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

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

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


Irving Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAC RAD Sales Q1 2017

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

PAC RAD Cash Flow Q1 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Primer on Financial Contagion

Massimo Sbracia and Marcello Pericoli


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

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

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

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

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

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

Main elements in this context are the following:

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

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

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

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

(v) Introduction of cash sweep mechanism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DESS Repayment profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSV market runs out of ‘Greater Fools’… Keppel version…

It might have been supposed that competition between expert professionals, possessing judgment and knowledge beyond that of the average private investor, would correct the vagaries of the ignorant individual left to himself. It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise. 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

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” (Stein’s Law)

— Herbert Stein

The greater fool investment theory is acribed to the Great Man, who in a famous passage noted that the stock market worked like a beauty parade and that picking a winner was not about backing one’s own judgement:

“It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.”

(Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936)

This led to the ‘greater fool’ theory as it has been observed that assets trade not on an intrinsic value (i.e. the cash they can be assumed to generate) but on the basis of what people believe others will pay for them at some point in the future. The boom in DSV building is running into the wall of cash requirements and a shortage of fools willing to invest in them.

If the market scuttlebut is true, and I believe it is, somewhere in 31 Shipyard Road, if it hasn’t happened already, a terrible realisation is taking place: New Orient Marine Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of  Marine Construction Services Ltd (Luxembourg), has a financing issue with the new ICE Class DSV, and in reality isn’t going to take delivery as planned. SOR reported last week that they were seeking a charterer at rates of USD 80-100k a day, a number that if true is so absurd it is beyond satire. The vessel as you can see from the Keppel Q1 presentation is due to be delivered at some time this year.

You can write the script here I suspect: New Orient will be a thinly capitalised company that had sufficient funds to make the progress payments only. Unable to get work for the vessel they have now have no takeout financing, and will be unable to take delivery from Keppel. A frantic search is therefore underway to find someone, anyone, to try and take the vessel off their hands.

At the time the order was signed in 2015 (when the market was cooling significantly), Keppel issued this press release with the comment:

Mr Knut Reinertz, Director of Maritime Construction Services, said, “There is a demand for modern ice-class multi-purpose vessels in the market and we believe this new state-of-the art vessel we are building with Keppel Singmarine is ideally suited to meet this need.

The problem I have with this statement is that how much demand there was/is? And how you split the risk? And even more importantly what is the supply side looking like? MCS/MRTS have used the Toisa Paladin in the region and it has never been on a 365 basis, and they certainly never had the forward order book to justify going long on a vessel of this complexity and cost. So they were either completely mad, or wildly optimistic as to their prospects to resell or recharter the vessel prior to delivery (and they aren’t the only people doing this in the DSV space). Unfortunately the timing is spectacularly bad. I don’t know what the payment profile was for this asset but I can guess it was something like 5% down with 10% later, and if Keppel were lucky, another 10% further on. But apart from that I don’t see them getting any more for this.

I actually believe this vessel, with a reported build costs of USD 200m, or SGD 265m, is valueless. I say this not to be controversial but a cold examination of the market and the asset.

Firstly, and most importantly, the vessel is being classed by Bureau Veritas. That wasn’t a joke, I’m serious. You can read the BV press release and documentation here. Those who have worked for a saturation diving company will appreciate the significance of this, while others may wonder where I am going with it? Saturation diving isn’t rocket science, but not everyone can do it either, you need a certain number of systems, and processes, and high quality people to be there to create a certain institutional knowledge base to do it safely and efficiently (particularly North Sea/ ICE work). Small things can cost you a lot of money and this is a classic example where cutting corners, is I believe, going to render this hull worthless. For those still here, there is no other DSV in the world classed by BV, it is just not a classification society recognised to give a vessel SAT notation. The only reason you would use them, and not DNV or Lloyds (and maybe ABS at a push), is to save money, and anyone looking at buying this vessel at anything close to its construction cost would know the original purchaser did this to be cheap. Very cheap.

