Solstad has a solvency problem not (just) a liquidity problem…

The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.

Pascal, Pensee 507

“Lend without limit, to solvent firms, against good collateral, at ‘high rates’.”

Bagehot

I disagree with Solstad on this:

It has therefore been decided to commence negotiations with lenders and other stakeholders to improve the overall liquidity situation and to create a robust long-term platform for the Company.

Solstad doesn’t just have a liquidity problem it has a solvency problem. They may have enough broker valuation certificates to keep the auditors happy that the assets add up to the liabilities in a balance sheet sense, but in reality does anyone really believe that the fleet can service ~NOK 30bn in debt? Solstad fails a balance sheet test under a realistic set of assumptions. The fact is if the banks really thought they could sell the vessels for the outstanding debt and be made whole they would have done so long ago. This situation has been allowed to continue, despite clear evidence to the public protestations of its success, because the creditors have no good options. A liquidity problem can be solved with more short-term measures but a solvency problem is endemic and structural and requires a fundamental adjustment. Bagehot’s dictum of lending freely when in crisis relied on the collateral being of high quality and the crisis being temporary in nature, a situation that clearly does not apply here where there has been a structural industry shift.

I’m struggling to see why you would create Solstad today in its current form and my base view is if you can’t answer that question then you don’t have a viable business model in the current market. The scale of the credit write-downs that need to occur here to keep the business alive are just so large it is hard to know if Solstad are just good at PR or good at avoiding reality. I don’t know what the number is but the debt must need to be reduced somewhere in the range of NOK 15-20bn to make Solstad a viable business? The rump of Deep Sea Supply will never be a viable business. And then it needs equity…

The only way to get equity is to find an investor who is going to potentially get such a big return on their investment that the creditors get nearly nothing. There is probably someone willing to make that trade but it is a small pool and it offers the creditors nothing. Market sentiment, as opposed to the actual market, has worsened substantially since MMA pulled of the most successful OSV equity based solution. There is no guarantee that Solstad will survive this encounter with creditors intact and almost a certainty a very different beast will emerge. I am not even sure now splitting the subsea fleet from the supply tonnage will make much difference? The subsea fleet has a large number of marginal vessels that still need scale to survive and given many are being hawked out on windfarm work there is no guarantee their value will “recover” in percentage terms more than a supply vessel. And when some of them come of contract the day rates will also be dramatically reduced.

Systemically it will be interesting to see what happens here. The banks will be desperate not to be handed the keys to Solstad, but as Pacific Radiance in Singapore has shown getting someone to come in behind the banks in the capital structure is tough (with exceptionally good reason). The size of the write-offs the banks would have to take to induce this will make for some uncomfortable meetings in the coming days. Surely soon auditors will force companies to use market transactions (like the recent SDSD FS Arundel for $2.8m!) as the actual realistic value not this “willing buyer/willing seller” ruse?

Not everyone can survive a downturn on the scale we have seen. If the banks somehow, and it will be hard, find a way of keeping the money flowing then all it guarantees is that another company will go. And it will have to be another large “unthinkable” one at that, because there is simply not enough work, and unlikely to be for the next couple of years, for all the supply companies to survive.

The other missing piece of this puzzle is the changing financial structure of the industry and the huge amounts of equity that need to be raised to keep it viable. All the banks behind Solstad have no intention of lending to similar companies for the forseeable future, and every bank is the same, this is a systemic issue directly related to depressed vessel values. But as the contract coverage has shortened so the economic rationale for leverage has also disappeared: lending against a PSV on a 5 x 365 contract is very different to one on a 270 day contract. That sort of spot market risk is essentially equity risk and the average day rate needed to make this economically viable is significantly above current levels. An industry which needs to cover 365 costs on a 270 day utilisation year is again a very different economic model from the past for offshore supply and it only reinforces the size of the adjustment the industry still requires. This is an industry that will significantly delverage going forward and that will mean far more (expensive) equity levels and lower asset values.

An interesting conundrum is whether Standard Drilling and Solstad can really co-exist? I mean either you can buy vessels for a few million and bring them to the most sophisticated market in the world and make money against historic tonnage, or you can’t? At the moment both companies are a financial disaster but surely a recovery story really only works for one company as a logical proposition? There is no indication that the Solstad vessels are trading at a premium in the PSV market to the Standard Drilling/ Fletcher vessels which gives you an idea of what the Solstad fleet would be worth in an open market sale. The same is true for the high-end AHTS fleet where rates remain locked at marginal costs (or below on a 365/economic basis) and competition shows no sign of abating.

Solstad has also provided a natural experiment into the limits of synergy realisation versus the depth of this industry depression: quite simply consolidation alone will not be sufficient. All year Solstdad has highlighted the cost synergies it has achieved by combining with DeepSea Supply (in default before the first quarterly results) and Farstad (in default before the second quarterly results). But these are insignificant in relation to overall running costs and the level of day rate reductions E&P companies have extracted from OSV (and rig) operators. Pretending that consolidation alone is an answer now lacks credibility. New business models need to emerge and a fundamental factor of these will be collectively less supply and capacity.

The Solstad announcement presages a horror season of Q3 reporting coming up across the OSV sector. As I said some time back the summer simply hasn’t come in terms of the volume or value of work for either the supply firms or the subsea contractors. The cash crunch is coming. New money will be come on extortionate terms and prices to reflect the risks involved and not everyone will get it. Rebalancing is beginning to start in earnest and the fact is this market is the “recovery”: a slightly busier summer to build up a cash reserve to cover the costs of an expensive an under-utilised winter. The new normal – lower for longer is the reality of offshore supply and subsea.

2 thoughts on “Solstad has a solvency problem not (just) a liquidity problem…

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