Hindsight Offshore: McDermott Amazon

Way back in February 2017 I asked how good a deal McDermott buying the Amazon really was?

Here is the answer in their latest results… and it is that it was not that good a deal:

On July 27, 2018, we entered into agreements (the “Amazon Modification Agreements”) providing for certain modifications to the Amazon vessel and related financing and amended bareboat charter arrangements. The total cost of the modifications, including project management and other fees and expenses, is expected to be in the range of approximately $260 million to $290 million.

So they got a deepwater lay vessel finally for $310-345m including the initial purchase price. I would say Saipem got a much better deal on the Constellation (€250m) if they can ever get any work for it (and given their strained relations with Aker on North Sea work the real winner in that deal were the banks).

McDermott face trying to break into the UDW installation market with that asset in order to have any hope of recouping that level of investment, and although they have vast technical expertise the fact is most of it is in shallower water, and the only way someone is going to hire them for UDW work is for them to be cheap. SS7, Technip FMC, and Saipem all have substantial excess capacity in this regard. Entering this market will also require vast amounts of working capital, something McDermott clearly lacks at the moment. They are going to have to take delivery of the new vessel and associated kit in an oversupplied market with no backlog of note with the only certainty being the lease payments on a ~300m worth of kit (and use this to fund a loss making onshore construction business).

The Winners Curse.

A money creation theory of offshore asset recovery…

The reason we are less enthused by companies which rely on tangible assets such as buildings or manufacturing plants [Ed: or rigs/jackups/ships?] is that anyone with a big enough budget can easily replicate (and compete with) their business. Indeed, they are often able to become better than the original simply by installing the latest technology in their new factory. Banks are also quite keen to lend against the collateral of tangible assets under the often illusory view that this gives them greater security, meaning that such assets can also be financed easily with debt, or as we call it, ‘other people’s money’. Debt is provided to such companies both cheaply, and with seeming abandon at certain times in the economic cycle, with often perilous results.

Smithson Investment Trust, Owners Manual

High confidence tends to be associated with inspirational stories, stories about new business initiatives, tales of how others are getting rich…

Akerlof and Shiller, Animal Spirits

…the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animal spirits — of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

Keynes, Chap 2: The State of Long Term Expectations, in The General Theory

While quite ready to change my opinion, I have, at present, a strong conviction that these two economic maladies, the debt disease and the price-level disease (or dollar disease), are, in the great booms and depressions, more important causes than all others put together…

Some of the other and usually minor factors often derive some importance when combined with one or both of the two dominant factors.

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 Debt Deflationary Theory of Great Depressions

… the modern debt-deflation process encompasses falling asset prices, debt repayment difficulties, a reluctance to lend, a financial crisis, the impact on the banks, and the inter-dependency of the financial system…

Wolfson, Cambridge Journal of Economics

Financial illiteracy is a recipe for debt, default and depression, whose effects appear to feedback on each another in a vicious spiral.

These individual costs are amplified when they are aggregated up to the macro level. How people’s expectations evolve – their degree of optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – is crucial for determining their individual decisions. It has long been recognised that these expectations can be shaped importantly by others’ expectations. For example, “popular narratives” can emerge which shape collective expectations among the public – optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – and which can then drive aggregate economic fluctuations…

At a macroeconomic level, the work of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller has looked at the popular narratives which emerge during periods of boom and bust.  Using words extracted from newspapers, they find the prevailing popular narratives about the economy have played a significant role in accounting for the heights of the peaks and depths of the troughs during macro-economic booms and busts. Public expectations, embedded in the stories they tell, are a key macro-economic driver.

Andrew Haldane, Bank of England, Folk Wisdom

Last week the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia gave a speech titled “Money – Born of Credit?”, in this speech he outlined an important, yet underappreciated fact, of modern economies: deposits in bank accounts are caused by loans. A lot of people think that by putting money in their bank account they are giving the bank the ability to make a loan, but actually in a systemic sense it is the other way around: the money in your account is the result of banks making loans that end up as deposits in your account. In case you think this is some bizarre, and wrong, economic tangent, the Bank of England has an explanatory article “Money creation in the modern economy” which states:

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The Chief Economist of Standard and Poor’s summed it up in this article:

Banks lend by simultaneously creating a loan asset and a deposit liability on their balance sheet. That is why it is called credit “creation”–credit is created literally out of thin air (or with the stroke of a keyboard). The loan is not created out of reserves. And the loan is not created out of deposits: Loans create deposits, not the other way around.