Secondly, the chambers and other equipment are not NORSOK compliant. I don’t even think a BV system could be NORSOK compliant without a vast amount of bridging documentation and ancillary work (I am happy to be proven wrong on this). The only market in the world where you can get day rates that would cover that build cost is Norway, and they already have two NORSOK DSVs for a total market of 550-600 DSV days on a good year.

Thirdly, the dive system is a Lexmar, and has had known installation problems throughout the build. No one spends USD 200m on a dive vessel with a Lexmar system. Again it was done to be cheap and it will in all likelihood render the vessel unsellable.

Although I am a paid consultant I have therefore done Keppel a favour and compiled a list of all the possible buyers for this asset (who says consultants ask for your watch and then tell you the time?):




Unfortunately, as you can see, it’s quite a small list. But the number of people needing a USD 200m DSV at the moment is 0. The largest owner of high class DSVs is rapidly beoming Yard Inc. Lichtenstein is still in Shenzhen, Vard has the Haldane, and now Keppel has the New Orient DSV. And that is without getting into idle tonnage and the DSVs still to be delivered. If you speak to people associated with these assets they all assure you that they are close to selling them, yet if these vessels are not used in the North Sea they are only worth the Asian/African DSV price, where you are competing with modular systems on a PSV, and all the North Sea contractors have too much tonnage, as the Nor vessels prove. Find me a CFO from one of the big 6 who could take one of these DSVs at anything like book value, and who is willing to go to the stockmarket, with backlog collapsing, and say he has paid anything less than a steal for one of these? No one outside of these companies could get the vessel into a region where they could hope to recover that sort of cost – and even then not in the current market.

New Orient Marine Pte Ltd , are in turn linked with MRTS, a Russian owned contractor focused on the Sakhalin region (although I think they have done other work in the Caspian).  It’s worthwhile having a look at their fleet to see the sophistication of vessel they are normally used to dealing with here and the risk Keppel took in this contract given this. MCS have hired DSVs on a time charter basis, but have never owned a DSV; you therefore have to admire their… courage?… in striking out to build one of the most advanced DSVs in the world.

Clearly they were hoping to sell something well above it’s intrinsic value by being bold. The payoff was an asymetric one to MCS though, who stood to benefit enormously while Keppel are going to be stuck with this eccentric design for a long time prior to reality setting in I suspect. Keppel are a big company with a multi-billion market cap so this isn’t a “farmburner” for them, but they could realistically have to writeoff USD 150-200m here which is going to be very painful all the same. The Chinese yards have decided to play for time, the Tasik DSV was yard financed and  UDS are the potential saviour for the Lichtenstein. Not everyone can be saved here because there is just insufficient demand until the DSVs return to construction work not maintenance, and that looks a long way off.

The cynic in me says here comes Chap 11 for EZRA…

I have to hand it to the SGX: You can be a listed company and make no announcement when a creditor takes control of a USD 500m asset, and its spoolbase is also reposessed; but incorporate a minor subsidiary with 200 shares at a nominal price and you rush out an announcement. I would have asked for a please explain? But who am I? You can’t make this up.

For what its worth I see this as EZRA seeking protection under US Chapter 11 rather than trying their luck with the new Singapore code which has very little precedent. All you basically need is a US Co. and a bank account. I could be wrong but I don’t really get the point of this otherwise.



Groundhog day for EZRA…

Another day and another trading halt for EZRA. This episode is now starting to make the SGX and its listing regulations look silly. There is no real market in these shares and there is no purpose in helping to create a market by stopping trading, then starting (with no real explanation) and then stopping (repeat indefinitely)… SGX and investors need a decent explanation now. The whole point of trading shares is to provide an ongoing market, not an optional time when management can dictate if they think the shares should be traded. EZRA and its affiliates have also been given far too much dispensation for a listed company around their “going concern” status and are at the risk of over trading. Either you are a going concern, and your shares should trade continuously and the Directors feel comfortable the company can meet its obligations, or you are not and the shares should be de-listed and you should be in administration. Small, extremely irregular, events that may induce a false market in the shares warrant a temporary suspension. But investors and capital markets are not well served by these sorts of events when it is clear to even the most economically illiterate that the EZRA group of companies has extensive financial problems.

