DSV economics and finance 101.

The complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the U.S. securitization market has made it impossible to value certain assets fairly regardless of their quality or credit rating.”
BNP Paribas press release, August 9,2007


I don’t want realism. I want magic!

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, A Streetcar Named Desire


“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Philip K Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon


Right now is the toughest DSV that has existed since a massive DSV rebuild programme began in earnest in 2000. At the moment Toisa are in restructuring talks, Bibby have not made money for at least two years, Harkand are no more, and a host of other smaller companies have gone bankrupt. The cause was that there was too little work at profitable rates.

Currently there is a vast inventory of North Sea class Dive Support vessels mounting up: 2 x Nor Offshore, 1 x Vard, 1 x Bibby Sapphire, various assets of Technip and Subsea 7, and various Toisa, for non-comprehensive list. In Asia the number of underutilised DSVs is so vast, and the competition so intense from PSVs with modular SAT systems, that the new normal is OpEx breakeven if you are lucky. Keppel have a USD 200m DSV that can’t be sold  and another Toisa DSV is in the production line in China . As in Europe intense price competition is stopping anyone of the dive companies making any money.

By any traditional measure of economic and financial analysis this is not a good time to launch a new DSV company, either as an owner, where the market is oversupplied and no owner can even get his book value back on the boats, or as a dive contractor where an excess of capacity is driving the price of work to its cost or less. It is worth noting that the new build Tasik DSV, with a 365 five year charter to Fugro, could not get takeout financing from the yard.

Into this maelstrom is coming Ultradeep Solutions (“UDS”),Flash Tekk Engineering, and a Chinese yard…

The distinction between the North Sea fleet and the rest of the world is important as everyone knows in the market the North Sea environmental conditions demand a higher specification vessel and therefore day rates have always been higher. The ROW has never chartered tonnage of the same cost because they don’t need too, older vessels traded out of the North Sea and finished their days in Asia or Africa for lower rates but trading on the higher spec and build quality.

UDS is building North Sea standard tonnage when both Harkand and Bibby, pure IRM and diving companies, could not operate similar, less expensive tonnage, profitably. That is a statement of fact. In order to operate in the North Sea you need a certain amount of infrastructure that I estimate at a minimum costs c. £5-8m per annum for two vessels, to cover things like bidding, HSE, business development, plus the vessel running costs (detailed below). Or you could just charter the vessels to someone willing to pay. There is no middle ground here. Nor Offshore recently tried and got zero utilisation, it is not a product anyone wants, or needs, to buy.

The problem is there are no charterers, and companies like Bibby, who despite their capital structure still offer a very good product, cannot even break even on the vessels: this should be a word of warning for companies seeking to enter. No owner wants to accept there has been a structural change in demand in the North Sea as it means writing off tens of millions of dollars on asset values. Like the financial crisis, which began nearly ten years ago today, everyone owning a DSV claims their assets are impossible to value fairly, what they mean is the price they would get isn’t one they are prepared to accept (cognitively even if they had to take it financially). Just like the financial crisis securities the vessels are used as collateral, when the risks of ownership of these assets cannot easily be assessed, as with DSVs now, their price falls and they become in effect untradeable at any price.

Anyone raising money for a high-end DSV at the moment needs to explain how even if they paid the yard delivered price only why they wouldn’t then go down the road to Vard and offer 10% less for theirs, then the Nor bondholders and offer them 20% less, and then Keppel and offer them 50% less, and then start the whole cycle again. These are extremely illiquid assets with very high holding costs and the option value doesn’t look great. Yes maybe, a big maybe, these Chinese built vessels are operationally better, but does that add anything for the client or a way to charge more? No.