This ability of privately owned banks to have the power of money creation is not often discussed. To many economists, although generally not those working at banks, this is a privilege where the ability to ‘privatize the profits and socialise the risk, is most flagrant and should perhaps be regulated more. The ‘Exorbitant Privilege‘ of the private sector. There is significant evidence that financial and banking crises have indeed become more common since the move to deregulate the financial system and credit creation that became especially strong post the end of the Bretton Woods era (post 1973).

If you are still reading at this point you may be wondering where I am going with this? The answer is that the implications for an industry like offshore, an asset-backed industry where values were sustained by huge amounts of bank leverage, are important for understanding what a “recovery” will look like. The psychology and ‘animal spirits’ of the commercial banks is likely to matter more than any single factor in dictating when an asset price recovery will be. Given that the loan books are closed to all but tier 1 borrowers, and contracting overall in offshore sector exposure, this would appear to be some way off.

Part of “the boom” in offshore since 2000, barring a short and sharp downturn in 2008/09, was the increasing value of rigs and offshore support vessels, but important too was the willingness of banks to lend against 2P reserves (Reserve Based Lending). This was a pro-cyclical boom where because everyone believed the offshore assets and reserves were worth more than their book value banks were willing to lend significant amounts of money against them. There was a positive and logical narrative of a resource-contrained oil world to unlock the animal spirits, it wasn’t irrational per se. As these assets changed hands banks created deposits in company accounts, they literally created “money” out of thin air by believing that the assets were worth more than they were previously. It is no different to a housing boom, and the more money the banks pumped in, the more everyone believed their assets were worth more (as the deposits grew). Ergo a pro-cyclical credit boom combined with an oil price boom. The demand for oil, and its price, has recovered, and this will affect the amount of offshore work undertaken, but the negative effects of an asset price boom will take longer to recover.

Right now the banks aren’t creating any new money for the offshore sector, collectively they are actually destroying it. When banks refuse to lend on ships or rigs no deposits flow through the system. Money from outside the system stops flowing into the offshore sector from the banks. Values and transactions are supported by the economic earning potential of current assets and the amount of equity and debt raised externally by funds. None of these “creates” money as banks do. These funds are “inside” money.

As an example last week Noble purchased a jack-up from a yard in Indonesia and was granted a loan by the yard selling the unit (a Gusto unit pcitured above). A piece of paper was exchanged and credit was created for the $60m loan of the total ~$94m price. Neither firm has any more money than they had prior to signing the loan contract. Credit isn’t the same as money… had a bank been involved (simplistically) it would have credited the yard with $60m, created a debt of $60m for Noble (a debit), and created an asset for $60m on its balance sheet. This money would have flowed from outside the offshore industry. The total value of the transaction would have been the same but the economic consequences, particularly for the liquidity of the yard, would have been very different. It is safe to say the reason this didn’t happen is because no bank would lend the money under similar terms. Relief rather than animal spirits seems a more likely emotion for this transaction.

It is not just the offshore contracting companies but also the E&P companies that are suffering from reduced bank credit and this is affecting the number of projects they can execute (despite a rise in the oil price). Premier is currently raising funds for the Sealion project, as part of this Drilquip has been given the contract for significant parts of the subsea scope, and they have provided this on a credit basis. In past times Premier would simply have borrowed the money from a bank and paid Drilquip. Now Drilquip has an asset in how much credit it has extended Premier but in the hierarchy of money that is lower than the cash it would previously have had, and it has to wait for Premier to sell the oil to pay it, and take credit risk and oil price risk in the meantime. Vendor financing is not the panacea for offshore because unlike banks vendors can create credit, but not money, and these are two fundamentally different things. There is a financial limit to how many customer Drilquip can serve like this. Collectively this lowers the universe of potential projects for E&P companies, and therefore the growth of the industry, that can be achieved. Credit creation is essential for an industry to grow beyond its ability to generate funds internally.

