I was wrong about Bitcoin: it is an asset class not money…

These curious capabilities make Bitcoins a combination of a commodity and a fiat currency (creating the coins is referred to as “mining” and they have value only because people accept them). But boosters inflated a Bitcoin bubble. Shortly after the currency launched, articles spread around the internet arguing that Bitcoins would protect wealth from hyperinflation and that early adopters would make a fortune. The dollar price of a Bitcoin currency unit climbed from a few cents in 2010 to a peak of nearly $30 in June 2011 (see chart), according to data compiled by Mt Gox, a popular online Bitcoin exchange. Inevitably, the currency then crashed back down, bottoming out at $2 in November 2011.

The Economist on Bitcoin in 2012 when the price was USD 12 per coin


This commodity [gold] is a material to be almost indestructible, and one of which therefore the accumulated stocks are very large in proportion to the annual fresh supply. Gold tends, therefore, to have a remarkably steady value.

R.G. Hawtrey, The Gold Standard

The Economic Journal, Vol 29, 1919

I have been prety vocal in the past about Bitcoin as a bubble. Stories like this seem to reinforce that image in me:

Eugene Mutai’s Nairobi apartment is filled with the sound of money: That would be the hum of a phalanx of fans cooling the computers he’s programmed to mine cryptocurrencies around the clock…

“The entire ecosystem could be the biggest wealth-distribution system ever,” Mutai said as his 2-year old daughter, Xena, named after the warrior princess, played with a tablet, swiping from app to app. In the world of internet-based currencies traded without interference from banks or regulators, “big players can’t deny anyone from participating in the financial system.”

And sure enough the CEO of Credit Suisse also explained that:

[f]rom what we can identify, the only reason today to buy or sell bitcoin is to make money, which is the very definition of speculation and the very definition of a bubble

I am not sure I believe that big players are excluding people from the financial system… but it is certainly part of the marketing of Bitcoin. The FT also has a great article on a how people are being marketed the dream of riches via bitcoin (read the whole thing the promoters are “interesting” to say the least:

“Ninety-five per cent of people you’re going to talk to about cryptocurrency, they say to you it’s a bubble. Correct?” he said as the 30 or so men and women packed into a small, hot room on the fourth floor nodded in agreement. In fact, he declared, “the bubble will never burst…

Pro FX Options launched in 2016 and says it can turn people with “zero trading knowledge” into skilled traders. It claims its software can detect short-term trading trends and help ordinary people make consistent profits from binary options, where a bet is placed on whether a stock or currency pair will be higher or lower at a predetermined time in the future. “What we’ve done is really made it simple, simple for anybody from any walk of life to take advantage of it”

But I am erring more now to the fact that while the top prices may be “bubble like” in that they deviate from the mean significantly over time, that some cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, look likely to be a permanent asset class. I don’t think the CEO of Credit Suisse is right, buying and selling for profit only is speculation, but that doesn’t make it a bubble.

Bitcoin isn’t a currency as defined by monetary economists in the classical sense, but it appears to have become an asset class, which seems likely to give it some enduring value. It just needs enough people to believe it worth something at it will have a floor of demand that should give it some value, even if intrinsically it generates no income. There are enough reports now that people are starting to treat it like gold, risk small stakes and hoping to profit wildly. All it needs is this number to keep growing faster than the Bitcoin system mines coins and the price will go up. Last week CME announced they would start a futures service for Bitcoin. It seems almost inconceivable that a global market this big will simply vanish, the price may go down as some buyers lose confidence, but there is surely enough market depth now that this is simply becoming a recognised asset class, albeit one with likely extreme volatility in demand/pricing.

The mistake I made was treating it as currency and as money. I am not the only one this attempt to value Bitcoin on a rational basis was :

based on the presumption that bitcoin’s core utility value is serving as a currency for the dark economy.

Bitcoin is clearly neither money nor a currency but it is becoming an asset class.

The reason I missed 9 of the last 0 housing recessions in NZ is simply because I was too rational in my analysis on the overall return not the capital gain: Asian buyers and peoples innate desire for a secure house has increased faster than the stock of housing and ergo the prices have boomed.


Its all about the capital gain in NZ but that doesn’t make the gain any less real if you cash it in.

I’m not pretending Bitcoin is perfect: there are security issues, and the price will be volatile, to name just two. But there is a longevity in the prposition that simply didn’t exist with Dutch Tulips (a fashionable perishable item amongst a small domestic population) or the South Sea Company (effectively a financial engineering that overreached combined with fraud).  Some of the Initial Coin Offerings are clearly fraud and a bubble but the more I read the more I can see a case for investing in Bitcoin: the rate of supply will grow less slowly than the rate of demand.

Gold has no value beyond what someone is willing to pay and and 37% of its demand come from people who just hold for “investment purposes”. A fraction of those people worldwide who decided to invest in Bitcoin would likely make it a great investment.


But I still would pay someone £1100 for a three day couse to learn how to trade the stuff. I may regret that later but that is a bubble.

Incremental Oil Production Growth… Shale versus Offshore …

Interesting graph from Oceaneering that shows the growth of incremental production. Like all these charts they need to be viewed as directionally correct only, but it makes clear the scale of the change that shale has wrought on the offshore industry.