At the moment the Nor Da Vinci is steaming to Trinidad for c. 35 days work for BP, and it takes 25 (ish) days in transit time to get there. This vessel is a near sister ship of the Ausana that UDS have taken on. Unless you believe that every single dive contractor/DSV owner in the world has forgotten to bid for certain jobs then you need to accept the market is suffering from chronic oversupply at the high end.  Nor raised USD 15m in Nov last year, ostensibly to keep the vessels trading in the North Sea, they are not taking the vessel to Trinidad because the crane wants to go sunbathing, it is the only work they can get. Nor will need to do a liquidity issue soon and decide where to position the vessels again this November. Every single job UDS go for will have people just as desperate as them to win work for years to come. The last Nor propospectus also made clear that crewing costs, on a near identical vessel to the Ausana, at safe manning level only, were USD 350k per vessel per month + c. 100k for the dive techs and maintenance. These are very expensive assets to hold an option on.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on  UDS, I admire anyone setting up a company and making a go of it, but its really simple for me: either we are going to see the company raise literally hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for some DSVs and working capital, in a market when asset values are dropping and no one is making  break-even money, or the yard is going to have to subsidise the vessels and the working capital question becomes interesting. Because someone still needs to pickup the tab for the OpEx which is around USD 10k per vessel per day. 30k per day is c. USD 1m a month with some corporate overhead included and unexpected expenses included. That size of fundraising is institutional money and will leave a documentary trail. I can’t find anything yet which leads me to believe they are undercapitalised (I am happy to be proven wrong here). Raising that sort of money without any backlog at all will I believe be impossible in current financial markets. The return required for hedge funds and other alternative investors to get behind this simply cannot be demonstrated.

It is just not possible in this market, where extremely good operating companies are struggling for work for someone to know of jobs that everyone else forgot about. It’s just not possible in this market to deliver dive vessels tens of millions in cost more than local competitive vessels and claim that you are the only person who can make money and all that is stopping everyone else is negativity.

The fact of the matter is unless those UDS vessels work at North Sea rates, and UDS commits to the sort of infrastructure required to do this or finds a charterer, the vessels will never make money in an economic sense. And even then UDS would have to explain what they are going to do that Harkand and Bibby didn’t or can’t?  No one builds USD 150m dive vessels for Asia because people won’t pay for them. That doesn’t mean UDS won’t make money, owe the bank 1m you are in trouble, owe the bank 100m and they are. The yard has a problem here and needs these vessels to work if they are finished off as DSVs. But even if UDS come up with the vast amount of working capital required it doesn’t make the vessels economic units and that will be bad for the industry as whole.

We will see. I could be wrong… But sooner or later the cash flow constraint is going to bite here because the numbers are so big. If I was a supplier I’d really be hoping my contract was with the yard.

Boskalis holds all the cards, the importance of windfarms, and restructuring transactions…

I don’t need a watch, the time is now or never.

Lil Wayne

A couple of people have sent me emails asking some questions relating to my Bibby/ Boskalis post and it is easier to answer them once. Obviously this isn’t investment advice (and no one reading this is likely to own the minimum of GB 100k anyway) and is a general indication of events not specific advice. Deals never go the way anyone plans.

Firstly, under UK law a company is insolvent if the assets do not cover the debts or if it cannot pay its debts as they fall due. Should either of these circumstances occur the shareholders have lost control of the company and it is in effect run for the benefit of the creditors and at that point the debtholders can decide whether to call in administrators. Trading while insolvent is a very serious offence for the Directors as it increases creditor losses knowingly.

In Bibby Offshore’s case the only assets of note are the cash, DSVs, and ROVs which combined would come nowhere close to the value of the debts, and in fact Bibby is one of the few companies in the entire offshore industry not to have taken an impairment charge recently on vessel values, so everyone knows the GBP 100m book value is simply not real and the delta is a number like £50m not £2m. The next trading results will make it clear that without an immediate liquidity injection the company is unlikely to make the December interest payment and therefore the Directors now have a very limited window in which to gain funding (this is where is gets complex because a “highly confident” letter from a reputable financial institution may be enough to cover them for a bit but within a strict legal corridor). Given Bibby Offshore is operating at a loss in every geographic region, and has minimal backlog, and seems unable to meaningfully reduce its cost base, it is very unlikely to get this as any investor has to deal with the bondholders who realise they are going to take a substantial write-off here and have to work out how to minimise this loss. To all intents-and-purposes Bibby Offshore Holdings Ltd is controlled by the bondholders not the shareholders now, and it is their interests that are paramount. This can be seen from the BOHL balance sheet in March and the cash balance will be down at least around another £7-10m at best since then (excluding interest costs that have been paid).

BOHL Balance Sheet

BOHL Balance Sheet 20 June 2017

The only refinancing deal Bibby (BLG and BOHL) had been working on was a complex capital injection which required the bondholders to take a loss and work with new capital providers (such as M2 backer Alchemy) who would inject the funds for working capital and agree to pay the bondholders back less than the £175m but more than they would receive in a liquidation scenario. There is simply no realistic way the company could trade out of present situation even if the market recovered. The only conditonal funding from BLG was to back-up the revolver facility that essentially meant they got their money back before bondholders. I imagine this move went down badly with the bondholders.

