Back to the future… or maybe…

Dr. Emmett Brown: I’m sure in 1985 plutonium is in every corner drug store, but in 1955, its a little hard to come by! I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re stuck here..

Back to the Future

 

All that is solid melts into air.

Karl Marx

One of my enduring intellectual fascinations is whether things are actually changing any faster now than in previous epochs (the next book I have to read is Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth). I think I am an iconoclast by nature and I struggle with the fact things are completely new in a relative sense: Can we really say the internet was bigger than the printing press? I get change is “faster” now, but so is commication? Anyway I will read the book.

I arrived in London in 2000, right in the middle of the dot-com boom. Everyone claimed the couldn’t understand it (I was working for a management consultantcy), and I actually think a lot of people could understand it but didn’t want to admit the implications of it, but the historical examples were looking people in the face: Tom Standage published (an underrated book) The Victorian Internet, that made clear to anyone with a sense of history that the scale of change was precendented, and hardly unique to one generation. Some of the issues regarding open systems for software in the modern era are compared skillfully to debates regarding railway gauge width. It will come as no surprise to most that I think Standage makes a good argument that the Telegraph may have been more important than the internet.

Quite why each age is obsessed with its own sense of modernity is not something I want to tackle here, I have my own (deeply cynical I must concede) theories, but my I have always remembered the book “Hypercompetition” as a standout example of this self-conceited position. Hypercompetition describes a world where:

Business has also entered a new age of realities. It is essential to understand and take advantage of the dynamic motion and flux of our global markets and technological breakthroughs… [Hypercompetition] is a condition of rapidly escalating competition based on price-quality positioning, competition to create new know how and establish first mover advantage, competition to protect or invade established product or geographic markets, and competition based on deep pockets and the creation of even deeper pocketed alliances.

Seriously? That just sounds like industrial capitalism. Selling a steam engine to India in the 1890s may not have been as sexy as creating WeChat or Lyft, but it wasn’t that easy either, and within the confines of the environment in the time you had to move just as quickly and be just as innovative, or did you?

The original theory was publshed with some (controversial) research that indeed suggested when looking at  a broader group of companies than the S&P 500:

support for the argument that over time competitive advantage has become significantly harder to sustain and, further, that the phenomenon is limited neither to high-technology industries nor to manufacturing industries but is seen across a broad range of industries

But it wasn’t universally accepted: the core difference being the researchers who agreed with this notion only focused on firms that appear to have consistently generated higher economic returns not the total universe of firms. McNamara, Valler, and Devers note:

Some strategy scholars and practitioners contend that markets have become increasingly hyper- competitive in recent years. We examine this contention by analyzing industry and business performance patterns in a broad sample of firms… We find little support for the argument that markets have become more hypercompetitive. From the late 1970s to the late-1980s we observe decreased per- formance and market stability, consistent with increasing hypercompetition contentions. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, however, trends reverse and performance and market stability increase.

I love the 80’s. My entire music collection probably consists of Greatest Hits of 80’s. It might be heartbreaking for us now to accept but economically and competitively they were harder times – from a macroeconomic perspective particularly. I remember when my parents nearly lost their house in the 1980s when mortgage interest rates when up to 18% and the government attempted to ban inflation with a “price freeze” (seriously). Imagine that now? It is one of the events that actually led to NZ becoming the first country in the world to make their central bank (relatively) independent (in 1989).

A decade that started with the Iranian hostage crisis and finished with Tianaman Square was a tough time competitively, and a large part of that is because many companies simply didn’t have the pricing power they now do. A less global, more domestically focused economy, without Chinese competition, was actually a harder time to be a manager. One of favourite theories involves cross-ownership: as asset managers have got so large (and indexing enhances this), and therefore have so many cross shareholdings, they discourage competition amongst their investments. Azar, Schmalz, and Tecu find:

[i]n the US airline industry, taking common ownership into account implies increases in market concentration that are ten times larger than what is “presumed likely to enhance market power” by antitrust authorities….We conclude that a hidden social cost – reduced product market competition – accompanies the private benefits of diversification and good governance.

Basically ticket prices are 3-5% higher than they would be if the airlines had seperate owners. As well as common ownership the increasing size of banks and the scale if the M&A they can now underwrite is also driving industrial consolodation on a scale that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s and 1980s.

From about the time Hypercompetition was published (1995) economists began to realise that modern economic change, in first world countries, was characterised actually by a proportionately smaller number of larger firms with market power, higher profits, and greater stability. As these researchers in 2016 make clear:

[a]bout a decade ago a stream of research emerged looking at changing persistence over time and finding a monotonic trend toward a new “age of temporary advantage”… We find that the trend reversed itself and the beginning of the 21st century has been characterized by increasing persistence of superior performance… our results appear not to be a consequence of a compositional shift in the economy of industries toward those with lower levels of competition nor of increased conservatism by newly listed firms. Instead the phenomenon appears to occur primarily within industries by seasoned firms. 

Hence my interest was piqued by this excellent article on Bloomberg yesterday that posits:

modern capitalism produces and probably requires a lot of creative destruction. But this isn’t a relentless, ever-accelerating process. It goes in waves. For about 15 years now we’ve been in a lull, and it’s not at all clear when or how it will end.

