Leverage… banking is a risky business… DVB edition

First, “equity” is an accounting construct. In Vickers’s phrasing, a bank’s equity is “the difference between the estimated value of its loan assets and other exposures on the one hand, and its contractual obligations to depositors and bondholders on the other. In short, it is a residual, the difference between two typically big numbers.” A small difference between two large numbers is highly sensitive to even small changes in those big numbers — assets and liabilities — and so it is in the nature of equity to be poorly measured and unstable.

“Banking Systems Remain Unsafe”

Martin Sandbu, FT Free Lunch

News that DZ Bank has had a final sense of humour failure with DVB doesn’t do justice to the scale of the problem:

after DVB posted a return on equity of minus 73 percent in the first half of the year, or a net loss of 547 million euros after breaking even a year earlier, plans to sell off its loan portfolios have gained traction…

[S]ources said DZ Bank was working with Boston Consulting Group to evaluate options for DVB, while the transport division has hired separate advisors to assess the value of its $12.5 billion ship loan portfolio.

I have talked about DVB before and the fact is the results that were released in August were probably worse than DZ Bank had wanted, but the scale of the problem in the shipping and offshore portfolio are that they have in effect bankrupted the bank and forced in into run down mode.  Here are the losses broken out:

DVB Losses by sector

Half a billion here, half a billion there, and pretty soon you are losing real money… It is also worth noting that the loss in offshore was 25% higher despite the loan book to shipping being 5x the size. Looking at the offshore portfolio I still don’t see this being the final write-down:

DVB lending by sector Aug 2017

Now the portfolio was marked down from €2.4bn to €2.1bn so maybe €50m has been disposed of. But there is no one involved in offshore, looking at the asset mix, who really believes that it could possibly be worth €2.1bn in aggregate. I don’t really want to get into a big discussion about whether banks should account for loans at fair value (i.e. what you would get if you disposed of the portfolio at the moment) or held-to-maturity (i.e. what you get if the customer honours the loan contract): You can make sensible arguments for both. Clearly in the short term if the customer is solvent it makes no sense, in an economic perspective, to hold the loan as an asset for a value less than you will receive, and it adds a huge degree of volatility to the earnings of banks if you do this, the reverse though it as it allows a huge degree of discretion for management that simply isn’t warranted by the facts.

You can see the scale of the DVB problem by looking at the tier 1 capital:

DVB Bank tier 1 aug 2017

For the uninitiated to get the number you basically take the book equity (less goodwill) and divide by risk weighted assets, and this gets to c.9%. But it’s a meaningless number in reality as the quote from John Vickers in my opening makes clear. A far more instructive number is the leverage ratio which divides the amount of equity in the business by the asset base (i.e. loans) and that is 2.9%, which in considered far below what a bank should have. In essence this number shows a 3% decline in the value of DVBs assets (loan contracts) would wipe out the equity: with $12.5bn in shipping and and €2.4bn in offshore loans you can be sure that in reality this has happened.

Which is why DZ Bank are pumping another €500m into DVB Bank.

There is a bigger economic question that I think cuts to the heart of what DVB is as a bank and why diversified bank lending works better than narrow bank lending: active versus passive management. For years researchers have known that active fund managers underperform passive fund managers when fees are taken into account. The entire DVB business model relied on them picking four industries and producing returns in those industries consistently, regardless of underlying market movements, despite the fact this is known to be statistically unlikely.

The problem everyone in offshore and shipping has is this: Who do you sell to when other big banks in the sector are making a virtue of closing their loan books to your industry? DNB is typical off all the big banks in the sector (as I have discussed before):

DNB rebalance

Offshore as an industry has an asset finance issue and not just a demand side issue. The road to recovery, however you define it, looks someway off.

Offshore and shipping recovery cycles…

Clarksons reported results yesterday and offered the view that that shipping cycles seem to be turning. The interesting thing is the scale of the retrenchment in the traditional shipping sector that has been required to being the market back to equilibrium (if they are right). Traditonal shipping had a boom driven mainly by Chinese raw material imports (and to a lesser extent exports which were less bulky):

Clarksea Index.png

Chinese import and export growth:

Which looks somewhat similar to the oil price and investment boom:

It is worth noting that if Clarksons are right it has taken 8 years since the slump for normality and equilibrium to start to emerge. The scale of the pullback is severe with tonnage delivered down from 2047 vessels in 2013 to 217 in 2016 (a 90% reduction) and only 266 orders for 2017. Shipyards are down from 305 to 50 (an 83% reduction). It shouldn’t be a surprise because the assets are built for a 20-25 year economic life, the offshore subsea fleet is smaller (~600 vessels), but each one had a high build cost, whereas offshore supply with its larger fleet and more commodity like structure looks set to suffer a similar pull back.