The other things that seems to have been forgotten here is that the cash being burned is the creditors cash. If the bondholders can turn this spigot off then that money is available for distribution to them, so an option where they stop the cash burn at £15m in the bank is potentially an 8% increase in their recovery, which is meaningful when the only other option is watching it being burned on by a company with poor cost control who are seeking a free option on timing for their shareholder. The bondholders and their bankers will be remarkably unemotional when the first chance comes protect value. It is clear that the BOHL Directors  (and frankly at least one banker involved in the bond issue) failed to understand the seriousness of the 2016 financial result and the Non-Exec Directors at BOHL have performed particularly poorly. Making an interest payment in June, and then running into a liquidity issue now is not a market driven event. The backstop offered by BLG is insignificant in relation to the cash burn rate and reflects the lack of realism about the precarious nature of their situation.

Boskalis have therefore now made a price and pitched it to the “owners” of the company: the bondholders. The offer which I understand is for the bondholders to sell them certain assets of the company,  in-effect the North Sea Bibby Offshore, and leave the legal structure and debts with bondholders. These will be liquidated and generate a minimal recovery but that company will recieve the consideration for the assets it has sold and therefore the bondholders would be paid out of these funds. The price is c. £52m I have been led to believe which equates to the bondholders getting around 30% of the face value (par) of the bond. That means that any competing offer to control the company needs to give the bondholders the certainty of £52m (or whatever the final price agreed on is). Boskalis has wisely laid a marker in the ground, and with nearly €1bn cash on their balance sheet on the last reported financials, there is no doubt they can complete the transaction so the bondholders can bank this number.

It’s pony up with your money time if you are in the race to own these assets (the company will not be sold as the company has a legal obligation to pay the bondholders £175m which only liquidation or a restructuring agreement can extinguish). That sum of money, and the required OpEx for the company to trade through its losses for the next 12 months (say £20m), is so far beyond the capacity of Bibby Line Group to come up with up it might as well be a trillion, barring Sir Michael winning Euromillions twice in one week (and it needs to be next week).

So the only other question the bondholder advisers will be trying to answer now is can they can get a better offer… and who that might come from? I think the only credible bidder would be DeepOcean, as like Boskalis they have North Sea windfarm backlog and a customer base and chartered vessels they could hand back, to de-risk the asset OpEx. But DeepOcean are not as attractive for the bondholders as they are owned by a consortium of PE investors, and raising that sort of capital adds an execution risk to the deal,  one the bankers advising the bondholders will be acutely aware of. The worst case scenario for the bondholders is to lose a deal for accepting a higher price only to find the other side cannot deliver.

I don’t see McDermott (or someone like them) entering the race. Although they are the largest diving contractor in the world now, the North Sea is expensive, and as Bibby have shown perhaps not even profitable for a third player. McDermott want to get the 105 working in the North Sea, but having Boskalis or DeepOcean owning the Bibby DSVs gets them covered on that front without being exposed to the OpEx risk which they have no work in the region to cover so would be starting from scratch. DOF won’t want assets that old and would only be buying backlog of which there isn’t much.

Without any material backlog I don’t see any private equity bidder coming in period. It leaves them 100% exposed to execution risk and market recovery and the very real possibility of losing everything, and to be clear they would have to offer the bondholders something at least as good as £50m cash. Also for the bondholders advisers’ PE companies require due diligence and conditonal closing clauses that they simply don’t want to take execution risk on.

Such competing theories may also be irrelevant: last week (as I noted here) a large buyer of the Bibby bonds sent the price up. If that buyer was Boskalis, and I suspect it is, they may now own enough bonds to dominate (or at least block) the restructuring talks anyway and any competing proposals would be a waste of time. In that case all that is going on here is the protocols required to close this as a deal. In such a scenario Boskalis have probably also reached out to Barclays, who as owner of the revolver just want their money back quickly and will work on any constructive financed proposal to get out rather than risk having to recover their funds from a liquidator. The inability of BLG/BOHL and Barclays to agree a deal that was outlined in the 2016 YE results shows you exactly where Barclays are with this and they are an important stakeholder. It would also highlight this was essentially a hostile offer because the Bibby Town Hall recently, where Sir Michael reassured the staff about their solution, would not have taken place (or would have had a different tone).

