I don’t get the ROV business. At the small end numerous small firms, often with private equity money, all with exactly the same strategy of getting cheap ROVs and finding a (desperate) vessel operator to charter them the vessel for next to nothing on a profit share. They all have exactly the same business model and have no ability to differentiate on anything other than price, entry barriers are low, and buyers have a vast array of choice. It is a textbook example of an industry structure designed to produce poor profitability. Against this there are large international contractors who make minimal profit but clearly have enough capital and cash to have staying power. Surely, if demand remains at current levels something has to give?
Back in February Reach Subsea raised money, I didn’t get their logic, or that of people backing it, and I don’t get it now. However, unlike ROVOP, M2, and a host of others, they are publicly listed so you can get access to exactly how they are performing, and I would be really surprised if any of the other smaller companies are doing any differently given their business model and strategy are exactly the same. It is also worth noting that Oceaneering, the worlds biggest ROV company by some margin, has just reiterated its commitment not to pay dividends until the market improves. So with all the benefits of scale that Oceaneering has they still cannot return any cash to investors for all their free cash flow.
Now Reach Subsea are maybe great engineers and operations people, and they may have good relations with Statoil, but here in essence is the problem:
Compared to 2016 in 2017 Reach sold 49% more ROV days, 63% more offshore personnel days, and 35% more vessel days and yet increased turnover by only 10%. It is the very definition of business facing decreasing returns to capital: For every unit of capital they throw at the market they get a decreasing amount of economic value back. (I won’t even get into the EBITDA and operating loss because they brought some equipment during the year and claim to be building up scale, but the turnover number tells you all you need to know).
This is interesting as well:
To get 360m in sales in 2017 cost 387m in direct expenses. Or look at it another way: it cost 387m to sell 360m. That is a totally unsustainable business model. I get they are working their way out of terminating some historic vessel charters but businesses that cannot make an operating profits are axiomatically dependent on external funding eventually. Like everyone else in the ROV space this business is simply keeping capacity going while waiting for other people to drop out of the market and wait for the magical demand fairy to appear and save everyone.
Despite this they are opening an office in Houston, which is a major expense for a company of this size, to offer exactly what everyone else in the market there does: cheap ROVs on vessels with no commitments. Like everyone else they are doing loads of tendering and are in advanced discussions with potential clients. I get the US has the best structural growth characteristics of any ROV market, but there are a lot of companies there doing exactly this, and firms like Bibby had to pull out despite investing substantial amounts in kit and infrastructure.
I therefore find it amazing that you can get comments like this:
And then get this:
What attractive growth opportunities? The installation market is forecast to be flat next year and the IRM will grow modestly but nowhere near enough to soak up excess capacity. But despite this the obvious answer is to go to Houston, well behind ROVOP, M2 … ad infinitum…
But clearly some people disagree because despite everything I have written above look at the Reach share price:
Up 42% in the last 12 months. 20% since November. Not only that the company according to Bloomberg is trading 1.6x book value which implies that the asset base can generate signficant value (Tobin’s Q) above its cost. For a company where the operating losses were NOK -17m and the Depreciation charge was NOK 27m that is verging on the astonishing, and definitely on the irrational.
You can say the stockmarket is meant to anticipate forward earnings and I agree, but there is nothing structural in the market that would lead you to believe 2018 is going to be very different from 2017 (as the graph from Oceaneering in the header makes clear). I get Reach have announced over 100 days work recently, but without any information on day rates and margin levels can you believe it is value accretive?
The longer all the ROV companies remain in business and keep capacity high it guarantees that margins will be breakeven-to-low in the best case for everyone in the game. This is an industry that built capacity for 349 tree installations in 2014 and is coping with 243 in 2018 (a 44% decrease), and at the moment the new investors piling in are simply providing a subsidy for the E&P companies who take rates at below economic levels.
It is only a question of which tier 2 companies leave the market if The Demand Fairy doesn’t make a rapid deus ex machina appearence soon. This is an industry with too much capacity and capital relative to demand and the equity market here is sending the wrong price signal about allocating more capital.