The other really interesting data point Clarksons highlight is the decreasing loan exposure banks have to the sector (which I am assuming covers offshore as well):

Global ship finance lending volumes

Source: Clarksons, 2017

Lending volumes from the top 25 banks, surely more than a representative sample and clearly the most important by size with DNB Nor having 5x greater exposure than KDB, is down 25%, over $100bn,  over a six year period. More than any other factor this is surely helping the sector rebalance but it will keep a check on asset prices for years, especially as getting a loan for a ship older than 8-10 years is nigh on impossible.

The historical reasons for the shipping boom are analogous to the oil price boom that drive offshore: As China boomed so did commodity shipping, this quote should be well understood by anyone in  offshore this quote should be well understood by anyone in  offshore:

Less than a decade ago, just before the global financial crisis, the largest of the commodities-carrying bulk ships cost some $150 million and commanded as much as $200,000 a day on charter markets. Today, a similarly modern capesize class ship is worth $30 million and a vessel owner can expect to earn just $9,000 a day in a business where the prices for iron ore, coal and other industrial goods have deteriorated.

Ships that were increasing in value (as day rates rose) were used as collateral to borrow more money from banks to buy more ships in a self referencing cycle. Which is exactly what happened in offshore, and when even the banks got nervous the high yield bond market was tapped. What could possibly go wrong?

Banks hold the key to the restoration of normality. Like normal shipping offshore will require dramatically more equity and lower leverage levels going forward. Capital will be significantly more expensive. Banks, especially those in the graph above, that continue to take large losses on their portfolios, will be very reluctant to materially increase exposure and will continue to wind the loan books down with concommitment reduction in asset prices. This will go on for years as the above graph makes clear. Yes some smaller newer banks (e.g. Merchant and Maritime) and specialist lenders will fill the void, but rationally they will charge much higher rates (as they will have a higher funding cost to reflect the risk) and will require more equity. As retained earnings are lower this will take longer to build up.

Many of the new shipping projects at the moment are 100% equity financed and until asset values stabilise even newer players are likely to avoid offshore. Slowly, over years when combined with scrapping, the offshore fleet will rebalance, but it will be a long way off. Offshore would appear to be closer to the start of its journey than the end (a point Clarkson appear to agree with in their research). Nearly all distress investors who moved in 2016 looks to have moved too early (e.g. Standard Drilling, Nor Offshore) and faces a capital loss on the positions taken as opposed to industrial companies buying one-off assets (e.g. McDermott), With high running costs and demand stagnant its hard to see 2017 being any different. 

As the author of the above quote notes:

A sizable part of the portfolio of nonperforming shipping loans cannot be expected to bring market pricing much higher than the scrap price of the ships collateralized, however. In this case, shipping banks can take a deep breath and mark them to scrap value, and then make certain those ships are dismantled and removed from the market. Under this scenario, the immediate accounting losses would be mitigated over time by a more balanced market which theoretically will push freight rates and the value of the remaining ships higher.

Whatever path they take, European banks will be shaken by the unfolding of their shipping loan portfolios. Their capital structures will be affected, and given the freight market and banking regulatory headwinds, their appetite for ship finance will be diminished. The shipping industry likely will never be the same.

The same can be said for offshore I suspect.

The New Offshore… it looks a lot like Italian and Spanish banking…

The oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, founded in 1472, came under government control today. The bank, founded as the “Mount of Piety”, has been through numerous capital raisings and life support packages since 2008/09, and finally, even the Italian government and the ECB could no longer pretend it was solvent. I have lost count over the years of the number of times the ECB has declared the banks solvent (only last December the MdP fundraising was announced as “precautionary”), but shareholders who have previously be forgiving have had enough as has the Bank of Italy. There are some clearly analogous lessons for offshore in this.

European banks and offshore oil and gas contractors share many of the same issues. For years now central banks around the world have kept the price of the core commodity that banks trade in (money) low, interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (“ZLB”) has become the new normal and banks struggle to the margin they used to between the money they borrow and the money the lend.

Another clear similarity between the banks and offshore contractors is excessive leverage. Banking is actually a pretty risky business (which is why banking crises and state bailouts are increasingly common), banks borrow short and lend long in a process known as maturity transformation. What this means in practice is that when you go into your friendly branch of DNB with your Kroners and deposit them you are lending the bank money and they are making a loan contract to pay you back a fixed number of Kroner. DNB then package up all the Kroner in the branch and turn it into a ship in the form of loan contract which they use to pay you back. The problem arises, as it did recently for DVB, when the value of the ship, or just as importantly the income from it, is worth less than the value of all the loan contracts the bank used in financing the ship. One or two doesn’t matter but if all the ships are worth less then the bank has a problem. This mismatch between the obligations that banks take on to finance assets that can vary hugely in value is the feature of nearly all banking crises, certainly in shipping as the German banks know well, but also the cause of the 2008/09 global financial crises. This is the fundamental instability mechanism in an economy that fractional reserve banking introduces.