So this could happen very quickly because the bondholders now have the certainty of a number and a credible counterparty, and the only internal/competing proposal is not “fully financed” in investment venacular i.e. the BLG shareholders don’t have an investor or an agreement in principal with the bondholders to renounce a proportion of their debts. My broad understanding, and only lawyers can answer these questions definitively, is that the bondholders and Barclays are within their rights now to call in the administrators, or will definitively be able to when results are due in the next few days. The vessels must have been revalued now so there is no place to hide and brokers giving valuations will be aware of their position so will be extremely realistic. The bondholder advisers then will simply seek irrevocable undertakings from the majority of bondholders to back the Boskalis deal, this would save the execution risk of a bondholder vote and this may have already been done, then agree a final deal with Boskalis. The they will call in the administrators with the deal being done at the same time. In legal terms it would all happen in a couple of hours as the major agreements will have been prengotiated and documented and the firm may have a small period in administration while the execution period vests (e.g. formal bondholder vote and Boskalis will seek to novate contracts for work).

This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide as to what will happen but it is a likely scenario and the final version will not be too different. There are numerous specific legal hurdles that must be covered and all insolvencies are different (I am also not a restructuring expert but I have been involved in some so this is broad rather than specific guidance), but I don’t believe the path will be materially different from the one I have outlined unless Boskalis pull out (and they have no reason to here because they are in control of this process).

Boskalis and DeepOcean show how much the market has changed since the oil and gas work dropped and how building up from a low cost windfarm environment has allowed them to take advantage of these opportunities. Both firms have the backlog and work that will allow them to trade the DSVs as peak SAT assets in the North Sea summer, doing diving work and minor project work only and the core maintenance work that Bibby used to do almost exclusively.

Windfarm work in the UK is getting deeper, some of the newer installations are at a depth of 60m which is pure SAT diving work, and work that was is on the margin of SAT or air diving can be carried out by  the Sapphire and Polaris economically given the purchase price. Without that base of windfarm work to spread the OpEx over it is very hard to see how a third major 2 vessel SAT diving player could survive in the UK North Sea because it is clear the Technip and Subsea 7 will protect market share aggressively in a quiet period for oil and gas. DOF Subsea could be expected to bid more aggressively but there is no certainty here as a few staff moves lately make it clear they are backing away a bit.

That will leave Technip and Subsea 7 to the major construction projects and who will hopefully be able to introduce some pricing sanity. Boskalis will do the lower end IRM work that Bibby used to specialise in, keep the cost base at an appropriate level, and yet still support companies like McDermott who need DSV support for SURF work but don’t have commit to running a DSV fleet.. This is a microcosm for how the whole offshore contractting industry will adapt to lower for maybe forever.

As I have said before in The New Offshore all that matters is: liquidity (a derivative of backog), strategy, and execution.

Bibby to Boskalis looks likely…

I have been told by mutliple credible people now that Boskalis are negotiating directly with the Bibby Offshore bondholders to purchase certain assets of the company that would in effect be the refinancing of the company. Booskalis are pitching at around .30 which values Bibby Offshore at c.£52m if true. For that they would get the Sapphire, Polaris, and all intellectual property etc and simply collapse the North Sea business into their current operations. The rest will be left for the creditors who will make a minimal recovery.

Despite the fact the bonds have recently traded at .39 if I was a bondholder I would jump at this offer and be running to find a pen to sign. The only other option is likely to involve them putting money in or a hugely dilutive liquidity issue (like the Nor Offshore one). Instead this is clean and well above any possible recovery they would get in a liquidation event.

The London high-yield market will get a timely reminder that covenant light issues have real risks. The Bibby shareholders took a £39m dividend when the bond was issued and another £20m at the start of 2016, at that stage they must have known the order book was empty,  in the end the company lost £52m at the operating profit level that year. As I have said before at that stage this event, or if it doesn’t happen one similar, became only a matter of time. Bibby Offshore may not have created as much value as Bibby Line Group would have dreamed only a few years ago but they have still done okay out it, whereas bondholders who in effect lent a non-ammortising loan on depreciating assets at the peak of the market, have suffered severe losses. They should be thankful however because a Nor scenario that saw them taking delivery of the Polaris and Sapphire in this market would have seen losses I believe as high as 90-100%.

It will be very interesting to see what happens to the Topaz. I suspect Boskalis don’t need it and will seek a charter that is 100% risk based if at all. I could be wrong on this as they have substantial North Sea operations and windfarm backlog that could use the vessel in a support role. Either way Bibby will revert to a small UK 2 or 3 x North Sea DSV operation supporting the Boskalis operations in Europe with management 100% dominated by Boskalis.