Another good example is the Pacific Radiance restructuring. Here the proposed solution, that I am enormously sceptical of, is that a new investor comes in allows the banks to restructure their loan contracts/ assets such that they can get paid SGD 100m in cash immediately while writing down the size of the loan. The equity and funds coming in are funds from the existing stock of money supply, they are not additional liquidity created by a belief in underlying asset values and represented by a paper loan contract and a growth in the loan book of the bank. While the new funds are adding to the total stock of money available to the offshore industry the bank involved is taking nearly as much off the table and you can be sure they won’t be lending it back to the sector. And thus the money stock and capital of the industry is reduced. Asset values remain low and the pain counter-cyclical process continues.

When you see companies announcing asset impairments and net losses that flow through to retained earnings this is often merely accounting of the banks withdrawing money from the sector and the economic cost of the asset base not being in tune with the amount of money available to the industry as a whole. It is also seen in share price reductions as the assets will never pay their owners the cash flows previously forecast.

In a modern economy this is normally the transmission mechanism from a credit bubble to a subsequent economic collapse: the ability of private sector banks, and only banks because of the system can create “money”, to amplify asset prices and cause sectoral booms on the way up and reduce the money stock and asset valuations on the way down. Why this happens is a complex topic and cannot be tackled in a blog, but it has clearly happened in offshore. Just as it has happened in housing booms, mining booms, ad infinitum previously. The dynamics are well known and are accentuated in industries which have had a lot of leverage. Much work was undertaken following the depression of agricultural prices in the 1930s, a commodity like oil which fluctuated wildly but the tangible backing of land allowed banks to supply significant leverage to the sector. Irving Fisher, quoted above, was famous for predicting that the US stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau” in 1929,  but his understanding of debt dyamics from studying banking and the US dustbowl depression transformed our understanding of the role of credit and banking.

[This explanation crucially differentiates between inside-money and outside-money. I am making a distinction between money generated inside the offshore sector and outside. By inside money I mean E&P company from expenditure, credit created amongst firms in the industry, and retained earnings. Outside money is primarily bank credit and private equity and debt funds. But whereas private equity and debt funds must raise money from the existing money stock only bank created money raises the volume of money].

In offshore the credit dynamics have been combined with the highly cyclical oil industry and allows optimists to believe a “recovery” is just possible. But a recovery scenario that is credible needs to differentiate between an industrial recovery, driven by the amount of E&P projects commissioned, and an asset price recovery, which is essentially a monetary phenomenon.

A limited industrial recovery is underway. It is limited by the availability of bank credit and the huge debts built up in the previous boom by the E&P companies, and their insistence that shareholders need dividends that reflect the volatility risk of the oil and gas industry. It is also limited because of the significant market share US shale has taken from offshore. But the volume of offshore project work is increasing. This is positive for those service firms who had limited asset exposure, and particularly for the Tier 1 offshore contractors, as much of the work being undertaken is deepwater projects that are large in scope.

But an asset recovery is still a long way off. There are too many assets for the volume of work in the short-run and in the long run it will be very hard to get banks to advance meaningful volumes of credit to the industry. Companies can write loan contracts with each other that represent a value, but banks monetise that immediately by providing liquid funds and therefore raising the animal spirits in the industry, whereas shipyards lending money to drilling companies need them to generate the funds before they can get paid. The velocity and quantity of money within the industry become much smaller. Patience and animal spirits make poor bedfellows.

Bank risk models for a long time will highlight offshore as a) volatile, and b) risky given that a bad deal can see even the senior lenders wiped out completely. Like all of us banks fight the last crisis as they understand it best. Until banks start lending again the flow of funds into the offshore industry will mean the stock of assets that were created in more meaningful times are worth less. In a modern economy credit creation is the sign that animal spirits are returning because it raises the return to equity (and high yield) providers.