Either EZRA and its associates have almost secured a funding deal, in which case the need to give a “highly confident” statement to SGX justifying the timing; or they haven’t, and administration is nigh, or an explanation of why it isn’t. Trade creditors are publicly stating they haven’t been paid and are taking legal action, clearly those involved in the creditor standstill, most publicly Ocean Yield and Forland, have lost confidence in this process and have bowed to the inevitable. Forland in particular is clearly looking to force the issue. The length of time now between announcements regarding creditor standstills but the lack of clarity (which speaks volumes) on any alternative funding plans makes it clear that there is no solution close.

I stated as far back as December that Forland and Ocean Yield are were getting their vessels back and this is now starting to happen. Ocean Yield clearly deciding a managed handover being an infinitely better option than simply allowing the vessels to be left in an uncontrolled environment when this credit event occurs.

The real issue here clearly appears to be the banks. I read with a mild degree of mirth this week that OCBC and DBS claimed the were collateralized on their outstanding loans. Its an interesting notion this because if DBS and OCBC really believe they can sell such specialist vessels as the Lewek Constellation for anything like book value they haven’t been told the truth. All potential buyers for it as a deep-water construction vessel have sufficient tonnage and in a declining market and only the deal of a life-time may induce them to buy more assets. Without getting into a technical details “deal of a lifetime” is nothing like book value for the banks.

The key is the carry cost of such future optionality the vessel provides, the running cost for the EZRA/ EMAS Chiyoda fleet is in the tens of millions each year and there is insufficient work on the books in all likelihood to even cover the basic operating expenses. Any new investor coming into this business is stuck with a very high cost base from day one. In the current market it is a stunningly bad investment proposition. In addition without a restructure there are sufficient trade creditors whose claims are starting to be significant. Bibby is in for USD 15m, I met the MD of another subcontractor last week who is owed USD 8m from July last year (and who then went and did more work for them in October which is now becoming due), and these are clearly the tip of the iceberg. (As an aside he told me the engineering he had seen coming out of Singapore was some of the worst he had ever seen).

I maintain my view that the only realistic solution here if EZRA is to survive is a massive debt-for-equity swap in conjunction with new equity. I wonder how realistic this is, especially as it seems clear now that EMAS Chiyoda has lost some real money on the projects it has actually won in the last year, but expecting sufficient new equity to come in and recapitalise these businesses on anything like the scale that would give them a financial runway to make it through to an industry upturn, seems unrealistic. The Ocean Yield and Forland moves also indicate that there is no real progress in this regard and it looks to me as if the banks are trying to deny the seriousness of the problem. But only the banks here can have sufficient future confidence in long-term asset values to provide sufficient liquidity for EZRA to trade through. Like a central bank, if they really believe their collateral is good, and this is a mere market event, then DBS and OCBC and others should follow the Bagehot dictum and lend freely on collateral that would be good quality in ordinary times.

Of course if DBS and OCBC do this they are taking equity risk and their shareholders will likely question management judgement. But there are no good options left. Offshore assets have been sold in distressed state for between .1 and .3 in the $1 implying writedowns and running costs of hundreds of millions are coming for the banks and it seems they really don’t want to accept this. The regulatory bodies should insist on using Swiber like-for-like transactions when OCBC and DBS report.



How much is enough?

How much equity and working capital do you need to be a UKCS saturation dive contractor? And just as importantly, how much can you make from such an investment? Two different groups of North Sea DSV bondholders are pondering this question at the moment.

On the one hand are the Bibby Offshore Holding Ltd (“BOHL”) bondholders who must realise now that a financial restructuring is coming. Moodys noted in November that:

Bibby Offshore cash generation has been negative since the beginning of the year resulting in a reduction of cash on balance sheet of approximately GBP40 million out of the GBP97.1 million it had at the start of the year. Moody’s believes that cash generation will remain negative in 2017 to approximately GBP30 million with increased pressure in the first half of 2017 due to seasonality. Cash generation in the second half of 2017 should slightly improve due to the anticipated positive effects of the renegotiation of charter rates.