Offshore has a similar instability mechanism and it too is a function of leverage. As the volume of work has dried up the fixed commitments owed to banks, bondholders, and other fixed rate security holders who were used to purchase vessels, assets, or finance takeovers has remained constant while the asset value has cratered and the revenue has done the same. Like a bank the asset side of the balance sheet is being severely strained at the moment as the revenues and profits simply cannot support historic commitments. It was this model of viewing the creditor run on Ezra/Emas as comparable to a bank run that made me sure there was no route to salvation for them. This transmission mechanism is destabilising all asset owners as banks are not lending on assets of uncertain value and the size of some of the writedowns is an issue for the banks. These sort of self-reinforcing loops are very hard to break.

Like the banking sector offshore is struggling with a the tail of a credit boom which is obviously related to the excessive leverage taken on. As has been shown many times over in research credit booms, in all contexts, take longer to recover from than other types of investment bubbles.

Historical analogies, no matter how interesting, are only good if they give us some insight into the future. In this case I think they are depressingly clear: since 2008/09 Spanish and Italian banks have created a structurally unprofitable industry that is unlikely to change with government intervention. Offshore contracting and European banks are both trapped in a low price commodity environment and burdened by historic asset commitments and the current economic value of said assets. European banks have overcapacity issues but shareholders and other stakeholders are committed to keeping this structure because of previously sunk costs and very high exit costs.

The banking crisis in Europe should be a lesson to offshore that impairments in asset values can be permanent. Mian and Sufi (read their book), after looking at the US housing crisis, propose shared risk mortgages where banks share in the capital value, such a suggestion seems prime for shipping and offshore gievn the extraordinary volatility in asset prices and the levels of leverage common in these asset transactions. The cynic in me says regulators would need to force this through, but I also believe eventually German taxypayers will tire of supporting the global shipping industry.

Another lesson to be drawn for offshore is that consolidation favours the large, there is a flight to quality. JP Morgan now has a market cap of roughly USD 336bn post crisis and would appear untouchable as the worlds largest bank (considerably larger than some central banks) after a series of well excuted post-crisis transactions. TechnipFMC has similarly become the largest offshore contractor through an astute merger (imagine if they had really brought CGG!) and if they can ever resolve the tax situation with Heerema will become untouchable as the largest and most capable offshore contractor.

Unfortunately for smaller players size counts. In a bank run people worry that the institution will not be there in the future so choose to withdraw savings because they are nothing but a loan to the bank. Similarly E&P companies who contract with smaller contractors are merely unsecured creditors if they fail despite the progress and procurement payments and therefore are at a considerable disadvantage in winning large contracts in a challenged environment even if they are substantially below the competition in price.

Another lesson is that there is no substitute for equity capital and the larger players have an advantage in raising this. Bank balance sheets have changed substantially since the financial crisis at it is clear that offshore companies that want to surivive will have a much higher componenet of equity in their capital structure. The quantum of this capital will be a major issue given the continued low profitability for all but the largest players in the industry,

But the clearest lesson to take unfortunately is that barring a major exogenous change the zombie banks, neither dead nor alive, can continue for a longer period of time than anyone would really like. Offshore is facing the same dilemma as 2018 looks to be quiet, relative to 2014, and OpEx continues to be a major problem for companies. There is no quick fix in sight unfortunately.

Illiquid or insolvent? Bagehot and lenders of last resort to the offshore industry…

Thus over-investment and over-speculation are often important; but they would have far less serious results were they not conducted with borrowed money. That is, over-indebtedness may lend importance to over-investment or to over-speculation.

The same is true as to over-confidence. I fancy that over-confidence seldom does any great harm except when, as, and if, it beguiles its victims into debt.

 

Irving Fisher

The Singapore Government think they have found a case of market failure:

SINGAPORE – Offshore marine services firm Pacific Radiance has been granted S$85 million in loans under two Government-backed financing schemes.

I’d suggest the Singaporean Government brush-up on the difference between a shift in the demand curve and a shift along the demand curve To non-economists the difference may look semantic but to every stage 1 student it is drilled into them that a shift along the demand curve occurs when price changes and then the quantity demanded responds, a shift in the demand curve means a fundamental change in demand. It is the difference between a change in the quantity demanded versus a change in demand, which are self-evidently two completely different things.

