Bully for Brontosaurus…

“I am truly convinced that both the shipping and the offshore markets will recover.”

Mads Syversen, CEO Arctic Securities (26 Jan 2016)

Arctic and ABG Merger valuation.png

From the Solstad Farstad merger prospectus (9 May 2017) highglighting the extreme optimism of the investment bankers putting the deal together. It should be noted the asset market was under huge stress at the time (the bankers of course were paid in cash on completion).

The Golden Bough

In point of fact magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings.

 James George Frazer, “The Golden Bough” (1890)

The Emporer

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)

Mons Aase, DOF Subsea CEO, said: “The appointment of Mr. Riise is an important step towards realizing our vision of being a world-class integrated offshore company, delivering marine services and subsea solutions responsibly, balancing risk and opportunity in a sustainable way, together, every day. I look forward to working closely with our new CCO and I welcome Steinar to DOF Subsea.” (15 October, 2018)

“Our business will probably die over the next 10 yrs because the demand for oil probably will start peaking – we think in 2028-2029.”

Ian Taylor, Vittol Chairman, June 8, 2019

“If you get lucky for a long period of time, you think the rules don’t apply to you… These guys thought they could walk on water. They weren’t smart, they were lucky”.

Maarten Van Eden, Anglo Irish Bank CFO, in Anglo Republic: The Bank that Broke Ireland

(Anglo Irish bank initially assessed its downside losses in the credit crunch at less than €2bn. Over €45bn later they had nearly bankrupted the Irish state by lending on illiquid property assets reliant on a booming Irish economy and a global credit boom).


Have a look at the graph in the header, particularly 2016/17, and then the Solstad liabilities for 2016/17, just as they were “buying” Farstad and DeepSea Supply:

Solstad liabilities 2016_17.png

(I saying “buying” because it was then second major rescue attempt after Aker made a spectacular error in timing with REM. It was a deal pushed by the bankers who didn’t want to deal with consequences of Farstad and Deepsea Supply).

That would be just the time the rig count in the Permain was to explode:

BH rig count June 2019.jpg

And here are the latest Solstad Q1 2019 liability figues:

Solstad Q1 2019 Liabilities.png

Roughly NOK 2bn higher! The assets are older, the market isn’t much better, and they owe NOK 2bn more! (Don’t get me started on look at the assets side of the balance sheet: it was well known the Farstad/DESS were worth significantly less than book value).

If you believed Solstad had a future in anything like its current form you would be asked to believe the impossible: that despite the most extraordinary structural shift the oil and gas industry, despite owning depreciating assets barely covering actual running costs, despite no indication of oversupply ending (and in fact every indication that funding a mutually assured destructive battle will continue with NAO planning to raise money), you would be asked to believe Solstad could actually pay that money back… And of course they can’t: the numbers on paper, the amounts the banks and creditors claim they are due, are indeed a fantasy. A wish, with no basis in economic substance despite their accounting clarity.

Solstad made an operating profit of NOK 162 918 000 in Q1 2019 on NOK 33bn of balance sheet and asset risk. If someone had lost the petty cash tin they would have been in a loss. It’s totally unsustainable.

It may have been reasonable to believe that NOK 30bn of debt could be supported by offshore demand when the US graph was at 2014 levels but it is no longer credible now. Too much of the investment and maintenance expenditure flowing through the global energy industry is just going to other places. This is a structural shift in the industry not a temporary drop in demand like 2009.

I am not picking on Solstad here, they are just the most obvious example as their resolution seems (reasonably) imminent. Without exception all these crazy asset play deals that relied on the market coming back will fail.

When I was at university I first read the palaeontologist Stephen J Gould who introduced me to the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution (Bully for Brontasaurus). If you can’t bothered clicking through to the links the easiest way to think about this (in a purely demonstrative example) is that Lamarckian evolution argues that giraffes evolved by gradually growing longer necks and reaching for higher leaves on trees that others couldn’t reach – which is wrong. One of the many brilliant things about Darwin was that he realised that it was the randomness in evolution that caused the process – giraffes that just happened to have the long neck gene prospered and had more baby giraffes and passed the gene on. The race of giraffes that prospered was the result of random selection that ended up adapting best to their environment. They got lucky not smart.

Offshore is full of companies that may have been lucky on the way up but are totally inappropriate financial and operational structures to survive in the modern energy era. Evolution is a brutal, mechanical, and forward acting process. It is irreversible and path dependent. In economics the randomness of the evolutionary process is well understood with most research showing industry effects are stronger than firm effects. By dint of randomness the genes of many of the asset heavy offshore companies companies, but especially those with debt held constant at 2015/16 levels, are fundamentally unsuited to their new environment.

In case you are wondering where I am going with this (and want to stop reading now) I have two points:

  • A lot of the offshore supply chain confused managerial brilliance on the ride up to 2014 with good luck, a high oil price, and a credit bubble. Seemingly being lucky enough to have been running small fishing vessels when North Sea oil was found was rarely posited as an explanation for the growth of many West Coast Norwegian offshore firms, but it is in reality true. A random act of economic circumstance that threw them into a rising commodity and credit bubble. A newer, far less wealthy, future beckons for many of the small coastal towns that supported this boom.
  • The randomness of US geology colliding with the most efficient capital markets in the world, the largest energy consuming nation, and technological circumstance has caused a complete change in the structure in the underlying oil market. The profound implication for North Sea producers, and the supply chain underpinning them, is a transition to be an ever more marginal part of the global supply chain. That will mean less dollars in flow to them and that however long companies try to fight this will be in vain because we are dealing with a profound structural change not a temporary reduction in demand.

