive and with our high quality vessels and operations, we will be in a very good position when the market recovers.

The PR team may have liked that statement but surely more cautious lawyers would have wanted to add the rider “apart from Deep Sea Supply which is rapidly going bankrupt and the vessels are worth considerably less than their outstanding mortgages. We anticipate in the next 12 weeks defaulting on our obligations here until a permanent solution is found.” To make the above statement, when 1/3 of merger didn’t have a realistic financial path to get to this mythical recovery is extraordinary.

But the real and immediate problem the December 19 press release highlights is that in an operational sense Deep Sea Supply has been integrated into the operations of HugeStadSea:

The merger was formally in place in June 2017 and based on the experiences from the first six months in operation as one company, Solstad Farstad ASA is now increasing the targeted annualized savings to NOK 700 – 800 mill.

By the end of 2017 the cost reductions relating to measures already implemented represents annualized savings of approximately NOK 400 mill…

new organization structure implemented and the administration expenses have been reduced by combining offices globally and centralization of functions.

The synergies laid out here can only be achieved by getting rid of each individual company’s systems and processes and integrating them as one, indeed that is the point of the merger? So how do you hand Deep SeaSupply back to the banks now? For months management consultants from Arkwright have been working with management and Aker to turn three disparate companies into one, now apparently, as an afterthought, the capital structure needs sorting as well along with disposing of “non core” fleet. Quite why you would get into a merger to create the largest world class OSV fleet while simulataneously combining it with a “non core” fleet at the same time (that wasn’t mentioned in the prospectus) is a question that seems to be studiously avoided?

Just as importantly going forward here management credibility is gone. Either you were creating a “world class OSV company” with the scale to compete, or you weren’t, in which case taking on the Asian built, and pure commodity tonnage of Deep Sea Supply was simply nuts.

Around 12 months after the merger announcement, and six momths after the legal consumation, when managers have had sufficient day rate and utilisation knowledge to build a semi-accurate financial forecast, they are back to the drawing board. If SolstadFarstad hand the Deep Sea fleet back to the banks they will have to either fire-sale the fleet or build up a new operational infrastructure to run the vessels independently of SolstadFarstad… does anyone really believe the banks will allow that to happen? The problem is the tension between the different banking syndicates: a strong European presence behind SolstadFarstad and Asian/Brazilian lenders to Deep Sea. This is likely to get messy.

Is Deep Sea Supply really ringfenced from SolStadFarstad? Will the lending banks be able to force SolStadFarstad to expose themselves more to the Deep SeaSupply vessels? As an independent company Deep Sea Supply would have been forced to undergo a rights issue, and if not supported by John Fredrikson/Hemen it would have in all likelihood have gone bankrupt, the few hundred million NOK Hemen putting into the merger barely touched the sides here. For the industry that would have been healthy, but for the banks a nuclear scenario. Now management face a highly embarrassing stand-off with the banks to force them to take the vessels back, or the equally highly embarrassing scenario of admitting that the shareholders were exposed to the Deep Sea Supply fleet all along, and that the assumptions underpinning this deal were wrong… Something easily foreseeable at the time to all but the wilfully blind.

The “project to spin off the non-core fleet”, which I have commented on before, is the Deep Sea Supply fleet that makes a mockery of the industrial logic of the merger. That was started in Q3 2017 according to their annoucements, only a few months later needs to be sold? What is the plan here? Or more accurately is there one?

There are no good options here. The only credible option for the management team and Board to survive unscathed would surely be the banks writing down their stake in Deep Sea Supply entirely and making a cash contribution to SolstadFarstad to recognise the time and costs involved in running it. You can mark that down as unlikely. But just as unlikely is a recovery in day rates where Deep Sea Supply can hope to cover its cash costs even in the short term

The Board of SolsatdFarstad and their bankers need to ask some searching questions here. The merger was a very bad idea that was then executed poorly.  It is therefore hard to argue SolstadFarstad have the right skills in place at a senior management and Board level? This wasn’t a function of a bad market, this was the result of bad decisions taken in a bad market. This constant mantra that scale will solve everything, when the company has no scale, needs to be challenged. The other issue is how disconnected management seem to be from basic market pricing signals, and moving the head office away from its current location should also be seriously considered along with a changing of the guard.

I said at the time this merger was the result of everyone wanting to believe something that couldn’t possibly be true and merely delaying for time, but eventually reality dawns as the cash constraint has become real. The banks need to write off billions of NOK here for this to work. Probably, like Gulfmark and Tidewater, the entire Deep Sea Supply/ Solstad/Farstad PSV and smaller AHTS fleet need to be equitised at a minimum, and some of the older vessels disposed of altogether. The stunning complexity of the original merger, where legal form trumped economic substance, needs to be reversed to a large degree, but this will not be easy as the shareholders in the rump SolstadFarstad will surely balk at being landed with trading their remaining economic interests for a clearly uneconomic business.

The inevitable large restructuring that will occur here arguably marks the start of the European fleets and banks catching up with their American counterparts, and to some degree matching the pace of the Asian supply fleets. The banks behind this need to start a series of writedowns that will be material and will affect asset values accross the sector. Reporting season will get interesting as everyone tries to pretend their vessels are worth more than Solstad’s and the accountants get worried about their exposure if they sign off on this.

A common fault of all the really bad investments in offshore since 2014 was people simply pretending the market is going to miraculously swing back into a state that was like 2013. It was clear late in 2016 this would not happen. The stronger that view has been has normally correlated with the (downside) financial impact on the companies in question, and there is no better case study than HugeStadSea.

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