In the boom days leading up to 2014 money and credit were plentiful. The net result was a vast amount of money being “created” for the offshore sector and a lot of deposits being created in accounts by virtue of the loans banks were creating to companies in the offshore sector based on their asset value. Now the animal spirits are no more and a feeling of caution prevails. The amount of money entering the sector via higher oil prices and private equity and debt firms is much smaller than was previously created by the banking sector. Over time this should lead to a more rational industry structure… but a repeat f 2014 days is likely to be so far away that the market at least has forgotten it…

As The Great Man said:

We should not conclude from this that everything depends on waves of irrational psychology. On the contrary, the state of long-term expectation is often steady…[but]…We are merely reminding ourselves that human decisions affecting the future, whether personal or political or economic, cannot depend on strict mathematical expectation, since the basis for making such calculations does not exist; and that it is our innate urge to activity which makes the wheels go round, our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance.

Offshore takeovers and the psychology of preferences…

Haile selassie.jpg

Courtier T.L. — Amid all the people starving, missionaries and nurses clamoring, students rioting, and police cracking heads, His Serene Majesty went to Eritrea, where he was received by his grandson, Fleet Commander Eskinder Desta, with whom he intended to make an official cruise on the flagship Ethiopia. They could only manage to start one engine, however, and the cruise had to be called off. His Highness then moved to the French ship Protet, where he was received on board by Hiele, the well-known admiral from Marseille. The next day, in the port of Massawa, His Most Ineffable Highness raised himself for the occasion to the rank of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and made seven cadets officers, thereby increasing our naval power. Also he summoned the wretched notables from the north who had been accused by the missionaries and nurses of speculation and stealing from the starving, and he conferred high distinctions on them to prove that they were innocent and to curb the foreign gossip and slander.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor” (1978)

“It was surreal. When someone asked why he was doing the deal, here–now, he actually said, basically, ‘Because Americans are the dumbest investors around, and there’s lots of liquidity in this market.’”

From Kathryn Welling


An industry in decline has much in common with the decline of an Empire and the ancien regime. The changing of the guard, the Schumpterian competition that upsets the stability of the known order, is a constant in the evolution of social systems. Kapuscinski’s account of the fall of Haile Selassie’s empire is a classic account of a system unable to intepret information in the light of new objective realities with direct relevance to businesses facing structural changes. 

I think one needs to look at recent takeovers in offshore with a degree of cynicism that moves beyond the stated narrative of ‘confidence in the future’ based on rising oil prices, but also reflects the unwillingness of the participants to objectively view the risks being taken as the ancien regime of offshore faces a more competitive environment. One of the best comments I have read on the Tranocean/Ocean Rig deal is from Bassoe Offshore ‘Transocean Saves Ocean Rig from slow-moving train wreck‘. But the article only highlights the huge utilisation risks this deal (like so many others) creates: if the work doesn’t come at forecast levels Transocean will have gifted value to Ocean Rig who had few other options. A collection of rigs in cold-stack is not worth billions.

I would also add that I think the Transocean/Ocean Rig and Tidewater/Gulfmark takeovers bear striking similarities beyond the superficial of underutilised asset companies proffering a Common Knowledge of future confidence in future demand. The core similarity is that the shareholders of the selling entities were largely restructured debt holders and distressed debt investors seeking an exit from their investments. Behind the scenes these investors appear to have looked at the lack of forward demand, the high cash burn rate, and the willingness and ability of their competitors to burn cash with an identical strategy and asset base, and instructed an investment bank to get them out of their position. A peculiarity of the ORIG deal is the ability of the colourful Mr Economou to extract $130m over and above his proportionate economic interest in the company (the MSA break fee in the presentation), a situation that I imagine only encouraged the other shareholders to want to relinquish control (FT Alphaville has some interesting background on the him and here).