That brown/ shale area would simply not have existed 4 years ago and ties in with my argument about shale becoming an important industry narrative which drives how actual investment decisions are made in companies. There are large questions about shale productivity (depletion rates etc), I am not  geologist or well engineer so can offer no insight into this from a technical perspective, but the economist in me is an inveterate technical optmist and I think the investment resources being signalled towards this form of E&P activity will lead to increased productivity and recovery in the future.

Many investors into offshore in prior to 2014 saw that brown area as one that offshore would have covered. Clearly offshore production will still remain an important part of the energy supply chain, but only niches within it will be profitable as opposed to the whole market uplift that drove the previous boom. Services over assets would be a good general rule. As would another point I have made previously that offshore developments are likely to be driven by a smaller number of mega developments.

Dimon calls (unspecified) time on Bitcoin mania…

“I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”

Sir Isaac Newton (who invested £3500 in The South Sea Company and sold out at £7000; he then re-entered the market and lost £20 000).


“[T]here shall be one coinage throughout the realm”

An Anglo Saxon rule dated to Athelstan, c. 930AD

So Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co), probably not a reader of this blog, also thinks Bitcoin is a bubble:

I’m going to be really clear in this one. Forget the blockchain, that’s a technology… But… the currency isn’t going to work. You can’t have a business where people can invent a currency out of thin air and think the people buying it are really smart. It’s worse than tulip bulbs, OK?

Note use of the word currency not money. Banks create money out of thin air as The Bank of England agrees. And private money creation has a long intellectual tradition in economics, with Friedman asking the question “Does the Government have any Role in Money?”. And there are less extreme examples: in 1970 during the Irish Bank stike even cheque clearing closed down and Irish pubs and supermarkets continued to “cash” cheques as they passed like money throughout the system for over six months and cheques were cashed by pubs as if the banks were open.

Currency on the other hand is a unit of account given the force of state backing and can be used to settle tax obligations. As soon as there is a threat to the tax base or the control of money the government will extinguish that threat: clearly the more authoritarian the bigger the threat and the quicker they will act.

What is clear is that Bitcoin is a bubble. There is no intrinsic value in it and the price and it is clearly only worth what someone else will pay. I love this quote:

When Stanley Druckenmiller, who managed George Soros’ $8.2 billion Quantum Fund, was asked why he didn’t get out of technology stocks even earlier if he knew they were overvalued he replied that he thought the party wasn’t going to end so quickly. In his words “We thought we were in the eigth inning, and it was the ninth”. Faced with mounting losses, Druckenmiller resigned as Quantum’s fund manager in April 2000… Julian Robertson, manager of the legendary Tiger Hedge Fund, refused to invest in technology stocks since he thought they were overvalued. The Tiger Hedge Fund was dissolved in 1999 because its returns could not keep up with returns generated by dotcom stocks.

A Wall Street analyst who has dealt with both managers vividly summarized the situation: “Julian said, ‘This is irrational and I won’t play,’ and they carried him out feet first. Druckenmiller said, ‘This is irrational and I will play’, and they carried him out feet first.”

Dimon has history on his side. Sooner or later this is going to end badly. Currency creation is a prerogative of the state as is the ability to tax and the two are inseparable. As Redish notes:

Numismatists believe that the earliest coins were produced at Lydia (now Western Turkey.  in the mid-seventh century BC. The coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. They had a designon one side and were of uniform weight but had a highly variable proportion of gold. In an influential article, Cook (1958)  argued that these coins were introduced to pay mercenaries, a thesis modified by Kraay (1964) who suggested that governments minted coins to pay mercenaries only in order to create a medium for the payment of taxes. Both interpretations stress the role of the government in the introduction of coinage.

Something that has worked for thousands of years and used to keep governments in power and is crucial to the tax base isn’t going to be usurped by an unkown computer programmer, a bunch of gun nuts (who don’t want to pay tax), drug dealers (who don’t want to pay tax and get caught (crime clearly has a major impact on Bitcoin valuation)), and a bunch of fintech guys (who don’t want to pay tax and have no sense of economic history). Something Ross Ulbricht could testify to.

DSV valuations in an uncertain world: Love isn’t all you need… Credible commitment is more important…

“Residual valuation in shipping and offshore scares the shit out of me”

Investment Banker in a recent conversation


“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


The FT recently published this Short View about how the bottom may have been reached for rig companies and that there may be upside from here. The first thing I noted was how high rig utilisation was, the OSV fleet would kill for that level, and yet still the fleet is struggling to maintain profitability (graph not in the electronic edition but currently about 65%). The degree of operational leverage is a sign of how broken the risk model is for the offshore sector as a whole. A correction will be needed going forward for new investment in kit going forward and the obvious point to meet is in contract length. Banks simply are not going to lend $500m on a rig that will be going on a three year contract. Multi- operator, longer-term, contracts will be the norm to get to 7G rigs I suspect (no one needs to make a 6G rig ever again I suspect). The article states:

No wonder. Daily rental rates for even the most sophisticated deepwater rigs have tumbled 70 per cent, back to prices not seen since 2004. Miserly capital spending by the major oil companies, down more than half to $40bn in the two years to 2016, has not helped. Adding to this lack of investment from its customers is a bubble of new builds, which is only slowly deflating.

Understandably, the market is showing little faith in the underlying value of these rig operators. US and Norwegian operators trade at just 20 per cent of their stated book values. The market value of US-listed Atwood Oceanics suggests its rigs are worth no more than its constituent steel, according to Fearnley Securities.