In anything things have only got worse… Let’s leave out the fact that the only charter open for renegotiation in 2017 is the Bibby Topaz and here BOHL have a problem: give the vessel back and the bond holders know they are not getting paid back in full as BOHL can’t generate enough revenue; or, keep the vessel, and spend some of the remaining cash on a vessel with little backlog.

Moody’s estimated Bibby will generate EBITDA of GBP 12m for 2017 and means leverage rises to more than 20x EBITDA (including operating lease calculations): a totally unsustainable number. The only hope could have been a really busy 2017 summer with extraordinarily high day-rates; however, despite high tendering levels, rates are rock bottom and the volume of work is small. The question for BOHL is only the size of the financing gap not the reality of the need for one.

BOHL needs a debt-for-equity swap. [Non-financially interested don’t need to worry about the specifics here but in essence the people who lent the company money on a fixed basis agree to turn this into shares accepting the may carry some upside potential].  In reality, I think there will be a raidcal restructuring of the BOHL. I believe the bondholders will seek a restructuring that takes the business back the 2005 model of 2 x DSVs based in Aberdeen. Singapore, Norway, and the US are gone. No offices outside Aberdeen appear to be cash flow generative at all even taking into account ROV utilisation. The bondholders are in for the Sapphire and Polaris anyway so the need to come up with the least cash exposure that offers them the maximum return. ROVs are not a BOHL specialty and there is no reason to fund that business with precious working capital beyond the DSVs own need. Its back to Waterloo Quay and 2005 for those of us who were there (and they were great days I can assure you).

Given the size fof the debt write-down the bondholders will be expected to take they will leave enough cash in to allow the business to trade for a few years in a way that maximises their chances of recovery and nothing more. So unless they can reach a revenue sharing agreement with the Volstad Topaz bond holders that won’t feature as well. The ramifications to the BOHL brand will be enormous but the cash call will be of a magnitude that will allow for little sentimentality.

What % of the business they demand for this is anyone’s gusess and will be dependent on any equity Bibby Line Group agree to put in.  These things are a matter for negotiation rather than hard-and-fast rules. Remember also this is a business that is going to have to be 100% equity financed for the foreseeable future as no one will lend to such specialist vessels without backlog (i.e. an asset and cash flow facility) for a long time. However what does seem reasonable is this:

EBITDA per DSV: GBP 8 – 12m; Corp Overhead: GBP 4m; Implied cash flow for debt multiple: GBP 16m (mid-point average). [Debt at 4.0x EBITDA: 64m]; [Debt at 5.0x EBITDA: 80m]. Outstanding debt: GBP 175m.

I get valuation and cash flow modelling are an art not a science and that I have made a lot of assumptions here. But also bear in mind most DSV operators will kill to get EBITDA of GBP 10m per vessel this year, many DSVs are going out at OPEX plus a small margin if they are lucky, and given the way discounting works I could be seen to be generous here front-loading cash flow. Don’t forget the risk either: this market is far more volatile than anyone, including me, ever thought possible. I think I am directionally correct here and I don’t need to to into greater detail in this forum. The core point is this: under any number of reasonable scenarios the bondholders are looking at writing off at least 50% – 66% of their debt and if a working capital call is made then way more than that; and that selling the DSVs in this market is probably the worst, but not unthinkable, option for them.

The BOHL bondholders are (rightly) terrified of getting the Polaris and Sapphire redelivered. Not only have the Nor/Harkand bondholders taken the vessels out of the market for them they have also highlighted what a shambles getting re-delivered such vessels can be. It is very doubtful the two BOHL DSVs could be sold at anything like the value implied by recent bond market prices (.60-.67) if at all. The bondholders knew the DSVs didn’t cover the value of the bond (i.e. it wasn’t fully secured) but they are currently spending funds they thought would be used to grow the business on basic working capital (that is the fault of the market not management it needs to be said and was a risk they took signing up to a huge unsecured portion of the bond for “general corporate purposes” in a cyclical industry). The cash position could be significantly worse than Moody’s forecast: I doubt EMAS has paid for the Angostura work and some sort of agreed deal with Borderlon, currently in arbitration, could see c. USD 5m handed over for a settlement for 10% of the outstanding claim. Anything more could mean a nuclear outcome for BOHL. Better to stem the exposure now…