I would argue, and have on this blog consistently, that we are seeing a complete reconfiguration of the offshore supply chain, think Woodside moving to electronic Dutch Auctions for commodity supply vessels, rather than a short-term fluctuation in demand as the result of temporarily low oil prices.

Quite why the Singaporean Government feels it knows better than the market is beyond me here? I should note at this point I am not an unadulterated free-marketeer, my favourite paper at University in NZ at the height of Rogernomics and its successors in a supply-side revolution, was “State-Led Development in South-East Asian Tiger Nations: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea”. In the debate between the World Bank and the activists I took my lead from Robert Wade (also from NZ) and others who saw active government involvement in the economies as an essential part of the process that drove these economies to outperform and pull their people out of poverty. I was a believer, I agree still to a certain extent, with Alice Amsden who argued the governments’ of the region actively set out to “get the market price wrong”.

But I also grew up in New Zealand, which terrified of rising oil prices in the 1970’s had launched Think Big, and by the time the Motonui synthetic “gas-to-gasoline” plant was finished the tax payer footed the bill for every single litre manufactured. It was in short an economic disaster. Trusting a Government ministry to out-judge the energy market is a dangerously expensive passtime.

I should also note that Stanley Fischer, in an unbiased review of South East Asian development policies following the East Asian Crisis noted:

As to Asian industrial policy… some degree of government involvement can in principle be successful, and that it was successful in practice, too, in some Asian economies by allowing new industries to overcome coordination failures and exploit economies of scale. I also believe the potential for such interventions to go wrong is very high, both because the government may make the wrong decisions, and also because they are conducive to corruption. In most cases the best approach is for a country to create a supportive business environment, including policies and institutions that encourage innovation, investment and exports in general, and to leave allocative investment decisions to the private sector.

So when I read that Pacific Radiance has secured loans from two entities affiliated with the Singaporean Government I have to question what is going on?

Firstly, there is a moral hazard element here as the shareholders and the banks appear to benefit from an overly generous dose of leverage on average assets. The Straits Times notes:

The Government will take on 70 per cent of the risk share for both the IFS and BL loans, which were rolled out last November to help local offshore and marine companies weather the current prolonged industry downturn by gaining access to working capital and financing.

These are loans largely owned by DBS and UOB. I don’t undertand how if this is an economic transaction these banks need this level of support? This is an assymetric payoff where the Government takes most of the risk and the banks pick up most of the upside.

Secondly, the sanity: this money is going on OpEx:

The loans … will help support the group’s working capital needs over the medium term, said Pacific Radiance in a statement on Thursday.

Really? Does the Government of Singapore believe that a short-term market dislocation has occured that will see USD 5-10k per day per vessel of OpEx recovered when the market comes back? Pacific Radiance has USD 605m of liabilities over a fleet of 60 vessels and JVs with a further 60 in Indonesia. Like Deepsea Supply, and a host of others pretending the vessels are worth anything like this is a fantasy. But another problem isn’t just the size of the debt, and the quality of the assets underpinning it, but the income being generated to service it:

PAC RAD Sales Q1 2017

Sales are dropping like a stone, and as a general rule depreciating assets that earn less than you thought are worth less. The loan doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: Pacific Radiance have borrowed too much money relative to the revenue these assets can now earn and are likely to in the forseeable future. As you can see over the same period comparison as above Pacific Radiance is consuming cash at an alarming rate:

PAC RAD Cash Flow Q1 2017

Most worrying is the amounts due from related companies which would have to be seen as doubtful, but the business is also using large amounts of cash in operations and this loan is simply going to go in and then go out on that operational expenditure. Loan covenants on fixed assets were simply not designed to cope with turnover dropping 24% quarter-on-quarter: there was too much leverage in the offshore sector to support this. The banks need to come to the party here for this to be a viable firm.

Third, this seems completely contrary to what other major players in the market, like Bourbon are saying (and they are surviving without government assistance):

Mr Pang noted that the longer-term outlook for the industry has improved, as Opec and certain non-Opec producers have sustained oil production cuts until June this year and have also agreed to extend these cuts by another nine months. “This concerted effort by oil producers should enable supply and demand to balance in the medium term.”

The Singaporean Government is essentially making a bet on a private company that seems to have no other plan than simply hanging around waiting for the market to improve. To be honest that doesn’t strike me as a great plan, and if enough investors agreed with Mr Pang surely getting an equity rights issue away should be easy for the company to raise the money and wait for this miraculous occurrence? In fact of course with the Swiber AHTS going for 10% of book value the loan already looks doubtful.