Whether this is in effect a hostile offer or is supported by Bibby Line Group I don’t know. I would struggle to see it being friendly given it would wipe out BLGs equity entirely but it would be the best thing for the company and provide a degree of security or at least certainty for those involved. The bond requires, according to my broad reading, only that interest payments are current and that BOHL has £10m, so a struggle whereby the necessary administration is delayed for a situation that cannot be changed would help no one. Waiting until December for an interest payment that cannot be made (interest accruing at c. £35k per day), or for the cash covenant to be broken allowing the bondholders to act, would be disastrous for their postion. The only thing I am sure of here is that some very expensive lawyers from both sides will be reviewing the bond indenture very carefully.

A competing offer from private equity looks unlikely as they simply do not have the contract coverage Boskalis does to risk some overhead on the vessels. Boskalis can probably release some chartered tonnage and have the DSVs work as ROV vessels on some of their windfarm projects if needed. For Boskalis this is a very sensible acquisition that offers upside only for them really with very minimal risk on running costs.

This will not take long to play out. When the BOHL financials are released it will all become obvious because if the assets have been revalued at anything like market levels it won’t just be a liquidity issue but a solvency one forcing the Directors to protect the creditors, and highlighting how close they company is to running out of actual cash. Resolution by the end of August is my prediction here.

Backlog is essential for re-financing…

“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”
― Lemony SnicketThe Blank Book

The directors of such [joint-stock] companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own. Like the stewards of a rich man, they are apt to consider attention to small matters as not for their master’s honour, and very easily give themselves a dispensation from having it. Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company.

— Adam Smith (1776)

Subsea 7 purchased the remnants of EMAS Chiyoda last week in a tale that highlights how not getting your timing right can be an expensive mistake in subsea. Chiyoda have probably decided to stick to stuff they know something about this time.

Contrary to my earlier remarks I think the Subsea 7 is an okay defensive deal. The Gulf of Mexico is a growth deepwater market (one of the few) and the weakest one for Subsea 7, and in addition they bolster their position in the Middle East. Backlog for Subsea 7 was virtually static in the last quarter which highlights why they need to take such aggressive steps to prop it up, the downside is they have added to their fixed cost base at a time of declining demand and project margins. There is an outside risk as I have said before that the backlog was poorly tendered and there are integration risks associated with the delivery, but Subsea 7 is one of the world’s best engineering companies and probably consider this manageable.

But it was backlog that drove this more than any other consideration I would argue…

Another deal, Project Astra, is kicking around the distressed debt houses at the moment and this is a deal that comes with pipeline more than backlog: the refinancing of Bibby Offshore.  I think Bibby have left it extremely late to raise capital like this in what is actually a pretty complicated transaction. If executed as planned it will involve a substantial writedown of debt by the bondholders in addition to a liquidity issue. The real question is surely why an interest payment was made on June 15 almost simultaneously along with an IM seeking capital? Surely a business in control of this wouldn’t be paying bondholders interest while trying to organise a liquidity issue?

The answer is that far from Bibby Line Group (“BLG”) being a supportive shareholder they are actually the major problem here as this process starts the recognition that their equity value in Bibby Offshore Holdings Limited is worthless. BLG had every reason to try and believe, against all the available evidence in the market, that this was going to be a quiet year. After losing £52m at operating profit in 2016, having no visible backlog, and clearly no firm commitments for work, they instead sanctioned the Bibby Offshore ploughing forward into what is effectively a financial catastrophe. The BLG Portfolio Director is a chartered accountant and frankly should have known better: management wrapped up in the situation cannot pretend to be objective but that is what a Board, and financially literate Chairman, is for.

Instead, and clearly given the asymmetric nature of the payoff to BLG as shareholders, they sanctioned what can only best be described as bizarre financial decisions, all driven to try and protect the BLG shareholders against the interest of the creditors, which frankly from Sep/Oct 16 should have been the primary concern of the Directors. However, they are only human and when their employer is the shareholder it has placed the majority of the Executive Board in an invidious and conflicted situation.

Unless you are a full EPIC contractor subsea contracting is essentially a regional business and to justify the head-office an integration costs you need to add significant scale and value in the regions you are in. Bibby Offshore HQ offers none of this and new investors participating are merely prolonging this charade, like the Nor Offshore liquidity investors they will be buying something the literally do not understand.