What the article doesn’t make clear, but every OSV investor understands, is that in order to access more than the value of the steel rigs and OSVs have very high running costs. The market is making a logical discount because if you cannot fund the OpEx until operating it above cash break even or a sale then steel is all you will get: it’s the liquidity discount to a solvency problem. That tension between future realisable value and the option value/cost of getting there is at the core of current valuation problems.

The OSV fleet is struggling with utilisation levels that are well under 50% for most asset classes and even some relatively new vessels (Seven Navica) are so unsellable (to E&P customers I don’t think Subsea 7 is a seller of the asset) they have been laid-up.  From a valuation perspective nothing intrigues me more than the North Sea DSV fleet: The global fleet is limited to between 18-24 vessels, depending on how your criteria, and with a limited number companies who can utilise the vessels, they provide a near perfect natural experiment for asset prices in an illiquid market.

North Sea class DSVs need to be valued from an Asset Specific perspective: in economic terms this means the value of the asset declines significantly when the DSV leaves the North Sea region. Economists define this risk as “Hold Up” risk. In both the BOHL and Harkand/Nor case this risk was passed to bondholders, owners of fixed debt obligations with no managerial involvement in the business and few contractual obligations as to how the business was run.

The question, as both companies face fundraising challenges, is what are the DSVs worth? Is there an “price” for the asset unique from the structure that allows it to operate?

In the last BOHL accounts (30 June 2017) the value of the Polaris and Sapphire is £74m. I am sure there is a reputable broker who has given them this number, on a willing buyer/ willing seller basis. The problem of course is that in a distress situation, and when you are going through cash at c.£1m per week and you have less than £7m left it is a distress capital raise, what is a willing seller? No one I know in the shipbroking community really believes they could get £74m for those vessels and indeed if they could they bondholders should jump at the chance of a near 40% recovery of par. A fire-sale would bring a figure a quantum below this.

Sapphire is the harder of the two assets to value: the vessel is in lay-up, has worked less than 20 days this year, and despite being the best DSV in the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t allowed BOHL to develop meaningful market share (which is why the Nor Da Vinci going to Trinidad needs to be kept in context). Let’s assume that 1/3 of the £74m is the Sapphire… How do you justify £24m for a vessel that cannot even earn its OpEx and indeed has so little work the best option is warm-stack? The running costs on these sort of vessels is close to £10k per day normally, over 10% of the capital value of the asset not including a dry dock allowance etc? Moving the vessel back to the North Sea would cost $500k including fuel.  The only answer is potential future residual value. If BOHL really believed the asset was worth £24m they should have approached the bondholders and agreed a proportionate writedown and sold the asset… but I think everyone knows that the asset is essentially unsellable in the current market, and certainly for nowhere near the number book value implies. Vard, Keppel, and China Merchants certainly do… The only recent DSV sale was the Swiber Atlantis that had a broker valuation of USD 40-44m in 2014 and went for c. USD 10m to NPCC and that was not an anomaly on recent transaction multiples. If the Sapphire isn’t purchased as part of a broader asset purchase she may not return to the North Sea and her value is extremely uncertain – see how little work the Swordfish has had.

Polaris has a different, but related, valuation problem. In order to access the North Sea day rate that would make the vessel worth say a £50m valuation you need a certain amount of infrastructure and that costs at c.£5-8m per annum (c.£14k -22k per day), and that is way above the margin one of two DSVs is making yet you are exposed to the running costs of £10k per day. Utilisation for the BOHL fleet has been between 29%-46% this year and the market is primarily spot with little forward commitment from the customer base. So an investor is being asked to go long on a £50m asset, with high OpEx and infrastructure requirements, and no backlog and a market upturn needed as well? In order to invest in a proposition like that you normally need increasing returns to scale not decreasing returns that a depreciable asset offers you.

This link between the asset specificity of DSV and the complementary nature of the infrastructure required to support it is the core valuation of these assets. Ignoring the costs of the support infrastructure from the ability of the asset to generate the work is like doing a DCF valuation of a company and then forgetting to subtract the debt obligation from the implied equity value: without the ability to trade in the North Sea the asset must compete in the rest-of-the-world market, and apart from a bigger crane and deck-space the vessels have no advantage.

It is this inability to see this, and refusal to accept that because of this there is no spot market for North Sea class DSVs, that has led to the Nor position in my humble opinion. The shareholders of the vessels are caught in the irreconcilable position of wanting the vessels to be valued at a “North Sea Price”, but unable or unwilling to commit to the expenditure to make this credible. It would of course be economic madness to do so, but it’s just as mad to pretend that without doing so the values might revert to the historically implied levels of depreciated book value.

The Nor owners issued a prospectus as part of the capital raising in Nov 2016 and made clear the running costs of the vessels were c. USD 370k per month per vessel for crewing and c. USD 90k per month for SAT system maintenance. In their last accounts they claimed the vessels value at c. USD 60m each. Given Nor raised USD 15m in Nov last year, and expected to have one vessel on a 365 contract ay US 15k per day by March, they are so far behind this they cannot catch-up at current market rates.

