Offshore contractors face ‘bank run’ scenarios

lewek-constellation

I was struck by how much EMAS (and other offshore contractors with poor balance sheet strength) need to be viewed as facing a ‘bank run’ like scenario after reading this BIS article on the collapse of Continental Illinois. The key question is can a ‘funding run’ be stopped for both contractors (and banks). The Lewek Constellation (above) is an amazing operational asset, but it needs a vast flow of future profitable project work to keep it going (and proper deepwater construction work not infield), and the question at the  moment when looking at the financial strength of EZRA/EMAS/ EMAS Chiyoda is who would award them a complex multi-year construction project?

The only thing that keeps these vessels (and others in the fleet like the currently in default Lewek Connector) is large lump sum jobs with a strong blended cost of high value, low capital intensity, project management fees to balance out OPEX of the vessels. At the moment large companies are all doing this at relatively low margins; where is the incentive to get an even cheaper price from EMAS Chiyoda and find mid project there has been a credit event? The offshore phase is the capstone of all the earlier custom engineering work that has been paid in stages along the way. No one ever got fired for buying IBM was an ad used with great effectiveness to convince mid-level procurement managers to go for the brand. In the current environment no one is going to get fired for buying Technip, Subsea7 and McDermott; but risking a multi-million dollar field development on EMAS Chiyoda is whole different story. Should a credit event occur all pre-funded engineering and procurement spent would in reality make the purchaser an unsecured creditor (and a lot of it would be vessel specific so no use anyway); not to mention performance bonds etc. There have been no significant news of awards for the Lewek Constellation recently and in reality there are unlikely to be.

Offshore contractors are in a pro cyclical industry and take long positions in assets with long funding and economic lives that are in a downturn illiquid to the point of having no saleable value (like now). These assets are funded with some equity but also a significant quantity of debt, with a funding profile less than economic life of the asset, from senior banks and more recently by increasing amounts of (often “issuer rated”) high-yield bonds, or off balance sheet financing from vessel charters. In operational terms an offshore contractors asset base has been funded by a series of offshore CAPEX projects significantly smaller in length and value than the underlying asset base. In banking this is called maturity transformation: banks lend long and borrow short; in offshore the contractor goes long on illiquid assets and funds them in the short-term project market. There is a clear analogy here with contractors serving the E&P companies by going long on highly specific illiquid assets and funding this with a series of short-run projects. Clearly the capital structure of the industry in a macro sense has not reflected this reality well as increasing margins led to ever increasing amounts of debt and rising asset values substituting for real equity (and Swiber and EZRA/EMAS were two of the best exponents at this form of financing). Minsky would have seen this coming a mile off

Net fee income is important for banks as the money they make on the asset base often only covers the funding costs with a small margin. This is true for offshore contractors as well, as discussed above, when that “fee income’ for engineering and project management dries up in poor market conditions the operational offshore asset base cannot even come close to covering its funding costs.

The Continental Illinois demonstrated how hard a bank run is to stop, as even with a Government guarantee, financially rational investors choose to leave in droves ensuring institutional failure. Just like a bank loan portfolio an asset like the Lewek Constellation will be worth nothing like its book value in the current market; it  may actually be “worth” close to zero given the high running costs and the lack of other uses. The same will apply to EMAS Chiyoda as a whole (and other offshore contractors): a run in confidence on their ability to be in business in 12 months time will become a self-fulfilling prophecy in all but the most exceptional cases because the financial gain from any price reduction that could be offered cannot compensate the risk of a large offshore project not being completed.

The pro cyclicality of operational offshore and financial assets  leads to huge volatility and as the Cerrado deal showed the OPEX costs may actually induce steeper depressions than problem loans from financial institutions. One thing is clear: at the moment many assets in an offshore construction/support vessel fleet are almost unsellable at any price and there is no Bagehot inspired institution willing to lend freely on any quality asset to stop a liquidity crisis becoming a solvency one. In fact as the current wave of restructuring among contractors at the moment indicates these are  solvency and liquidity issues combined. Like a banking crisis the offshore industry is awash in leverage and this will in all likelihood prolong the downturn and make a recovery harder.

What really needs to happen for EZRA/EMAS/EMAS Chiyoda is for all the creditors together  to undertake a massive debt-for-equity swap (if you have faith in the assets be the Bagehot: effectively lend freely on collateral that would be good in “ordinary” times – of course there isn’t much because the vessels are chartered); to try and get over the current downturn (if you believe it is just that or DCF some future recovery value anyway) and try and recover value in an orderly fashion accepting that the asset base may simply not be  worth what it was a couple of years ago. Like Continental Illinois though what is likely to happen is that regardless of extra support and measures that management can negotiate to slow the process everyone (funders in the broadest sense) just decide this is a situation they need to get out of as soon as possible.

It’s a bank run… there is no incentive for anyway to stay in and game theory suggests getting out first may be best individually even if staying in collectively would be better. For the offshore industry as a whole this is probably a good thing as EMAS Chiyoda doesn’t really solve any customer problems and was always (in hindsight) a symbol of an investment bubble. But this is going to hurt… I’d love to read the due diligence report Chiyoda and NYK got for this… the only possible solution is that they double down and fund this for a couple years but it would be bold move given current conditions.