At these sort of levels the bondholders are going to ask for a significant dilution of the Bibby Line Group stake (potentially all of it if a signficant amount isn’t invested with the bondholders in the new working capital facility). But the most logical option here is therefore to cut the business back to what could realistically trade at a profit and cauterise the loss making exposure. That means everything apart from the core UK dive business with maybe a couple of ROVs to support it. But the BOHL bondholders are disparate and international. And while M&G (who have their own workout team) are the largest I believe, and may have some interest in a controlled restructuring, this was a “US 144 issue” meaning that a lot of the bonds will be held by US institutions who may just write this off as it becomes to complicated. In such a situation a rump business being sold is the most likely option as there is some value there, just nothing like GBP 175m + working capital.

I think we are looking at a pre-pack here with a “credit bidding” element where the bondholders, or new investors, agree to buy the vessels, backlog, IP and management system and very little visibly changes apart from the closure of international operations and the redlivery of the Topaz and the Olympic vessels with the Borderlon claim left in the insolvent rump. Quite how far they will run the cash reserves down to before such a transaction happens will be the call of from the legal/financial advisers. Olympic, who would appear not have to any Bibby Line Group guarantee, will simply end up as an unsecured creditor and have to accept redelivery of their vessels for what in this market are essentially onerous charters. Borderlon in Houston potentially have the most to lose: having built a vessel for Bibby in the US the charter was cancelled when the market turned. I have no idea who was wrong or right legally, but UK companies traditionally do very badly in US Courts/ Arbitration and they must be hoping for a meaningful payout.

I am not sure the scale of the problems are acknowledged. The company has 10 Directors now, and seems to be focusing on such diverse strategies as small pools (which offer the prospect of cost with no immediate revenues). It’s the ultimate re-arranging of deck chairs on the Topaz  Titanic. I undertand why. I have been in a similar position and there is an element of cognitive dissonance involved. But to believe the bondholders would write off at least half their debt and fund an international expansion for a loss-making business is about as likely as believing the UKCS SAT diving market will miraculously recover. Stranger things have happened.

The only other option would seem to be an investor throwing millions into this business to keep it going until the market recovers and would involve keeping the bondholders whole. I just don’t see it and it pains me to say that. Because the answer to the first question is of course, like all post-modern phenomena, the answer is relative. BOHL not only need enough working capital to satisfy their creditors they need enough to outlast other players in the market especially DOF Subsea.

The marionette Nor Bondholders and their puppet-master Maritime Finance Corporation have a plan so cunning Blackadder would be confused. The top secret idea is to do exactly what they did last year and tie the DSVs up in Blyth and wait for the market to recover and thus, without any investment in infrastructure and systems that the other five SAT dive companies have spent millions per annum on; they will ride a demand wave and recover their investment. Like all cunning plans it involves an element of risk, namely, exactly like last year where they end up spending USD 350k per vessel per month and get no work. But hey I realise I’m a glass half empty guy…

The Nor bondholder have gambled that USD 15m is enough. However, they have burned through at least USD 2.1m since November when they raised the money and appear no closer to some paid days. The problem for Bibby isn’t that they are seriously threatening work its that it is artifically depressing DSV asset prices. I’ll discuss my views on the Nor vessels in depth later. But while their strategy is economically irrational it isn’t depressing rates because 1) E&P companies buy a system + DSV (i.e. engineering, HSE, etc); or 2) the current SAT dive companies all have excess tonnage.

The amount of working capital and the financing gap BOHL have is dependent on all these factors and there is no firm answer here. Keep the debt high and you need a lot. But whatever the agreement is it represents a number in the low tens of millions each year until a market recovery and no one can supply any quantitative information suggesting one, in fact a lot can be shown to make the opposite: this is a period of structural decline for UKCS DSVs.