Again, these vessels, even at the book values registered, require more than 10% of their capital value annually just to keep the option alive of capturing that value. That is a very expensive option when the payoff is so uncertain. If you are out on your assumption of the final sale value by 10% then you have wasted an entire year’s option premium and on a discounted basis hugely diluted your potential returns (i.e. this is very risky). Supposedly 25 year assets you spend more than 2.5x their asset values to keep the residual value option alive.

Three factors are crucial for the valuation of these assets:

  • The gap between the present earning potential and the possible future value is speculation. You can craft an extremely complicated investment thesis but it’s just a hypothesis. The “sellers” of these assets, unsurprisingly, believe they hold something of great future value the market simply doesn’t recognise at the moment. Sometimes this goes right, as it did for John Paulson in the subprime mortgage market (in this case a short position obviously) and other times it didn’t as owners of Mississippi Company shares found to their discomfort. We are back to the “Greater Fool Theory” of DSV valuation.One share.png
  • Debt: In the good old days you could finance these assets with debt so the equity check, certainly relative to the risk was small. In reality now, for all but the most blue-chip borrowers, bank loan books are closed for such specialist assets. And the problem is the blue-chip borrowers have (more than) enough DSVs. The Bibby and Nor DSVs are becoming old vessels: Polaris (1999) will never get a loan against it again I would venture and the Sapphire (2005) has the same problem. The Nor vessels are 2011 builds and are very close to the 8 year threshold of most shipping banks. As a general rule, like a house, if you can’t get a mortgage the vessel is worth less, substantially so in these cases because all diving companies are making less money so their ability to find equity for vessels is reduced. Banks and other lenders have worked out that the price volatility on these assets is huge and the only thing more unsellable that a new DSV is an old DSV. It will take a generation for internal risk models to reset.
  • You need a large amount of liquidity to signal that you have the commitment to see this through. At the moment neither Bibby or Nor have this. From easily obtainable public information any potential counterparty can see a far more rational strategy is to wait, the choice of substitutes is large and the problems of the seller greater than your potential upside.

Of course, the answer to liquidity concerns, as any central banker since Bagehot has realised, is to flood the market with liquidity. Bibby Line Group for example could remove their restrictions on the RCF and simply say they have approved it (quite why Barclays will agree to this arrangement is beyond me: the reputational risk for them foreclosing is huge). As the shareholder Bibby Line Group could tell the market what they are doing, in Mario Monti’s words, “whatever it takes”. Of course, Mario Monti can print “high powered money” which is not something Bibby Line Group can, and that credibility deficit is well understood by the market. A central bank cannot go bankrupt (and here) whereas a commitment from BLG to underwrite BOHL to the tune of £62m per annum would threaten the financial position of the parent.

I have a theory, untestable in a statistically significant sense but seemingly observable (e.g. Standard Drilling, the rig market in general), that excessive liquidity, especially among alternative asset managers and special situation funds, is destroying the price discovery mechanism in oil and gas (and probably other markets as well).  I accept that this maybe because I am excessively pessimistic, but when your entire gamble is on residual value in an oversupplied market, how can you not be? In offshore this is plain to see as the Nor buyers again work out how to value the assets for their second “super senior” or is that “super super senior” tranche, or however they plan to fund their ongoing operations. The Bibby question will have to be resolved imminently.

At some point potential investors will have the revolutionary notion that the assets should be valued under reasonable cash flow assumptions that reflect the huge increase in supply of the competitive asset base and lower demand volumes. Such a price is substantially lower than build cost, and therein lies the correction mechanism because new assets will not be built, in the North Sea DSV case for a considerable period of time. Both the Bibby and the Nor bondholders, possessors of theoretically fixed payment obligations secured on illiquid and specialised assets will be key to the market correction. Yes this value is likely to be substantially below implied book/depreciated value… but that is the price signal not to build any more! Economics is a brutal discipline as well as a dismal one (and clearly not one Chinese yards have encountered much).

How these existing assets are financed will provide an insight into the current market “price discovery” mechanism. For Nor the percentage of the asset effectively that the new cash demands, and the fixed rate of return for further liquidity, will highlight a degree of market pessimism or optimism over the future residual value. If you have to supply another USD 15m to keep the two vessels in the spot charter market for another 12 or 15 months how much asset exposure do you need to make it work? Will the Nor vessels really be worth $60m in a few years if you have to spend USD 7.5 per annum to realize that? What IRR do you require on the $7.5m to take that risk? Somewhere between the pessimism of poor historic utilisation and declining structural conditions and the inherent liquidity and optimism of the distressed debt investors lies a deal.

The Bibby valuation is more binary: either the company raises capital that sees the assets tied to the frameworks of their infrastructure, and implicit cross-subsidisation of both, or the assets are exposed to the pure vessel sale and purchase market. The latter scenario will see a brutal price discovery mechanism as industrial buyers alone will be the bidders I suspect.

Shipbroker valuations work well for liquid markets. The brokers have a very good knowledge of what buyers and sellers are willing to pay and I believe they are accurate. I have severe doubts for illiquid markets, particularly those erring down, that brokers, like rating agencies, have the right economic incentives to provide a broad enough range of the possibilities.

Although the question regarding the North Sea DSVs wasn’t rhetorical it is clear what I think: unless you are prepared to commit to the North Sea in a credible manner a North Sea DSV is worth only what it can earn in the rest-of-the-world with maybe a small option premium in case the market booms and the very long run nature of the supply curve. The longer this doesn’t happen the less that option is valued at and the more expensive it is to keep.