The government of Singapore has now become the Lender of Last Resort to the offshore sector and therefore the Bagehot dictum applies “lend freely at a penal interest rate against collateral that would be good quality in normal times” (I have discussed this before) . The formula is help the illiquid but not the insolvent. Bagehot outlined this formula in 1873 after repeated shutdowns in the London money market put sound financial institutions at risk. The Bank of England had followed this dictum in 1866 when London had its own Lehman moment and the Bank of England allowed Overund, Gurney and Co., one of the largest institutions, to fail.

I haven’t done a full valuation of the Pacific Radiance fleet but a quick overview of the assets on the website makes it clear this is pure commodity tonnage and some of it very low end. Quite why anyone thinks this is going to recover to previous levels needs to be outlined explicitly I would have thought given the scale of the commitment that is in the process of being made. I don’t think in the current market this would qualify as high quality collateral in normal times. There also appears nothing penal in the loan at all.

Worringly for Singaporean tax payers, looking at Ezion and others, Bagehot also wrote:

‘either shut the Bank at once […] or lend freely, boldly, and so that the public will feel you mean to go on lending. To lend a great deal, and not give the public confidence that you will lend sufficiently and effectually, is the worst of all policies’

I think Pacific Radiance had a solvency problem not just a liquidity issue, but the systemic problem is now the longer Singapore props up companies like this the longer the industry will take to recover. If Singaporean taxpayers decide to support Ezion and a host of others they need to be prepared to write some very big checks, and the US companies fresh from Chap 11, with clean balance sheets, will be in a far better place to compete.

During the last Global Financial Crisis Paul Tucker of the Bank of England stated the Bagehot dictum as ‘to avert panic, central banks should lend early and freely (ie without limit), to solvent firms, against good collateral, and at ‘high rates.’ These loans do nothing of the sort by backing poor quality collateral and providing uneconomic liquidity to a company with an unsolvable problem. People are not paying less for these vessels because there is a panic they are paying less because E&P companies are using them less and they cost a lot to run! These loans will only delay the pain and hinder other struggling firms. The banks should have been forced to realise the assets at current market values as the penal rates both Bagehot and Tucker outlined and the shareholders should have been completely wiped out.

As a comparison I do not think Mermaid Maritime Australia will be so lucky. I have experienced Australian banks first hand and I suspect the “Big Four” will be ruthless and simply shut the company down soon having given the company temporary respite to see if this was just a short-term dislocation. Unfortunately from an economic perspective this type of capacity reduction is exactly what is needed to rebalance the industry.

DeepSea Supply, bank behaviour, credit, and the Great Depression

Contagion is a significant increase in comovements of prices and quantities across markets, conditional on a crisis occurring in one market or group of markets.

A Primer on Financial Contagion

Massimo Sbracia and Marcello Pericoli

 

“No one has seen a worse offshore market than what we’re going through now,” Kristin Holth, head of shipping, offshore and logistics at DNB ASA, said in an interview at the Nor-Shipping conference… “It hasn’t been a regular downturn. In many ways, we’ve seen the collapse of an industry.”

I am a bit late getting to this but the DeepSea Supply (“DESS”) Q1 results when combined with the Solstad merger information memorandum are extremely interesting… they beg the question: would you pay USD 600m for some Asian built PSVs and AHTSs when 16 of them are in lay-up? Some of these are not flash tonnage: the six year old 6800bhp vessels built at ABG and the UT 755 PSVs built in Cochin look extremely vulnerable. To put that figure in perspective it is USD 28.5m for every working vessel (with 16 of the 37 in lay-up) and even on a average basis it is still USD 16.2m. In the current market most of those vessels would strugggle to go for more than USD 8m, collectively they would make asset values even lower than that they are such a large fleet.

It is an absurd figure… but of course the banks behind DESS, who are owed that much, don’t have a choice now, they lent in a different era. The reason balance sheet recessions are so severe is that debt obligations remain constant long after the equity is wiped out. If enough debtors default this travels to the banking system. And one of the problems offshore has at the moment is a lack of lending from the banking system: it is no different to the housing market, if banks will not lend then asset prices decline, and on depreciating assets such as vessels, I would argue the impairment is likely to be permanent for certain assets (Asian built commodity tonnage being part of that for sure). The problem for the offshore supply industry is when will the banks start to lend? Because for a long time I think risk officers at banks will insist this tonnage stays off the balance sheet once they have closed their positions. Risk models hate volatility and these assets have it in large quantities.

In the DESS case the banks and Solstad have branded DESS a low cost operator, not low cost enough to come close to break-even in this downturn, but apparently this is the future. It is really hard not to think that the closer they get to this merger Solstad can’t be wondering if there was anyway of getting rid of this company… If it was a horse you would shoot it.