It is worth taking a recap on what the Common Knowledge was until quite recently (see here and here ) regarding the offshore industry (pushed by the Missionaries at the investment banks and other promoters). In 2017 and at the start of 2018 a credible story, as can be seen from the Seadrill restructuring presentation below, was for a sharp rebound in day rates and utilisation. The Seadrill restructuring was so complex and long that by late 2017 when it was actually due for completion, an update had to be issued and lo-and-behold the recovery was further off than first anticipated (if at all)…

Seadrill VA Dec 17.png

This presentation was by no means unique. Credible people will tell you that not only will day-rates double in three years (or less), but also that this will happen in addition to utilisation hitting 2014 levels. And this will all happen apparently in an environment where E&P companies are deliberately using shale as a competing investment to lower offshore costs…

It may happen, I don’t know the future, there is Knightian uncertainty, but on a probability weighted basis I would argue these sorts of outcomes are low probability events. The offshore industry will over time reach a new equilibrium in terms of demand and supply, in almost all other industries where there has been severe overcapacity issues before normalisation, it has led to lower structural profits on an ongoing basis.

Financial markets work on narratives and Common Knowledge as much fundamental valuation models rooted in the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Indeed these are the core of a financial bubble: a mis-alignment of current prices with long-term risk-weighted returns. What offshore industry particpants wanted to believe in 2017, against the face of significant evidence to the contrary, was that there would be a quick rebound in the demand for offshore drilling and subsea services. Despite the public pronouncements of the major E&P companies that CapEx was fixed and excess cash would be used to pay shareholders or reduce debt, despite the clear investment boom forming in shale, and despite stubbornly low day rates from their own contracting operations. People wanted to believe.

And so the investors rushed in. For Seadrill, for Borr Drilling, for Standard Drilling, for Solstad Farstad, and a myriad of others. While other investors through restructurings became reluctantly (pre-crash security holders) and willingly (post-crash distress debt investors) owners of these companies. Now, having realised that they own asset heavy companies, losing vast amounts of cash, with no possibility of bank lending to support asset values, and a slow growing market, they want out.

The meme for these deals is meant to be one of success… but really it isn’t. And just as the hard cash flow constraint is binding on the individual companies involved many of the hedge fund investors who get involved in these deals are required to produce quarterly performance reports. Charging 2/20 for an oil derived asset declining in the face of rising oil prices can cause questions, or even worse, redemptions.

So having rapidly opened the ‘black box’ of the companies they own the shareholders in both Gulfmark and ORIG realised that they were the proud owners of companies with no immediate respite from the market. The the most logical way to get out was to get shares in an even bigger entity where the shares are significantly more liquid and tradeable. That management of the acquired entities managed to get an acquisition premium is testament to the skills of the bankers involved no doubt, but also down to the fact that the acquiring companies wanted to be bigger, not because they really believe in a market recovery and pricing power (although the pricing power is valid), but because if or when they next raise capital it is better to be bigger in absolute value terms. Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome…

In behavioural finance it is well known that humans overweight the possibility effect of unlikely high risk outcomes and underweight more likely certainty effects (the canonical reference is here):

POP 2018

What does this mean for offshore in general and Transocean/ORIG in particular? It means that the managers backing this deal are overweighting the possibility of a sudden and unexpected rise in offshore demand versus the more statistically likely chance of a gradual return to equilibrium of the market. It is exactly the same miscalculation that the management and shareholders of Borr Drilling appear to have made. The decline in share values recently indicates some shareholders in all these companies get the deal here. The risk of a slow recovery, and a vast increase in the stacking costs of the ORIG rigs is borne more significantly by Transocean shareholders who have borrowed ~$900m to fund the deal, while the upside is shared on a proportionate economic interest basis.

I have confidence in offshore as a production technique for the long-term. It will be a significant part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. But a 2008 style recovery, given the importance of shale as a marginal producer and the increased offshore fleet size, looks to be an unlikely outcome that is still being heavily being bet on.


Group think and conventional wisdom…

“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.”

J.K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society


“All that we imagine to be factual is already theory: what “we know” of our surroundings is our interpretation of them”

Friedrich Hayek


We find broad- based and significant evidence for the anchoring hypothesis; consensus forecasts are biased towards the values of previous months’ data releases, which in some cases results in sizable predictable forecast errors.