[P.S. Around Bishopsgate there is a theory circulating that Blogs can have a disproportionate impact on DSV values a theory only the most paranoid and delusional could subscribe to. I have therefore chosen to ignore this at the present time. The substance of the message is more important than the form or location of its delivery.]

Boats, Bitcoin, and (Asset) Bubbles…

[W]hereas gambling consists in placing money on artificially created risks of some fortuitous event, speculation consists in assuming the inevitable risks of changes in value.

H.C. Emory


“In order to pay out profits, the South Sea Company needed both to raise more capital and to have the price of its stock moving continuously upward… And it needed both increases at an accelerating rate, as in a chain letter or a Ponzi scheme.”

Kindelberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes. 1986


“But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”

Alan Greenspan, 1996

This is a bit different from my usual postings at the moment, but the overarching theme of this blog, from the name onwards, is economic history, the relationship between banking and the economy,  and investment and asset bubbles. One of the reasons the subsea market interests me so much, aside from obviously having worked in it, is that the latter stages of the 2014 boom were clearly the denouement of an investment bubble.

I have been interested in Bitcoin and other crypocurrencies from the standpoint of monetary economics and history. For those who want a primer on money and cryptocurrencies there is a good post here. I think they are basically an asset bubble with no discernable differences to Dutch tulips in terms of intrinsic value (there is a great article here on the Dutch Tulip Bubble that makes clear it really was irrational). There are also at least 842 crypotcurrencies, which looks like the IPO board of 1999, and you can now do an Initial Coin Offering (ICO)! I think this is a technology induced investment bubble where the distributed ledger technology combined with the token coin aspect is creating the hype. The distributed ledger technology is beyond my full comprehension, although from my basic knowledge it strikes me as a powerful technology, (although its worth noting that it is overloaded and transactions and there is a backlog) and that the Bank of Canada having assessed it:

 [t]he bank reached that conclusion after a closely watched year-long trial code-named “Jasper,” which sought to determine whether the technology, known as DLT, could be used to improve the performance of Canada’s wholesale interbank payment system.

“A pure stand-alone DLT wholesale payment system is unlikely to match the net benefits of a centralized wholesale payment system,” the Bank said in a report.

So mine is hardly an original opinion as Bitcoin prices are extremely volatile and rose to a new high this week of over USD 4000 but the case for the defence is here if you are interested (I don’t agree with it). It seems really simple that on a limited base of coins as the price has risen more people are simply betting it will rise more.

The hard part of an investment bubble is of course spotting it beforehand and defining exactly what one is? This defintion is commonly accepted:

Bubbles are typically associated with dramatic asset price increases followed by a collapse. Bubbles arise if the price exceeds the asset’s fundamental value. This can occur if investors hold the asset because they believe that they can sell it at a higher price to some other investor even though the asset’s price exceeds its fundamental value.

There are  two kinds of asset price bubbles:

  1. Unleveraged ‘irrational exuberance’ bubbles
  2. Credit boom bubbles with a positive feedback loop.

The reason the internet boom ended with a whimper was that it was equity financed. A large number of VC funds and investors took equity risk and lost. Technology induced investment bubbles are not new; the most obscure one I have found yet is the British Bicycle Mania (1895-1900) when share prices of the associated companies rose over 200% over the period, and were divorced from earnings potential.

In comparison offshore (and shipping) was leveraged credit boom and these are more serious “because their bursting can lead to episodes of financial instability that have damaging effects on the economy“. The reduction in shipping loan volumes I discussed earlier are an indicator of that and as Mishkin outlines here is what happened in offshore and shipping (in addition to the underlying dropping dramatically in both):

[a] rise in asset values, in turn, encourages further lending against these assets, increasing demand, and hence their prices, even more. This feedback loop can generate a bubble, and the bubble can cause credit standards to ease as lenders become less concerned about the ability of the borrowers to repay loans and instead rely on further appreciation of the asset to shield themselves from losses.

At some point, however, the bubble bursts. The collapse in asset prices then leads to a reversal of the feedback loop in which loans go sour, lenders cut back on credit supply, the demand for the assets declines further, and prices drop even more. The resulting loan losses and declines in asset prices erode the balance sheets at financial institutions, further diminishing credit and investment across a broad range of assets.

Again this is no recent phenomena and asset heavy industries are particularly susceptible: the railway boom of the 1840s was based on partly paid shares (“derivative like”) and as the author notes:

[t]he use of leverage can exacerbate both the boom and bust in asset price reversals, and it may be wise for policy makers to continually monitor changes in the use of leverage.

If you want to see a microcosm of this look no further than DVB Bank where losses in offshore effectively wiped out the entire tier 1 capital of the bank.

Bitcoin is an ‘irrational exuberance’ bubble and clearly into the realms of behavioural influences as its utility as a currency is minimal, exlcuding black market transactions, and it flutuates enormously as a store of value. Normal state issued paper (“fiat money“) can settle tax obligations and from this its a core part of its value derives, it is impossible to see the state giving up this prerogative. Bitcoin is a technology inspired bubble without any fundamental economic value. 

