Courtier T.L. — Amid all the people starving, missionaries and nurses clamoring, students rioting, and police cracking heads, His Serene Majesty went to Eritrea, where he was received by his grandson, Fleet Commander Eskinder Desta, with whom he intended to make an official cruise on the flagship Ethiopia. They could only manage to start one engine, however, and the cruise had to be called off. His Highness then moved to the French ship Protet, where he was received on board by Hiele, the well-known admiral from Marseille. The next day, in the port of Massawa, His Most Ineffable Highness raised himself for the occasion to the rank of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and made seven cadets officers, thereby increasing our naval power. Also he summoned the wretched notables from the north who had been accused by the missionaries and nurses of speculation and stealing from the starving, and he conferred high distinctions on them to prove that they were innocent and to curb the foreign gossip and slander.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor” (1978)
“It was surreal. When someone asked why he was doing the deal, here–now, he actually said, basically, ‘Because Americans are the dumbest investors around, and there’s lots of liquidity in this market.’”
An industry in decline has much in common with the decline of an Empire and the ancien regime. The changing of the guard, the Schumpterian competition that upsets the stability of the known order, is a constant in the evolution of social systems. Kapuscinski’s account of the fall of Haile Selassie’s empire is a classic account of a system unable to intepret information in the light of new objective realities with direct relevance to businesses facing structural changes.
I think one needs to look at recent takeovers in offshore with a degree of cynicism that moves beyond the stated narrative of ‘confidence in the future’ based on rising oil prices, but also reflects the unwillingness of the participants to objectively view the risks being taken as the ancien regime of offshore faces a more competitive environment. One of the best comments I have read on the Tranocean/Ocean Rig deal is from Bassoe Offshore ‘Transocean Saves Ocean Rig from slow-moving train wreck‘. But the article only highlights the huge utilisation risks this deal (like so many others) creates: if the work doesn’t come at forecast levels Transocean will have gifted value to Ocean Rig who had few other options. A collection of rigs in cold-stack is not worth billions.
I would also add that I think the Transocean/Ocean Rig and Tidewater/Gulfmark takeovers bear striking similarities beyond the superficial of underutilised asset companies proffering a Common Knowledge of future confidence in future demand. The core similarity is that the shareholders of the selling entities were largely restructured debt holders and distressed debt investors seeking an exit from their investments. Behind the scenes these investors appear to have looked at the lack of forward demand, the high cash burn rate, and the willingness and ability of their competitors to burn cash with an identical strategy and asset base, and instructed an investment bank to get them out of their position. A peculiarity of the ORIG deal is the ability of the colourful Mr Economou to extract $130m over and above his proportionate economic interest in the company (the MSA break fee in the presentation), a situation that I imagine only encouraged the other shareholders to want to relinquish control (FT Alphaville has some interesting background on the him and here).
It is worth taking a recap on what the Common Knowledge was until quite recently (see here and here ) regarding the offshore industry (pushed by the Missionaries at the investment banks and other promoters). In 2017 and at the start of 2018 a credible story, as can be seen from the Seadrill restructuring presentation below, was for a sharp rebound in day rates and utilisation. The Seadrill restructuring was so complex and long that by late 2017 when it was actually due for completion, an update had to be issued and lo-and-behold the recovery was further off than first anticipated (if at all)…
This presentation was by no means unique. Credible people will tell you that not only will day-rates double in three years (or less), but also that this will happen in addition to utilisation hitting 2014 levels. And this will all happen apparently in an environment where E&P companies are deliberately using shale as a competing investment to lower offshore costs…
It may happen, I don’t know the future, there is Knightian uncertainty, but on a probability weighted basis I would argue these sorts of outcomes are low probability events. The offshore industry will over time reach a new equilibrium in terms of demand and supply, in almost all other industries where there has been severe overcapacity issues before normalisation, it has led to lower structural profits on an ongoing basis.
Financial markets work on narratives and Common Knowledge as much fundamental valuation models rooted in the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Indeed these are the core of a financial bubble: a mis-alignment of current prices with long-term risk-weighted returns. What offshore industry particpants wanted to believe in 2017, against the face of significant evidence to the contrary, was that there would be a quick rebound in the demand for offshore drilling and subsea services. Despite the public pronouncements of the major E&P companies that CapEx was fixed and excess cash would be used to pay shareholders or reduce debt, despite the clear investment boom forming in shale, and despite stubbornly low day rates from their own contracting operations. People wanted to believe.
And so the investors rushed in. For Seadrill, for Borr Drilling, for Standard Drilling, for Solstad Farstad, and a myriad of others. While other investors through restructurings became reluctantly (pre-crash security holders) and willingly (post-crash distress debt investors) owners of these companies. Now, having realised that they own asset heavy companies, losing vast amounts of cash, with no possibility of bank lending to support asset values, and a slow growing market, they want out.
The meme for these deals is meant to be one of success… but really it isn’t. And just as the hard cash flow constraint is binding on the individual companies involved many of the hedge fund investors who get involved in these deals are required to produce quarterly performance reports. Charging 2/20 for an oil derived asset declining in the face of rising oil prices can cause questions, or even worse, redemptions.
So having rapidly opened the ‘black box’ of the companies they own the shareholders in both Gulfmark and ORIG realised that they were the proud owners of companies with no immediate respite from the market. The the most logical way to get out was to get shares in an even bigger entity where the shares are significantly more liquid and tradeable. That management of the acquired entities managed to get an acquisition premium is testament to the skills of the bankers involved no doubt, but also down to the fact that the acquiring companies wanted to be bigger, not because they really believe in a market recovery and pricing power (although the pricing power is valid), but because if or when they next raise capital it is better to be bigger in absolute value terms. Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome…
In behavioural finance it is well known that humans overweight the possibility effect of unlikely high risk outcomes and underweight more likely certainty effects (the canonical reference is here):
What does this mean for offshore in general and Transocean/ORIG in particular? It means that the managers backing this deal are overweighting the possibility of a sudden and unexpected rise in offshore demand versus the more statistically likely chance of a gradual return to equilibrium of the market. It is exactly the same miscalculation that the management and shareholders of Borr Drilling appear to have made. The decline in share values recently indicates some shareholders in all these companies get the deal here. The risk of a slow recovery, and a vast increase in the stacking costs of the ORIG rigs is borne more significantly by Transocean shareholders who have borrowed ~$900m to fund the deal, while the upside is shared on a proportionate economic interest basis.
I have confidence in offshore as a production technique for the long-term. It will be a significant part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. But a 2008 style recovery, given the importance of shale as a marginal producer and the increased offshore fleet size, looks to be an unlikely outcome that is still being heavily being bet on.