For the tier 2 contractors summer isn’t coming… a long hard grind beckons…

Back in the dark ages of November 2016 a consensus was forming amongst the more optimistic of the subsea and investment community: things had got so bad there must be an upturn in 2017? M2 raised money from Alchemy, the Nor DSV bondholders did a liquidity issue, SolstadFarstad started their merger discussions, York began acquiring a position  in the Bibby bonds, Standard Drilling went back to the market to buy more PSVs (could they be worth less?), and early in 2017 on the same wave Reach also raised money… what could possibly go wrong? A quick rise in the price of oil and the purchase orders would flow robustly again… risk capital would have covered essentially a short-term timing issue and as the summer of 2017 came things would revert, if not back to 2014, at least some degree of normalcy and cash profitability. Everyone would be positioned for the next big upturn… This wasn’t a solvency issue for the companies involved figured the investors, this was merely a liquidity issue that they could profit from by supplying the needed funds…

Things haven’t quite worked out the way they planned. Summer, in terms of high day rates and utilisation didn’t come last year, and it hasn’t come this year with sufficient force to change much this year, but next year the true believers tell you it will be massive. Bigger than ever. You just need enough money to cover another loss-making winter to get there…

No one can know the future, although I think many of the signs were there, and a lack of any due diligence was a common theme of many of the above transactions; but the real question now is when the industry accepts the scale of the change required and the necessary exit of some capital to reflect new demand levels? Or not maybe? There is so much excess liquidity (that’s the technical term for dumb money) floating around, and the capital value of the assets in  subsea is perceived as so high, maybe another cycle of working capital to burn beckons… but certainly not for everyone. And there will be some mean reversion here but it is looking on the downside not the up.

Alchemy Partners appear to have realised this and seem committed to a quick exit from M2, the sale process appears to be highly geared to an asset only deal. Such a transaction would save them from the timing and cost of issuing a full IM, due diligence, and the time spent negotiating an SPA for a loss-making business that a self professed special situations investor cannot bring itself to commit more to. The first question anyone would ask them would be “why is one of the once great names in UK retsructuring unable to make this work?”.  Reputational risk alone for them argues for a quick process here… With XLXs going for $1.5m used Alchemy may feel they get just as much from a clean asset sale as from any possible going concern basis, when matched with the profits made from being in the Volstad Topaz bond they may not come out too badly here.

Reach Subsea have decided the numbers are so bad that their Q1 2018 results won’t appear on the website. (Reach aren’t the only people playing this strategy; for all their entrenched bureaucracy Maersk Supply can’t seem to find their numbers to put up after Q3 last year either). As a general rule in this market if you aren’t putting up numbers it’s because they are even worse than people feared.

For Reach Subsea one is treated to  the newshub with a few bullet points of “financial highlights”. It is hard to comment without seeing the full financial statements but Subsea World News appear to have seen the full numbers and say that turnover was NOK 114m and operating costs were NOK 101m ROV days sold were up 89% and EBITDA was up to NOK 13.2m. However, losses before tax were up 50% on the same period last year. This could just be an accounting convention as part of the change to a new accounting standard for leases, but with M2 unprofitable, along with a host of other ROV companies, the chances of Reach making money with exactly the same business model and service offering have to be regarded as remote.

The spot market nature of the Reach business is highlighted by the fact that their order book is at NOK 147m (mostly for 2018) which is 10%< of the amount of work they are bidding for in the pipeline. Everyone goes on about tendering but it’s a real cash cost and if you aren’t winning 30% of the work you are tendering for then you are tendering too much and just wasting time and resources. Tendering NOK 1.7bn in work implies Reach Subsea should turnover about NOK 600m this year, with their firm pipeline at NOK 147m in Q1 that has seem a long way off.

All these companies are doing is providing capacity at below economic rates of return and burning OpEx in a way thay ensures the industry as a whole cannot make a profit. Eventually investors, not usually management because these are lifestyle businesses, tire of this. ROV rates are such at the moment that even though most are purchased with only a 20% deposit operators are not making enough to cover the deposit on a new one when they wear out. Eventually the small players get ground out because even if they can survive in operational terms hopes of replacing equipment becomes a fantasy. This is how the industry appears to be reducing capital intensity.

I have expressed my scepticism consistently on the ROV industry on many occassions based on one simply premise: Oceaneering. Oceaneering is the market leader, widely regarded as a well run company and has signficant economies of scale and scope, and even they can’t make money off ROVs. Neither could Subsea 7 in  the i-Tech division… so how on earth are all these small companies going to make money? All they can sell on is price, and there is sufficient overcapacity to ensure the E&P companies play all the tier 2 contractors off against each other. To my mind this is one of the drivers of increased tendering that all the tier 2 contractors claim while their numbers become even worse.

Oceaneering is by an order of magnitude the largest ROV company in the world:

Oceaneering market position.png

And yet with all that scale cash flow is getting worse:

Oceaneering FCF.png

That’s not a reflection of Oceaneering management that is a reflection of market conditions. And if the largest company in the industry can’t get any uplift then the small companies, with no pricing power, are also operating at a significant loss without the resources of the larger companies. Talk of other companies doing a buy-and-build strategy in the ROV market is just laughable given the sheer scale of the top 5 companies controlling more than 50% of the market. Someone got there first 10 years ago, and executed well, this isn’t the market for an imitator it is  the market for large industrial players to grind out market share.

What is happening, and will continue to happen, is that those companies with scale and resources will continue to grind out market share and volume by pricing at whatever they can get (in economics terms below marginal cost) and they can keep this game up longer as they have more resources. It is just that simple.

DOF Subsea, DeepOcean, and Reach Subsea, have within days of each other announced they have framework commitments from Equinor. Such “contracts” (in the loosest sense of the word only) guarantee no work just a pricing and standards level from the contractors. The only obvious economic implication from this contracting method is that Equinor believes it doesn’t need to cap it’s costs going forward as overcapacity will keep rates down. Equinor is keeping it’s options open and help keep some small Norwegian contractors alive to prevent SS7 from Technip from strangling them, but it’s generosity appears limited. (It should also be noted Saipem/Aker appear to be making real moves now to bid the Constellation and Maximus in Norway so even tier 1 rates there look set to suffer.)

DeepOcean is the one company that appears to really be on the point of being regarded as a tier 1 contractor in terms of IRM and renewables scale. Acquisitions at the bottom of the market in Africa and the US, a smart charter of the Rieber vessel, and a large European business with a strong renewables business have probably given it enough scale to be regarded as in a different league now from the smaller companies. But it shows the size of commitment a buy-and-build strategy would require and the industry simply doesn’t have enough inherent profitability to make it worthwhile. A point Alchemy have now implicitly acknowledged and their commitment to the socialist idealogy of helping E&P companies lower maintenance costs by supporting them with investors funds seems to have ended. DeepOcean should probably be regarded as the minimum efficient scale a company in this market needs to be to survive, a vast mountain to climb for any investor coming in this late no matter how cheaply they buy some kit.

For all the tier 2 contractors there is no respite. Pricing pressure will remain extreme, they have identical business models and assets, there is no scope for differentiation, and capacity far outstrips any reasonable expectations of demand inceases. Make no mistake Alchemy won’t be the first to throw in the towel and other investors need to think what they know that Alchemy Partners doesn’t? For as long as the industry can find investors willing to believe the downturn is a normal cyclical part of the oil industry, rather than a secular change where the relationship between the oil price and offshore expenditure has fundamentally changed (a regime shift in econometrics) then this seems to be the only likely outcome.

2 thoughts on “For the tier 2 contractors summer isn’t coming… a long hard grind beckons…

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