The core attraction, if you believe the Bitcoin adherents, beyond the obvious anonymity is the apparent stability of the base unit as there is a limit to how quickly new units are “mined” and an overall cap on many cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin (21m units). And indeed one valuation methodology for the currency bases it as a % of all black market transactions. The monetary system being emulated is the gold standard (with nomenclature of mining clearly being no accident) where national currencies were exchangeable for gold (at its peak). The gold standard failed, precisely because the monetary base was too inflexible, and led to and exacerbated the Great Depression.


That isn’t to say there isn’t a place for local monies and that they cannot help economic growth. Local currencies, such as the Bristol Pound, exist in the UK. Maybe Bitcoin can serve a similar functional value for the ethereal world.

The interesting thing for those with only passing knowledge of the subject is that this is a monetary system that is being created in relatively short order but because of its open source nature, and the specialised technical knowledge required to enter it, means it is dominated by computer programmers. Yet the Bitcoin system is actually very similar to a crude medieval monetary system and if you want to see how economic history can add some value to a current debate this is a good example. Medieval money systems had a relatively fixed base of currency as The Commercial Revolution was just beginning and much of the coinage used was reminted from Roman times with mining out insufficient to affect the overall supply level until the “New Silver” from Freiberg was found and started moving to Venice. So a lot like bitcoin the money supply expanded only very slowly.

One of the key drivers of the Bitcoin price rise recently has been the split of Bitcoins to Bitcoin cash and there has been a fight between those for and against the split along the lines of preserving coin value and purity versus the need for transactions and the increase in value that will come from acceptance. The Bitcoin cash split comes by splitting the size of each Bitcoin such that it can be mined independently as smaller file sizes containing a number of transactions. The technical innovation is also that it speeds up processing but it also makes it available for micropayments. This is very similar to how medieval mints operated by exchanging larger coins for smaller coins and the difference in the exchange ratio was the seignorage to the mint – although Bitcoin exchanges are private whereas mints were the domain of the King.  The small denomination split is well known to economic historians: In 1956 Cipolla noted:

‘Every elementary textbook of economics gives the standard formula for maintaining a sound system of fractional money: to issue on government account small coins having a commodity value lower than their monetary value; to limit the quantity of these small coins in circulation; to provide convertibility with unit money. . . . Simple as this formula may seem, it took centuries to work it out. In England it was not applied until 1816, and in the United States it was not accepted before 1853.’

This became known as ‘The Big Problem of Small Change‘ which observed that since medieval times during episodes  of inflation small coins disappeared from circulation as they were made up of the exact proportion of value in metal of the larger coins they represented. Small coins frequently disappeared from circulation and made transactional commerce difficult for micropayments (in the current Fintech jargon). The same problem occured during ‘The Great Inflation’ in the United States (1967-1982) when copper coins disappeared from circulation as they were worth more as scrap. It is a great paradox in economics where more money generates rising prices but rising prices generate a shortage of money.

The problem that the Bitcoin cash “fork” in the chain (as it known) is trying to solve is the “penny-in-advance” constraint where “small denomination coins can be used to purchase expensive items, but large denomination coins cannot be used to buy cheap items’. Over time, until the invention of “token” money for small denominations smaller coins depreciated more relative to larger over time. The Bitcoin solution is to develop Bitcoin cash which represents a monetary fraction of a Bitcoin and forks into a seperate chain in the blockchain and in this respect is similar to:

the gradual debasement of the denarius between AD 800 and AD 1200 [that] was not fiscally motivated,but was a reasonable response to economic expansion that exceeded the growth of monetary metal

This was also found in Venice where the :

debasement of imperial pennies by Italian mints from the ninth century to the twelfth has usually been attributed to the greed and completion of local lords, but it probably was in the public interest, because it met a growing need for coin that arose from the increased use of markets and the general expansion of trade.

Bitcoin cash may prove that technology that can solve some of the issues that took medieval monetarists such a long time to work out. Mint technology advanced making forgeries harder and in this case the Bitcoin cash is an exact unit of Bitcoin. But the Bitcoin cash fork is still going to have the same problem that different chains forks over different exchanges and locations still need to be brought together at a common rate to transact. I don’t see it but there is no doubt that in medieval times changing the types and value of coins changed welfare outcomes. So there is a sound economic basis for the Bitcoin split, the question is who will benefit from the changes. Like the mints the Bitcoin exchanges are privately owned and I suspect welfare benefits will accrue disproportionately to them.

Like all economic issues there is not universal acceptance of the solution to the Big Problem of Small Change. An excellent paper here argues that at times small coins experienced periods of munificence as often as scarcity and that the value of large demonimation coins is the “dollar-in-advance” problem where small coins are impractical for large puurchases due to high transaction costs (i.e. verification and clearing).  The other problem with the “Big Problem” is that it may have been small because actually credit was common and debts were settled in kind or when they reached a certain limit.

The distributed ledger technology is also reminiscent of private clearing of notes that used to take place amongst banks when private money was more common. Research into the antebellum Suffolk Bank by the Minnepolis Fed (and others) concluded that there was a natural monopoly in note clearingand explains why clearinghouses and banks such as Suffolk developed that ties into the technology of argument the Bank of Canada. 

The increasing number of cryptocurrencies seem to mimic the early period of US banks where notes were privately issued and traded at a discount depending on the perceived regulatory effectiveness on the state in which they were domiciled or the strength of the bank issuing the currency (in an era prior to depsoit insurance). An extremely readable 20 page history of how complicated it was for the US to actually get a national unit of currency is here (and highlights some of the challenges for the Euro).