Sooner or later someone is going to have get some of the banks behind these assets to start getting real. Part of the business of banking is what economists call maturity transformation: banks borrow deposits off people and then re-lend them out for projects with a much longer contractual requirement, it is a a very risk business model, particularly when done on very thin layers of capital. They are a lot like a hedge fund in other words, in the industry vernacular banks “borrow short and lend long”.  The Nordic banks involved in both Farstad and DESS are effectively becoming hedge funds in another way: thinking they can play the market. These banks are the prime movers in failing to liquidate assets to discover their true floor price.

In order for the HugeStadSea merger to go ahead the DESS banks must make the following concessions:

Main elements in this context are the following:

(i) Reduction of amortization to 10 % of the original repayment schedule until 31 December 2021;

(ii) Pre-approval to sell certain vessels at prices below allocated mortgaged debt (only applicable under the combined fleet facility);

(iii) Minimum value clause set to 100 % and suspended until 1 January 2020;

(iv) Removal of financial covenants related to value adjusted equity, and

(v) Introduction of cash sweep mechanism.

Point (i) makes clear the assets cannot generate sufficient cash flow in the current market to pay them back more than a token amount. One of the troubles is the 10% is for the entire 37 vessels not the 26 working so even this looks optimisitic.

Point (iv) means the banks will just pretend that even though you are insolvent you are a going concern while (v) just makes sure they collect any surplus cash.

Does anyone in this industry believe that a Chinese built UT 755 will in 4 years time, having made no payments for 25% of its economic life, be able to keep the bank whole on this loan? It is just absurd.

Solstad are going to need an enormous rights issue fairly early on (not just because of DESS I hasten to add, Farstad is arguably more of a basket case). According to the announcement JF/Hemmen put in NOK 200m (c. USD 23m) into Solstad shares (approximately 3.8% of the loans outstanding or c. 180 days of EBIT losses). So in crude terms the DESS gift to Solstad’s high class CSV fleet (with some supply vessels as well to be fair)  is a commodity fleet of 37 vessels, with 16 laid up, constant debt obligations of USD 600m, and a proportionate capital increase against this of 4%. Potentially there are some cost savings but these seem contrived in the extreme (when you cash flow losses are this high you can’t meaningfully talk of measurable synergies as opposed to normal cost cutting)… but I don’t think anyone would buy the shares based on those anyway.

When people saw the US housing crisis emerge they realised it wasn’t just NINJA loans and MBS that was the problem, it was also second mortgages to pay for current consumption. Shipping banks also make the same mistake as this paragraph outlining DNBs exposure to DESS makes clear:

The facility amount under the DNB Facility is USD 140,640,000 repayable in quarterly instalments until 31December 2021…The DNB Facility is secured by, inter alia, first priority mortgages over the financed vessels… Additionally, the lenders under the DNB Facility will… receive (silent) second priority mortgages over the vessels in the NIBC Facility (described below) and the Fleet Loan Facility

How much would you pay for the second mortgage on a Chinese AHTS at the moment? If you give me a number in anything other than Turkish Lira, and a small one at that, please PM me your details so my Nigerian banking associates can request your account details as we have a Euromillions win we wish to deposit there.

And here is what I have been saying in words laid out graphically for you:

DESS Repayment profile

What the banks behind DESS and Solstad want you to believe is that in five years time a company with a collection of Asian built PSVs and AHTS, many over 10-14 years old, will be able to get another bank or group of bondholders to pay them USD 515m to settle their claim (c. USD 13.9m per vessel!). These same banks refuse loans to vessels older than 8 years! It’s just not serious,  but it shows how desperate the banks are not to take losses to the P&L here and pretend they don’t have the problem. Note the lead bank here is DNB who as Mr Holth has made clear do understand the scale of the problem. Mr Holth is extending five years further credit to an industry he believes has collapsed?

[Obviously the loan will be rolled over in 5 years or written down massively]. Quite why banks with the self-professed capital strength of DNB, Nordea and others involve themselves in such shenanigans is for another post. But these numbers are material and not even realistic: at USD 21m per annum of interest all of the 21 working vessels (at less than 100% utilisation) need to make USD 57.5k per day just to pay the interest bill (USD 2.7k per vessel) when most are working at OpEx breakeven if lucky.

To really drive home what a bad deal the merger is checkout this paragraph:

As per the date of this Information Memorandum, the SOFF Group does not have sufficient working capital for its present requirements in a twelve month perspective. Under its current financing facilities, there is a minimum liquidity requirement of NOK 400 million, and by March 2018, a shortage of approximately NOK 100 million is expected.