In addition to the obvious and valid questions as to the structural market characteristics Bibby Offshore is involved in Bondholders, now presented with what is in effect an emergency liquidity issue or administration, must be wondering inter alia:

  • Why the ex-COO has been sent on an ex-pat package to Houston to build-up the business when they are facing an imminent liquidity crisis? (Fully loaded this must be close to USD 500k per annum including house, airfares etc? Madness).
  • Why they should pump liquidity into a North American operation that has no competitive advantage, no backlog, and having had the best DSV in the GoM this year has managed to win less than 40 days work?
  • Why the BOHL is holding the value of the DSVs on the balance sheet at over GBP 100m when it is clear that their fair value is worth considerably less? It would be interesting to see the disclaimers brokers have provided for this valuation because should the capital raised be insufficient to carry BOHL though to profitability the delta between those values and realised values are likely to be very sore points of contention by those who put money in this. The Nor Offshore and Vard vessels provide ample proof that these assets are effectively unsellable in the current market and if the have to sold down in Asia/Africa/GOM those two DSVs would be lucky to get USD 25m and substantially less for a quick sale
  • Why there is a Director of Innovation and Small Pools Initiative when the core UK diving business is going backwards massively in cash flow terms? Why in fact are there 3 separate Boards for such a small company? Has legal structure been confused with operational structure?
  • Why the CEO’s wife is running a “Business Excellence” Department when the overhead is well over GBP 20m per annum? It might sound like a minor deal but as the lay-offs have increased it has clearly become a huge issue for staff working inside the business and it is like a cancer on morale

These extra costs are in the millions a year and add to the air of unreality of the whole proposal.

DeepOcean was another company with a lot of IRM type work but managed a successful refinancing. Management and staff all took a pay cut and built up a huge backlog in renewables and IRM work prior to seeking a refinancing. Potential investors there face execution risk on project delivery but can model with some certainty the top-line. The same just isn’t true at Bibby although the cost base can be shown with a  great deal of accuracy and there management have taken no pay cuts and the cost cutting doesn’t seem to have reflected the seriousness of the downturn.

No one should blame the management but rather a supine and ineffective Board that have allowed this situation to develop. None of the potential investors I have spoken to look like putting money in. It makes much more sense to try and “pre-pack” the business from administration than go through the complexity of a renegotiating with the bondholders and getting a byzantine capital structure in place in which they do not share all of the upside.

The reason all these issues collide of course is a classic agent-principal conflict: In a market where activity has declined so markedly to raise money to invest in developing new markets is verging on the absurd. Bibby Offshore is losing money in Norway and the US, has a minor ROV operation in Singapore which is unprofitable most of the time, and has seen a significant decline in the core UK diving business. The logical strategy is therefore to strip it back to basics, but that means the people negotiating the fundraising would be out of a job and therefore the strategy they have devised, not surprisingly, is more of the same and hope the market turns. This has suited the shareholder for the reasons outlined above.

Like so many companies grappling with The New Offshore Bibby is a very different company to the one that raised cash in 2014. Back then there were 4 North Sea class DSVs all working at very high rates in addition to the CSVs (and two DSVs were chartered adding extra leverage). Now not even 2 DSVs are close to break-even utilisation and the CSV time charter costs are well above any expected revenue. Returning the Olympic CSVs will cut the cash burn but merely reinforces the fact that the business no longer has an asset base that offers any realistic prospect of the bondholders being made whole (the drop in the bond price in the last few weeks confirming they now realise this).

It is in-short a mess, and one the BLG Portfolio Director and NED more than others should be placing their hand in the air to take responsibility for. It was obvious when the £52m operating loss was announced that a restructuring was needed, particularly in light of what was happening in Norway, and leaving it this late to raise funds. To pretend a fundamental structural change is not required, is simply irresponsible.

I had five years at Bibby Offshore, 4 of those were the most rewarding of my professional career to date. It gives me no pleasure to write this but I can’t help feeling the path that has been taken here risks seeing people not getting paid one month while on the BLG website will be a big article about how they sponsored a mountain walk to Kenya and highlighting their credentials as a good corporate citizen. But it is also true by the end I did have an issue with the strategy, which when you are notionally in charge of it becomes a big issue. The company shareholders insisted on a 50% of net profit dividend strategy, which in a capital-intensive industry when you were growing that quickly meant there was constant working capital pressure yet alone expansion capital. Yet every year at the strategy planning meetings we were expected to present ambitious growth plans where capital was no object, except it always was. Over the years the farce built up that when multiplied by easy credit has not worked out well. What this translated to at the Bibby Offshore level was a management team who wanted to build another Technip without anything like the resources needed to realistically accomplish this.