Bitcoin strikes me as technology being done because it can (as opposed to the blockchain technology behind it which is clearly powerful), and because, like selling tulips in the 1630’s, it is extremely profitable for some people. Is it an advance? I don’t think so, it adds nothing to the utility of money, doesn’t seem to make the economy more productive and offers the possibility of eroding the tax base. I have made this note here to mark how my views change over time more than any other reason and I will be interested in how this evolves.

Further evidence on the shale narrative and rational decisions…

The FT noted yesterday:

Kosmos, which had a market capitalisation of $2.5bn in New York on Tuesday, has earned a reputation as one of the most successful international exploration companies after a string of big discoveries off the coast of west Africa. Andrew Inglis, Kosmos chief executive, said the company wanted to widen its shareholder base beyond the US, where offshore exploration has been eclipsed by onshore shale oil and gas production in investors’ affections. “The US shareholder base has become very focused on shale and we believe there is a better understanding in the UK market of the opportunities that exist in conventional offshore exploration,”

It is not a good sign for offshore that the deepest and most liquid capital market in the world doesn’t seem to recognise the value in offshore. This is a further sign that the investment narrative is moving to shale. Ultimately even large E&P companies feel responsible to their shareholders, if the largest capital market in the world starts preferring companies that invest in shale then companies will alter their capital investment plans to relfect this, there is an element of marketing in this not just based on strict economic evaluation of the potential investments available.

If you want further proof that financial decisions aren’t always rational and markets the human interaction that is part of this look no further than this fascinating paper (from Matt Levine) “Decision Fatigue and Heuristic Analyst Forecasts” where it is found:

We study whether decision fatigue affects analysts’ judgments. Analysts cover multiple firms and often issue several forecasts in a single day. We find that forecast accuracy declines over the course of a day as the number of forecasts the analyst has already issued increases. Also consistent with decision fatigue, we find that the more forecasts an analyst issues, the higher the likelihood the analyst resorts to more heuristic decisions by herding more closely with the consensus forecast and also by self-herding (i.e., reissuing their own previous outstanding forecasts). Finally, we find that the stock market understands these effects and discounts for analyst decision fatigue.

Did you get that? Act on investment banking notes if they come out early in the morning! I love the findng the market understands this. The authors note that analysts may start the day by looking at companies they have the best information about but ask why they would do this?

The link here is just that financial decisions are not always purely rational and are based on herding, narrative, and other behavioural instincts. Managers who believe they will be rewarded by the stock market for moving their investment profile to shale will do this regardless of how attractive other investment opportunities may be on a strictly “rational” basis. Not every decision, but as I always say economic change happens at the margin.

Diverging results point to the future of offshore… procyclicality reverses…

Colin, for example, has recently persuaded himself that the propensity to consume in terms of money is constant at all phases of the credit cycle.  He works out a figure for it and proposes to predict by using the result, regardless of the fact that his own investigations clearly show that it is not constant, in addition to the strong a priori reasons for regarding it as most unlikely that it can be so.

The point needs emphasising because the art of thinking in terms of models is a difficult–largely because it is an unaccustomed–practice. The pseudo-analogy with the physical sciences leads directly counter to the habit of mind which is most important for an economist proper to acquire…

One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous in the same way that the material of the other sciences, in spite of its complexity, is constant and homogeneous. It is as though the fall of the apple to the ground depended on the apple’s motives, on whether it is worth while falling to the ground, and whether the ground wanted the apple to fall, and on mistaken calculations on the part of the apple as to how far it was from the centre of the earth.

Keynes to Harrod, 1938


A, having one hundred pounds stock in trade, though pretty much in debt, gives it out to be worth three hundred pounds, on account of many privileges and advantages to which he is entitled. B, relying on A’s great wisdom and integrity, sues to be admitted partner on those terms, and accordingly buys three hundred pounds into the partnership.The trade being afterwords given out or discovered to be very improving, C comes in at fivehundred pounds; and afterwards D, at one thousand one hundred pounds. And the capital is then completed to two thousand pounds. If the partnership had gone no further than A and B, then A had got and B had lost one hundred pounds. If it had stopped at C, then A had got and C had lost two hundred pounds; and B had been where he was before: but D also coming in, A gains four hundred pounds, and B two hundred pounds; and C neither gains nor loses: but D loses six hundred pounds. Indeed, if A could show that the said capital was intrinsicallyworth four thousand and four hundred pounds, there would be no harm done to D; and B and C would have been obliged to him. But if the capital at first was worth but one hundred pounds, and increasedonly by subsequent partnership, it must then be acknowl-edged that B and C have been imposed on in their turns, and that unfortunate thoughtless D paid the piper.
A Adamson (1787) A History of Commerce (referring to the South Sea Bubble)

The Bank of England has defined procyclicality as follows:

  • First, in the short term, as the tendency to invest in a way that exacerbates market movements and contributes to asset price volatility, which can in turn contribute to asset price feedback loops. Asset price volatility has the potential to affect participants across financial markets, as well as to have longer-term macroeconomic effects; and
  • Second, in the medium term, as a tendency to invest in line with asset price and economic cycles, so that willingness to bear risk diminishes in periods of stress and increases in upturns.