The document states the banks will relax this covenant but that isn’t really the issue. The issue is in more prudent times the banks thought they needed 400 and now that asset values have plummted they suddenly don’t. A “world leading” OSV company with 157 vessels doesn’t even have USD 48m in liquidity… please… You need to be flexible in these situations absolutely, but really, for this merger? I love the way the lawyers have forced them to write if they cannot agree this the banks may demand accelerated repayment, despite the fact everyone has gone to such extraordinary efforts to ensure that is exactly what doesn’t happen.

And I guess at base level that is what I don’t like about this merger: the owners should have played harder with the banks and forced them to realise that their values are nothing like the book values. Forcing people to keep book values high with low ammortisation payments just delays things and makes raising new equity even harder. We are starting to get into a philosophical debate about the nature of money here, that a loan contract is just a claim on future economic outcomes, and these ones are worth substantially less than when they were willingly entered into. Friedman was wrong (about a lot):

“Only government can take perfectly good paper, cover it with perfectly good ink, and make it worthless”

Shipowners and banks combined have also done an excellent job of doing the same. Particularly the OpEx demon…

If you wonder what the expression “zombie bank” is look no further than the offshore portfolios of these banks because they will never take this sort of exposure on balance sheet again and unless the Chinese banks do, who are much more likely to support new builds from Chinese yards, then the industry has an asset value problem.

There are plenty of historical precedents for these issues in the banking system. In innovative research Postel-Vinay looked at banks, housing, and second mortgages in Chicago during the Great Depression and found:

[a]s theory predicts, debt dilution, even in the presence of seniority rules, can be highly detrimental to both junior and senior lenders. The probability of default on first mortgages was likely to increase, and commercial banks were more likely to foreclose. Through foreclosure they would still be able to retrieve 50 per cent of the property value, but often after a protracted foreclosure process. This would have put further strain on banks during liquidity crises. This article is thus a timely reminder that second mortgages, or ‘piggyback loans’ as they are called today, can be hazardous to lenders and borrowers alike. It provides further empirical evidence that debt dilution can be detrimental to credit.

When those second mortgages on vessels turn out to be valueless this will cause an issue in the banks risk models. Then what economists call “interbank amplification” where banks withdraw money from certain asset sectors, and in this case reduce lending to similar asset classes, further lessening the available money supply available in total and reducing asset values (ad infinitum). Researchers at the Richmond Fed looked at this in the Great Depression:

Interbank networks amplified the contraction in lending during the Great Depression. Banking panics induced banks in the hinterland to withdraw interbank deposits from Federal Reserve member banks located in reserve and central reserve cities. These correspondent banks responded by curtailing lending to businesses. Between the peak in the summer of 1929 and the banking holiday in the winter of 1933, interbank amplification reduced aggregate lending in the U.S. economy by an estimated 15 percent.

I keep referencing the Great Depression here because one of the issues in recovery from it was asset values and the problems associated with a reduction in the monetary supply (and here I will concede Friedman was on to something). These two issues fed on one another in a self reinforcing circle and also led to a collapse in credit because no one had collateral that financial institutions would accept as worthy lending against. Taking macro models to micro industries has methodological issues, but I think it is valid here (*methodologiocal reasoning too technical for this forum). Suffice to say the supply side of this recovery will follow a different dynamic to the demand side and those who watch the daily fluctuations in the oil price with hope are wasting their time.

One of the controversies of the Great Depression is did Andrew Mellon, arch tycoon in a Trumpian sense, really tell Hoover to “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.”? Mellon always denied it and it suited Hoover to claim it. In a macro sense it is clearly ill advised, but in offshore I can’t help feeling it would be good advice. At the moment we are slowly grinding through the inexorable oversupply where banks are propping up failed economic propositions though moves like this that potentially put companies out of business that may have survived. Such is the life of credit, but as I have said before until this clears out the entire industry will make suboptimal returns. 

2017… watch financial markets not just the oil price.

bloomberg-oil-4-jan-2017A wise New Zealand philosopher once said “the future looks a lot like the past… only different”;  which pretty much sums up my thoughts for 2017 regarding Offshore and SURF. I accept sentiment in the market is increasingly positive but without wishing to sound permanently negative here are some of the issues I see coming up this year.

On the plus side… Offshore and SURF in particular enter 2017 in a far more positive note than 2016 with the price of oil having stabilised after doubling from its lows. The psychological impact on the industry has been hugely positive. Staff leaving are now actually replaced, and in many instances, the general feeling is that we are on the path to some sort of recovery. Tendering activity looks like it is increasing but rates are still at rock bottom levels.