I used to constantly try and explain the benefits of “plain vanilla equity” but it was simply not what the shareholders wanted and it was clear at Group that they were already concerned about the size of Bibby Offshore in relation to the overall holding company. This culture of unrealistic planning has formed the basis of which constantly missing numbers hasn’t sent the right warning signal to the Board about the scale of the impending losses in the business despite it being blatantly obvious to ex-employees.

What the BLG shareholders wanted was to do everything on borrowed money, which is fine if it’s your business. But this attitude led to the Olympic charters and fatefully the bond, which in itself was a dividend recap taking GBP 37m out, and it of course left the business woefully undercapitalised in all but the best of conditions.

Bibby Offshore as a company would have had the best chance of surviving this downturn if it had approached the bondholders early about the scale of the problem, stopped making interest payments and saving the cash, had a meaningful contribution from the shareholders at a place in the capital structure that was risk capital, and approached Olympic about massively reducing the charter rates while extending the period of commitment (this would have been complex but the banks were realising 2 years ago they needed deals like this as Deepsea Supply showed). These are the hallmarks of all the successful restructurings that have been done. Instead for the benefit of the shareholders they took a massive gamble that the market would comeback and had a spreadsheet showing it was theoretically possible in the face of common sense. The consequences of this are now coming home.

Bondholders of course only have themselves to blame, The Bibby bond was a covenant light issue and was essentially bullet redemption on depreciating fixed assets, a risk all financial investors know deep down is just gambling. Confident in the mistaken view that BLG would step in the bonds have held up unnaturally in pricing for an eon while the company continued to burn through cash at a rate that should have worried any serious investor. They have now been presented with a nuclear scenario where they must put something in or face potentially nearly a total write-off of their investment, a quick look at the Nor bonds and asset situation only strengthening Bibby’s hand.

London is awash with distress credit investors at the moment who are long on funds. Many are traders and hopeful of entering a position with a quick exit to someone else, and they may get this deal away with people like this. But it is a very hard sell because unlike DeepOcean there is no backlog only pipeline, and one is bankable and the other is not.


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.

DSV Lichtenstein to Asia…Show me the money?

UDS announced today that the DSV Lichtenstein has floated and is off to Asia. No huge surprises there.

Just to be clear the vessel is the old Mermaid Ausana. UDS haven’t commissioned or paid for this (the IMO number still with the yard), the vessel is available because Mermaid and the yard cut a deal. That is: a major and experienced Asian DSV operator didn’t think they could get work for the vessel and therefore wrote off millions to extract itself from the contract. Now admittedly the vessel was ordered at close to the market peak, so it is probably true that at old pricing levels it would have been hard to get an economic return, but the yard paid those costs as well proportionately.

To be honest I don’t blame UDS, nobody at the moment needs to buy a DSV, you can charter one for substantially less than the economic cost of owning one. Which makes it all the more suprising that UDS seem committed to three more DSVs they have ordered as the keel laying ceremony for the DSV Andy Warhol was also revealed today.

There is no reason to believe that UDS haven’t cut some clever, risk-based, charter with the yard over Ausana/Lichtenstein (just as Bibby appear to have done with the Volstad (bondholder) owned Bibby Topaz). The yard wants some money from an unsellable asset and UDS have the skills to deliver the vessel and potentially find some work for it. V-Ships are clearly being paid and a load of kit to equip the vessel from the bell out appears to be arriving. So far so good.

But where is the vessel going to work? No won work has been announced? The market is so competitive at the moment that no one is sole awarding work? How much work if any have UDS got? How long can their working capital last while ostensibly having commitments to USD 500-700m in CapEx for the two SALT design DSVs and the Andy Warhol (also an MT design)? The sort of capital needed to fund that sort of expenditure is institutional and yet no one seems to have heard anything about a fundraising? It would be major news one would have thought because its the ultimate contrarian strategy: DSVs are the most overbuilt tonnage in the world with some of the highest relative running costs.