Everyone is offshore recognises these traits: as the oil price rose and E&P companies started reporting record results offshore contractors had record profits. Contractors and E&P comapnies both began an investment boom, highly correlated, and on the back of this banks extended vast quantities of credit to both parties, when even the banks started getting nervous the high-yield market willingly obliged with even more credit to offshore contractors. And then the price of oil crashed an a dramatically different investment environment began.

What is procyclical on the way up with a debt boom always falls harder on the way down as a countercyclical reaction, and now the E&P companies are used to a capital light approach this is the new norm for offshore. The problem in macroeconomic terms, as I constantly repeat here, is that debt is an obligation fixed in constant numbers and as the second point above makes clear that in periods of stress for offshore contracting, such as now, the willingness to bear risk is low. Contractors with high leverage levels that required the industry to be substantially bigger cannot survive financially with new lower demand levels.

I mention this because the end of the asset bubble has truly been marked this week by the diverging results between the E&P companies and some of the large contractors. All the supermajors are now clearly a viable entities at USD 50 a barrel whereas the same cannot be said for offshore rig and vessel contractors who still face large over capacity issues.

This chart from Saipem nicely highlights the problem the offshore industry has:

Saipem backlog H1 2017 €mn

Saipem backlog Hi 2017.png

Not only has backlog in offshore Engineering and Construction dropped 13% but Saipem are working through it pretty quickly with new business at c.66% of revenues. The implication clearly being that there is a business here just 1/3 smaller than the current one. You can see why Subsea 7 worked so hard to buy the EMAS Chiyoda backlog because they added only $141m organically in Q2 with almost no new deepwater projects announced in the quarter.

It is not that industry conditions are “challenging” but clearly the industry is undergoing a secular shift to being a much smaller part of the investment profile for E&P companies and therefore a much smaller industry as the market is permanently contracting as this profile of Shell capex shows:

Shell Capex 2017

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money. The FT had a good article this week that highlighted how “Big Oil” are adapating to lower costs, and its all bad for the offshore supply chain:

The first six months of this year saw 15 large conventional upstream oil and gas projects given the green light, with reserves of about 8bn barrels of oil and oil equivalent, according to WoodMac. This compared with 12 projects approved in the whole of 2016, containing about 8.8bn barrels. However, activity remains far below the average 40 new developments approved annually between 2007 and 2013 and, with crude prices yo-yoing around $50 per barrel, analysts say the economics of conventional projects remain precarious.

Not all of these are offshore but the offshore supply chain built capacity for this demand and in fact more because utilisation was already slipping in 2014. And this statistic should terrify the offshore industry:

WoodMac says that half of all greenfield conventional projects awaiting a green light would not achieve a 15 per cent return on investment at long-term oil prices of $60 per barrel, raising “serious doubt” over their prospects for development. By this measure, there is twice as much undeveloped US shale oil capable of making money at $60 per barrel than there is conventional resources.

The backlog (or lack of) is the most worrying aspect for the financing of the whole industry. E&P companies have laid off so many engineers and slowed down so many FIDs that even if the price of oil jumped to $100 tomorrow (and no one believes that) it would take years to ramp up project delivery capacity anyway. Saipem and Subsea 7 are not exceptions they are large companies that highlight likely future work indicates that asset values at current levels may not be an anamoly for vessel and rig owners but the “new normal” as part of “lower for longer”.

I recently spoke to a senior E&P financier in Houston who is convinced “the man from Oaklahoma” is right but only because he thinks overcapacity will keep prices low: c. 50% of fracing costs come from sand, which isn’t subject to productivity improvements, and he is picking that low prices eventually catch up with the prices being paid for land. I still think that the more large E&P companies focus on improving efficiency will ensure this remains a robust source of production given their productivity improvements as Chevron’s results showed:

Chevron Permian Productivity 2017

Large oil came to the North Sea and turned it into a leading technical development centre for the rest of the world. Brazil would not be possible without the skills and competencies (e.g. HPHT) developed by the supermajors in the North Sea and I think once these same companies start focusing their R&D efforts on shale productivity will continue to increase and this will be at the expense of offshore.

It is now very clear that the supermajors, who count for the majority of complex deepwater developments that are the users of high-end vessel capacity, are very comfortable with current economic conditions. They have no incentive to binge on CapEx because even if prices go up rapidly that just means they can pay for it with current cash flow.

That means the ‘Demand Fairy’ isn’t saving anyone here and that asset values are probably a fair reflection of their economic earning potential. Now the process between banks and offshore contractors has become one of counter-cyclicality where the asset price-feedback loop is working in reverse: banks will not lend on offshore assets because no one knows (or wants to believe) the current values and therefore there are no transactions beyond absolute distress sales. This model has been well understood by economists modelling contracting credit and asset values:

Asset Prices and Credit Contracttion

Getting banks to allocate capital to offshore in the future will be very hard given the risk models used and historical losses. Offshore assets will clearly be subject to the self referencing model above.

I remain convinced that European banks and investors are doing a poor job compared to US investors about accepting the scale of their loss and the need for the industry to have significantly less capital and asset value than it does now. Too many investors thought this downturn was like 2007/08, when there was a quick rebound, and while this smoothed asset prices somewhat on the way down this cash was used mainly for liquidity, it is now running dry and not more will be available (e.e. Nor Offshore) at anything other than penal terms given the uncertainty. Until backlog is meaningfully added across the industry asset values should, in a rational world, remain extremely depressed and I believe they will.