What the offshore industry is faced with now is a fundamental regime change – in its broadest sense both statistically (which I have argued before) and sociologically. The economic models of debt fuelled boats and rigs with smaller contractors are over in principal. It’s just the messy and awkward stage of getting to the other side that beckons now.

For pure SURF contracting and drilling consolidation is the answer and will occur. Financial markets will squeeze all but the largest companies from taking asset risk. DOF Subsea’s business model of buying ships Technip wasn’t sure about long-term will look like the short term aberration to economic rationality it was. For offshore supply the industry will be structurally less profitable forever. Asia shows the future of offshore is a vast array of smaller contractors, operating on minimal margin and taking vast risks, and yet the E&P companies are happy with this outcome because they get competitive prices. There is no reason to believe this model will not work in Europe as well. Where procurement is regional there are no advantages to being a global operator as the unit onshore costs are such a small proportion of the offshore/asset costs.

Although it feels unique to many in offshore it isn’t. If you only read one book about a collapse of ancien regime make sure it is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor” (1978)  on the collapsing Ethiopian empire. By interviewing a large number of the courtiers Kapuscinski gets you into the collective mind of an institution unable to face the reality of circumstance. The inability of Haile Selassie to realise that his random luck was totally unsuited to adaptation in the modern world is deeply reminiscent of the management in offshore, and to a certain extent the banks behind it (I’ll write more on the Stiglitz- Grossman paradox which answers why this may occur later).

Slowly the power and the capital of marginal oil production is being shifted to the Lower 48. Make no mistake the replacement of low capital cost Super Majors for high cost of capital (often PE backed) E&P companies in the North Sea marks the slow withdrawal of capital long-term from the area. Note not removal: just slower investment, higher cost hurdles, more pressure on cost etc. That will require a structurally smaller supply chain.

Old capital structures, and especially debt obligations, written in the good times will be completely re-written. Over the next couple of years the Nordic banks are going to write off billions dollars (that isn’t a misprint) as the hope thesis of recovery loses credibility. They will shut down credit to all but the most worth borrowers and sellable assets (if you think that is happening now you aren’t watching the crazy deals going on in the rig market). Equity across the industry will rise and leverage will substantially decline.  Smaller operators will vanish driven the same process reducing biodiversity on earth now: a less munificent environment. I believe when these banks have to start really taking write-offs, and Solstad and DOF are important here because they are close in time and significant in value, bank loan books will in effect close for all but the largest companies. In the rig market where are few companies have been responsible for nearly all the deals and private bubble has built up in the assets this will be contrasted with a nuclear winter of credit. And if banks aren’t lending then asset values fall dramatically.

How much is the Skandi Nitteroi really worth? There is no spot market for PLSVs, Petrobras have no tenders for flexlay? No one else capable using it needs one and Seadras are getting theirs redelivered? Banks are going to take the hit here and then the industry will really feel it.

I am reading Anglo Republic, a book about the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, at the moment. Again the inability of management (and Treasury, and the goverment) to see the scale of the losses has a strong parallel with offshore. And like offshore initially everyone believed the Irish propery market would come back, that liquidity not solvency was the problem, that this was temporary blip. The crisis was a slow burner for this reason. But when it really came, just like all asset heavy industries, it starts with the refusal of credit institutions to renew liquidity lines because they know it’s a solvency problem. And that is why Solstad and and DOF are significant. They are the BNP Paribas of the next phase. But you know what… my next book is this, and it will have the same story of excessive optimism, leverage, an event (literally a revolution in this case), and default. If there are only really seven major plots in literature there is surely smaller set in economic history? So we know what is coming here.

This needs to happen in an economic sense. The cost to produce offshore will have to rise to reflect the enormous risk the supply chain take in supplying these hugely unique assets on a contract basis. But for this to happen there needs to be a major reduction in supply and it needs to happen while competing against shale for E&P production share. And it cannot happen while the industry continues to attract liquidity from those who buy assets solely on the basis of their perceived discount to 2016 asset values in the hope of a ‘recovery’ to previous profitability levels.

Which brings us on to what will happen to Solstad? It is in the interests of both the major equity investors (Aker/ Fredrikson) and the banks to play for time here. I fully expect a postponement of the 20 June deadline. Next summer, the bankers will tell themselves, the rates will be high and we will be fine (just like the Irish bankers and countless others before). But some of the smaller syndicate banks clearly get the picture here, the business is effectively trading while insolvent, regulators will also eventually lose patience, and the passage of time will not be kind. The solution everyone wants: to put no more money in and get all their money back isn’t going to happen.

Normally in situations like this, where the duration of the assets is long and illiquid, like a failed bank, a ‘bad bank’ and a ‘good bank’ are created. One runs down (as DVB Bank is doing with offshore) and the good one trades and is sold (as DVB Bank have done with aircraft finance). That would see the Solstad of old split off into a CSV fleet maybe or a Solstad North Sea while the old Asian/Brazil DESS was liquidated and the Farstad AHTS business also liquidated. But that will require the banks writing off c. NOK 20bn (maybe more) and I don’t think they are there yet.

After Solstad comes DOF. And in all likelihood following them will be some smaller tier 2 contractors, and certainly some rig companies, who realize that in an economic sense this just cannot continue. No matter how hard they keep reaching for the greener leaves higher up.

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