Sean D. Campbell and Steven A. Sharpe, Anchoring Bias in Consensus Forecasts and its Effect on Market Prices

Great quote in the $FT yesterday that reveals how hard it has been in the oil and gas industry for professional analysts to read the single biggest influencing factor that is reshaping the supply chain: rising CapEx productivity and its ongoing continued pressure. Money quote:

Mr Malek said that with the notable exception of ExxonMobil, most energy majors had shown they were capable of growing output quickly even when investing less than it used to.

“We all thought production was going to fall off a cliff from Big Oil when they started slashing spending in 2014,” said Mr Malek. “But it hasn’t. The majority of them are coming out on the front foot in terms of production.” [Emphasis added].


An outlook where E&P companies can substantially reduce CapEx and maintain output is not one in a lot of forecast models. Forecasts are rooted in a liner input/out paradigm that leads to a new peak oil doomsday scenario. But the data is coming in: E&P companies are serious about reducing CapEx long term and especially relative to output, and collectively the analyst community didn’t realise it. The meme was all “when the rebound comes…” as night follows day…

The BP example I showed was not an aberration. For a whole host of practical and institutional reasons it is hard to model something like 40% increase in productivity in capital expenditure. But the productivity of E&P CapEx, along with the marginal investment dollar spend,  has enormous explanatory power and implications for the offshore and onshore supply chain.

Aside from behavioural constraints (partly an availability heuristc and partly an anchoring bias) the core reason analysts are out though is because their models are grounded in history. Analysts have used either a basic regression model, which over time would have shown a very high correlation between Capex and Output Production, or they simply divided production output by CapEx spend historically and rolled it forward. When they built a financial model they assumed these historic relationships, strong up until 2014, worked in the future… But these are linear models: y if the world hasn’t changed. The problem is when x doesn’t = anymore and really we have a multivariate world and that becomes a very different modelling proposition (both because the world has changed and a more challenging modelling assignment). We are in a period of a  structural break with previous eras in offshore oil and gas.

These regressions don’t explain the future so cannot be used for forecasting. No matter how many times you cut it and reshape the data the historical relationship won’t produce a relationship that validly predicts the future. At a operational level at E&P companies this is easier to see: e.g. aggressive tendering, projects bid but not taken forward if they haven’t reached a threshold, the procurement guys wants another 10k a day off the rig. There is a lag delay before it shows up in the models or is accepted as the conventional wisdom.

SLB Forecast.png

Source: Schlumberger

Over the last 10 years, but with an acceleration in the last five, an industrial and energy revolution (and I do not use the term lightly) has taken place in America. To model it would actually be an exponential equation (a really complicated one at that), and even then subject to such output errors that wouldn’t achieve what (most) analysts needed in terms of useful ranges and outputs. But the errors, in statitics the epsilon, is actually where all the good information, the guide to the future, is buried.

But when the past isn’t a good guide to the future, as is clearly the case in the oil and gas market at the moment, understanding what drives forecasts and what they are set up to achieve is ever more important. How predictive are the models really?

A lot of investment has gone into offshore as the market has declined. A lot of it not because people really believe in the industry but because they believe they will make money when the industry reverts to previous price and utilisation levels, a mean reversion investment thesis often driven on the production rationale cited in the quote. Investors such as these have really being buying a derivative to expose themselves, often in a very leveraged way, to a rising oil price, assuming or hoping, frankly at times in the face of overhwelming contrary evidence, that the historic relationship between the oil price and these assets would return.

These investors are exposed to basis risk: when the underlying on which the derivative is based changes its relationship in its interaction with the derivative. These investors thought they were buying assets exposed in a linear fashion to a rising oil price, but actually the structure of the industry has changed and now they just own exposure to an underutilised asset that is imperfectly hedged (and often with a very high cost of carry). Shale has changed the marginal supply curve of the oil industry and the demand curves for oil field services fundamentally. Models utilising prior relationships simply cannot conceptually or logically explain this and certainly offer zero predictive power.

The future I would argue is about the narrative. Linking what people say and actions taken and mapping out how this might affect the future. To create the future and be a part of it you cannot rely on past hisotrical drivers you need to understand the forces driving it. Less certain statistically but paradoxically more likely to be right.