But for the offshore /SURF industry while 2017 may mark the start of the recovery of the demand side of the industry the supply side still has some significant adjustments to make and therefore it is not just the price of oil that is important it is also the profitability of the contractors and the state of the financial markets that underpin the assets and infrastructure.

Offshore is an asset-intensive business and therefore a business dependent on credit in the modern economy. The offshore/SURF industry went into the downturn after a massive increase in capital allocation to the sector that led to an enormous new building programme, and much of the capital was in the form of debt. Previous downturns in the oil price have not coincided with such a large proportionate increase in tonnage. The industry remains over-capitalised and overbuilt and this adjustment period is likely to prove extremely painful with debt corrections being far more painful than equity corrections (compare the minimal fallout from the dotcom bubble with the US housing crisis). There are too many owners and investors who have not accepted the economic reality of what this means for asset prices with high operational costs.

Even ignoring the AHTS/PSV fleets the subsea side of the OSV fleet looks well overbuilt. There has not been such a glut of North Sea class DSVs since 1999. If the Ultradeep and Vard vessels deliver with the build quality as high as the spec then all of sudden the Bibby and Nor fleets start to look like second rate tonnage. The Bibby Polaris was built in 1999 and is still a very capable ship but I can confidently say it will never find a bank to provide a mortgage style facility against such an old specialist vessel again. Similarly pipelay, as recently as 2008 the North Sea rigid reeled market was effectively a duopoly, now there are at least four credible systems and a couple on the margin. Large OCVs? 250t crane? Coming out of the 2007/08 downturn you couldn’t magic one up. Now the Boa Deep C and Sub C look headed for lay-up and certainly don’t look that special with plenty of vessels of that spec being offered for nearly OPEX only on a day rate. Flex-lay system in Asia? Take your pick and have a free portable SAT system to go with it… Ex-Brazil tonnage… I could go on…

The other big change I see slowly percolating down into the industry psyche this year will be the realisation that there has been a structural change in the financial markets that underpin the industry. It’s not just the Norwegian high-yield market that has disappeared but bank lending to asset-backed transactions will be fundamentally different as well going forward, and just as when banks go on strike in the mortgage market and house prices drop, the inevitable is going to happen to vessel and asset prices in the offshore industry. Hopefully, it leads to more scrapping at the older end of the age profile which will help restore balance.

Banks, in particular, will be slow to return to the party I feel. The severity of the downturn in asset prices has blown out their Value-At-Risk (“VAR”) models so beloved of financial regulators and internal risk managers. The new standard deviation parameters are likely to materially increase the pricing offered to new transactions which will again lower the price of these assets and force sellers to recognise equity losses (either on paper or psychologically the effect is the same).

This change will favour larger players with bigger balance sheets as a recovery takes place as they will be able to put in place fleet loan facilities and cash flow facilities that will not be available to smaller companies and raise equity in public markets. It is inevitable that the recovery becomes dominated by larger and better-capitalised companies. The industry as a whole will require more equity to grow, and more I suspect will come from retained earnings, which will limit capacity increases in any sustained upturn. After a long period of low volatility returns equity investors will re-price seeking higher rewards for the obvious (and now historically documented) risks. I fear smaller vessel operators who put 10 (at the peak) -25% down on a vessel and financed the rest of a $100m vessel on the back of a 5 year charter, or used the project finance market and took the margin, are consigned now to the archives. These markets will return but the risk profile will more closely align to the economic life of the asset than we have previously seen. I haven’t done the calculations but if you estimated that all spot market vessels would need 60% equity going forward, on a 20% reduction in their book value, on tighter LTVs, and all vessels over 15 years would need to be fully equity financed, then the amount of extra capital required by the industry is in the billions and the effect on the vessel S&P market would be profound and chilling. Profit has a habit of erasing bad memories, but financial institutions and investors are famous for never making the same mistake twice, and any thawing out of the banking side will take an extended period of time. Bank Directors will view offshore as just another cyclical shipping business and allocate capital accordingly.

But this still feels some way off that with distressed investors working on individual asset deals rather than anything with an industrial strategy angle, beyond the Aker/Solstad deal in subsea, and some of the moves Seacor has been making in supply. Whereas the recently closed PSV III deal (purchase price for 2 x UT 755 at 11.7m) shows that distress asset prices are still well below what owners in layup situations hope to achieve but more in line with a risk reward profile that equity investors may need going forward. Nor bonds trading in the 30’s only reinforce this picture.

So 2017 is looking better than 2016 without a doubt but we are not looking at a 2008 quick recovery here. Asset prices are going to be weak for a prolonged period. 2017 marks the start of the deep structural changes in the supply side which will define the new industry structure going forward.