Who is taking the risk with this deal? Are they yard putting in for OpEx? The Nor vessels claim that it costs USD 370k per vessel per month on marine crew and USD 109k for the dive system (which seems outrageous to be honest for the dive system and must include spares etc), and this vessel is a near identical spec. That doesn’t include commissioning costs, wet bell run trials, etc. These are likely to be in the low millions for a new DSV. Much will go to the yard account I suspect (if not originally contractually simply as a reality now), but I would be stunned if they wrote a blank cheque for vessel operations? Even in this market you should only take risk you can control…

Kruez don’t want to take delivery of their new build DSV and rumour has it UDS have been trying to strike a deal with the yard there as well. A DSV consolidator at the right price has something going for it, but only with investors committed to extremely high OpEx until the market recovers – whenever that may be. The pool of institutions large enough, and committed enough, to such a play is limited to say the least. I would have thought getting take-out financing for the final yard payments would be near impossible without a long-term charter, and they don’t exist at the moment?

Just at a time when Toisa went bankrupt as one of the largest owners of DSV tonnage, outside SS7 and Technip, UDS has arrived on the scene. The scale of the committed funds means sooner or later details are going to come out about this. There are only two alternatives: either there are some large institutional investors who have made an extraordinary counter-cyclical investment, at peak build prices nearly; or, a vast amount of credit has been extended to a start-up with good technical skills and vision, but without a balance sheet appropriate for this degree of risk. Cash flows are always the hard financing constraint that cannot be hidden forever… I’ll put my impatience to one side because the final story is likely to be very interesting here.

Bourbon results offer no comfort or light

Bourbon released numbers this week that were bad, this isn’t an equity research site so I don’t intend to drill through them. Bourbon is a well-managed company and there is little it can do given the oversupply. But I can’t look at these stats without feeling like the HugeStadSea merger was too early. And quite how NAO, with 10 PSVs, raised money at USD 15m per vessel when the industry is at this level also looks like a triumph of hope over data. Subsea looks just as bad.

First, I think the graph below (from the Bourbon presentation) is telling and worrying for offshore. One of my constant themes is productivity. Shale is generating increasing productivity (i.e. constantly reducing unit costs) from all this investment, offshore fundamentally isn’t. The cost reductions from offshore are the result of financial losses, not more outputs from unit inputs.

Capital Investment Forecast: Shale versus Offshore

Capital Outlook

Clearly, the capital increase is good for vessel owners, but as this graph shows, the fleet was built for much better times.

Global E&P Spending

Global E&P Spending

And as the Bourbon numbers show, demand isn’t going to save offshore because the supply side of the market is too overbuilt.

Stacked vessels

The subsea fleet globally looks just as bad. Rates are only just above OPEX if you are lucky and nowhere near enough to cover financing or drydocking costs. The hard five-year dry-dock is the real killer from a cash flow perspective.

In order for this market to normalise not only vessels, but also capital, needs to leave the industry. I was, therefore, surprised that NAO raised USD 47m to keep going. NAO have 10 vessels, and are clearly subscale by any relevant industry size measure, are operating well below cash breakeven including financing costs (USD 11 500 per day), and still, they plow on. I understand it’s rational if you think the market is coming back (and the family/management put real money into this capital raise), but if everyone thinks like this then the market will never normalise. And when Fletcher/Standard Drilling can keep bringing PSVs back into the market at USD 8-10m, that do pretty much the same thing as your 2016 build, and 1/3 of the fleet can be recommissioned, the scale of a spending increase needed to credibly restore financial health to operators looks a long way off. Someone is going to have to start accepting capital losses or the industry as a whole will keep burning through new infusions of cash on OPEX. ( I know PSV rates, in particular, have increased this week but this looks like a short-run demand as summer comes and vessels come out of lay-up than a recovery.)

Specialty tonnage, such as DSVs, are in a worse position because as Nor/Harkand are showing people are reluctant to cold-stack due to the uncertainty of re-commissioning costs. Project work simply isn’t returning to at anything like the levels needed to get vessels and engineers working. Subsea construction work significantly lacks rig work, and companies are delaying maintenance longer than people ever thought possible.

Rig Demand

I think restructuring, consolidation, and capital raising are clearly the answer don’t get me wrong. I just think some falling knives have been caught recently (the Nor/Harkand bondholders being the best example) and the industry seems reluctant to admit the scale of the upcoming challenge. And again I am perplexed why the Solstad shareholders allowed themselves to dilute their OSV fleet with greater exposure to supply, when the dynamics are clearly so bad? The subsea and offshore industries appear to be facing structurally lower profits for a long time, and more restructurings, or a second round for some, seem far more likely than an uptick this year and next.