Reserves Rise Rapidly…

I have writtent about reserve replacement ratio figures before (i.e. here). It has become part of the accepted meme in offshore for why there must be a recovery. The above IEA data just released categorically shows this isn’t really an issue at the moment and there are now numerous data points that for large companies in particular investors are happy for the reserves figures to drop below historical averages.


I am writing a longer piece on momentum, herding, and the jack-up market where I think people are getting a little carried away. I note that this isn’t unique to the oil and gas segment with the FT having a good article on Norwegian this weekend. Like some jack-up companies today Norwegian took an outsized bet on a market coming about (low cost international with a new business model), unfortunately for them it just hasn’t. Norwegian benefited from aircraft manufacturers wanting to sell planes that allowed them to embed huge amounts of leverage in their financial structure that would not be possible in a “normal” market. As the Bernstein analyst says:

“If you’re a holder, you need to sell. If you can short the stock, short the stock.” A second analyst, who did not want to be named, is blunter: Norwegian could “go bust in the autumn”.

Stock markets are known to be irrational, momentum strategies in particular are known to exist at certain points in time but to be transitory in  nature. Norwegian serves as a warning to anyone following exactly the same strategy in oil and gas.

However, nothing excites markets more than forecasts of markets doubling in five years (a magical number in  finance which equates to a 15% compaound annual growth rate over five years (1.15^5*)) forgetting that earnings discounted that far out at a discount rate that reflects the risk could easily absorb any rational return calculations.

But back to my point here: if reserves are your argument for increased offshore activity I think you need a new one.

*Number updated for a typo in the original version.

The oil price meme…

As the oil price passes USD 80 there is a really interesting post (lengthy, but great) here from Epsilon Theory on memes:

If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this: we are ALL hard-wired — literally hard-wired through millions of years of neurological evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. We are ALL programmed — literally programmed through tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. It’s no exaggeration to say that our biological and cultural symbiosis with memes defines the modern human species. This is a feature, not a bug.

Eusocial animals (the “pure” form of what it means to be a social animal) swim in an ocean of constant intra-species communications. It’s why these species — the ant, the termite, the bee, and the human — are the most successful multicellular animal species on the planet. Eusocial animals have the ability to store, retrieve and broadcast information (yes, eusocial insects communally “remember” incredibly complex informational structures) in a way that non-eusocial animals simply can’t, and it allows the eusocial animal not only to survive its environment, but to master its environment. Any environment. Humans are essentially giant termites with opposable thumbs and fire, and that combination is particularly unstoppable. But it’s the termite-ness … it’s the swimming in an ocean of constant intra-species communication … that’s the most important of these qualities.

Right on cue this week the FT carried a piece from the research firm Energy Aspects:

While there has been breathless attention paid to prompt Brent prices climbing to $80 a barrel for the first time since 2014, what has received less attention is that the entire Brent forward curve is now trading above $60, including contracts for delivery as far out as December 2024.

This development is an important psychological milestone for the oil market. The market is, in effect, saying that “lower for longer” is dead. (Emphasis added).

Narratives and memes are getting a lot of focus in economics for the right reasons as the above authors realise.

The Bank for International Settlements this week came out with some research that suggested 30-35% of the movement in oil prices was down to demand and supply and the rest of the movement down to potentially financialisation, speculation and other factors.

Another of the big (related) reasons for the procyclicality of the oil price (which the BIS touch on) is the structutral nature of the trading firms in the oil market. When the price is going up CFOs/Risk Officers feel good because they are buying at 70 and selling at 75. So bid/ask spreads narrow, inventory goes up, leverage goes up, and risk is on… whereas on the way down the value of inventory is declining, leverage does down, the bid ask spreak widens, volumes drop… we’ve been here before. Where we haven’t been before is in an oil market where a marginal producer has potentially such a powerful impact on the market.

Overdiscounting… the future of offshore…

The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reasons and understanding, by which we are capable of discerning the remote consequences of all our actions; and, secondly, self-command, by which we are enabled to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain in order to obtain a greater pleasure in some future time.

Adam Smith, 1759


For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it ‘for keeps’, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.

John Maynard Keynes, 1936


The slide above taken from Transocean highlights how competitve offshore has become on a per barrel recovered basis. I’ll ignore the fact that the cost estimates for shale appear high because it isn’t my point: the real point is that to compete in the modern environment offshore oil production will have to be significantly more profitable on a per barrel recoverable basis because there is significant evidence managers underestimate (“overdiscount“) future financial returns the further away they are. Shale returns, while lower, are produced in a much shorter time period than offshore and behavioral finance shows strong evidence that managers prefer these sorts of returns at lower levels when compared to higher returns further away.

In  2011 Andrew Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability at the Bank of England, and Richard Davis, and Economist at the Bank of England spoke at a Bank for International Settlements conference and noted:

[r]ecently, in 2011 PriceWaterhouseCoopers conducted a survey of FTSE-100 and 250 executives, the majority of which chose a low return option sooner (£250,000 tomorrow) rather than a high return later (£450,000 in 3 years). This suggested annual discount rates of over 20%. Recently, Matthew Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (America’s second biggest rail company), expressed frustration at the focus on quarterly earnings when locomotives lasted for 20 years and tracks for 30 to 40 years. Echoes, here, of “quarterly capitalism”.

In 2013 McKinsey & Co and CPPIB surveyed 1000 Board members and found:

  • 63% of respondents said the pressure to generate strong short-term results had increased over the previous five years.
  • 79% felt especially pressured to demonstrate strong financial performance over a period of just two years or less.
  • 44% said they use a time horizon of less than three years in setting strategy.
  • 73% said they should use a time horizon of more than three years.
  • 86% declared that using a longer time horizon to make business decisions would positively affect corporate performance in a number of ways, including strengthening financial returns and increasing innovation.
  • 46% of respondents said that the pressure to deliver strong short-term financial performance stemmed from their boards—they expected their companies to generate greater earnings in the near term.

The implications for offshore investment (decision tree here) versus the certainty of a short payoff from shale investment are obvious. It has been well known in economics for years that managers overdiscount future returns: in behavioural economics it falls under time preference problems. Humans are neurologically wired with a preference for immediacy that affects economic behaviour. As Haldane and Davis make clear:

This evidence – anecdotal, survey, quantitative – is broadly consistent with popular perceptions. Capital market myopia is real.

As early as 1972 Mervyn King, who would later become Governor of the Bank of England, noted that managers in the UK overdiscounted returns from long term investments. This stream of literature dried up as the Efficient Market Hypothesis took over as the vogue theory but it doesn’t change an actual reality.

The fact is that in competition for marginal oil investment dollars there are institutional and behavioural factors pushing for short-term solutions. This article in the Financial Times notes that Shell is under pressure as the CFO hasn’t outlined when the promised $25bn share buyback will start. Do you think the CFO at Shell is pushing for a new Appomattox because it has lower economic costs (but high CapEx) or will she simply seek to favour short pay-off, lower margin, projects?

Managers pushing offshore projects in E&P companies are running into senior managers who represent exactly those type of Board members surveyed by McKinsey and CPPIB. These managers aren’t wilfully myopic, the shareholders are pushing them to be, but they are more focused on immediate payoffs and overdiscounting the costs of the offshore projects. Again this quote from Haldane and Davis seems apposite:

Graham, Harvey and Rajgopal (2005) surveyed 401 executives. They found three striking results. First, managers would reject a positive-NPV project if that lowered earnings below quarterly consensus expectations. Second, over 75% of the sample would give up economic value in order to smooth earnings. Third, managers said that this was driven by the desire to satisfy investors.

When there was no shale this wasn’t an option as the question was “Do you want oil or not?”. The question is a whole lot more complex now and involves and assessment of certainty, risk, payoff potential and timing, and the pricing uncertainty of a volatile commodity over the long run. All this points to the fact the the financial and institutional barriers to new offshore projects are much higher than simple “rational” expectation models of future payoffs would suggest.