The core of this sort of analysis is survivorship bias: just looking at how many big companies are still in business or part of various indexes. Standard Oil, for example, has consistently remained one of the largest industrial corporations in America (now under the guise of ExxonMobil) for over 100 years and ATT was the second largest US company in 1917. A few Facebook and Google new entrants does not change the basic makeup of the modern economy but they do show up in the profit figures:

ROIC 90th percentile.png

Basically a small number of firms are pulling away in profit terms of the others and entrenching themselves as modern monopolies according the Council of Economic Advisers:

Market Concentration.png

The evidence seems clear: there hasn’t been a better, or easier,  time to be a big company since pre-Roosevelt days.

 

What matters more firm or industry?

So for Reach Subsea it all comes down to Q3 and Q4 this year… having raised money in February, the company came in came in with some significant losses in profit and cash flow but is fully confident its all coming right in the next two quarters. I don’t know they people from Reach, all of whom look to be very talented individuals, but I am interested in the company because I can’t think of a more structurally unattractive industry to be in than ROVs at the moment, and all the people I know in the ROV game tell me how hard it is currently with everything going out for free virtually bar personnel.

Reach has a host of competitors: i.e. M2, ROVOP, Bibby, and then the larger competitors. This is a fragmented industry and this is because the entry costs are low and the gains from scaling up the business so small given the fixed cost nature of per unit output. All the smaller companies in particular are simply finding desperate vessel owners and putting an ROV on their boat: it is not an original strategy and not one that strikes me as having great longevity once the market balances more. Every single company with ROVs is trying to hire a few project engineers and say they offer a full service not just taking hire revenue… it’s brutal and E&P companies/contractors/vessel owners are driving very hard pricing and contractual terms.

This chart from Oceaneering shows the scale of competition Reach and the other small companies are up against:

OII Vessel Fleet 31 Mar 2017.png

That is from an asset base of 282 units and strong stable revenue drill support market – although with low margins.

Last week Bibby gave up the game in Asia and sold its ROVs to Shelf for a few million. The transaction will likely reduce their revenue and cash generation potential and will make investors even more cognizant of the fact that the depleting asset base will not make paying the bond investors back possible. But as the noose of an interest bill of £35k per day tightens few options were left. The numbers I have heard suggest a sale way below book value of the asset base and that is common across the industry and the reason for that is like vessels the ROVs cannot generate the amount of cash required to pretend historic values reflect current economic values (~USD 7.5m).

I use Oceaneering as a proxy for the industry simply because with 28% of the total ROV fleet they are clearly representative of the market as a whole. Reach is simply the only listed entity of the pure play ROV companies and it therefore makes it easy to get information but the comments I make about them are appropriate for any of the smaller companies. Oceaneering has also announced it is going to focus on vessel based units and has put 18 units on long-term contract with Heerema and Maersk, and this surely is the future? Consolidation of the contractor base will see larger procurement orders from larger companies, or worse a host of smaller companies on both the vessel and the ROV side stay and operate at a subeconomic level because the exit costs would see them realise nothing?

I find the ROV industry interesting from the point-of-view of firm versus industry effects: In 1985 Richard Schmalensee published a seminal paper “Do Markets Matter?” Schmalensee was trying to ascertain if strategy was simply a matter of picking markets with strong structural characteristics, the focus of the famous “Porter’s Five Forces Analysis”, or if firms had innate features that allowed them to generate returns regardless of poor markets? A later line of enquiry that became known as ‘The Resource-Based View of the Firm (RBV)” and was made famous in management circles by the book “Competing for the Future” where the idea of Core Competencies entered the business vernacular (its digestibility masking the deep academic heritage of the ideas).

For what it’s worth I don’t think the debate on firm versus industry has been completely solved but it points to the likelihood of certain events. As always with economics you can find good arguments for both sides: Rumelt (“How much does industry matter?“) argued pace Schlmalensee that industry effects were outweighed by firm effects, McGahan and Porter (“How much does industry matter really?“) argued that actually the relationship is complex but with a weighting to firm effects being stronger, but more so in service firms whereas Wenerfelt and Montgomery (“Tobin’s q and the Importance of Focus in Firm Performance“) agree industry effects are strong but some firms defy them and outperform. I could go on…

This article seems to suggest why you can find evidence of both firm effects and industry effects:

In other words, only for a few dominant value creators (leaders) and destroyers (losers) do firm-specific assets seem to matter significantly more than industry factors. For most other firms, i.e., for those that are not notable leaders or losers in their industry, however, the industry effect turns out to be more important for performance than firm-specific factors

It’s not everything either… size does matter: profits are positively correlated to size in broad cross-sectional research.

I read it that you are either a statistical outlier or the fact is the industry effects will dominate your likely financial performance. The clues to being an outlier, originally called strategic rent factors by economists, but made far more palatable by the consultants who created entire teams that specialised in “core competencies”, are now well accepted. To be a positive outlier Peteraf outlines:

four conditions must be met for a firm to enjoy sustained above-normal returns. Resource heterogeneity creates Ricardian or monopoly rents. Ex post limits to competition prevent the rents from being competed away. Imperfect factor mobility ensures that valuable factors remain with the firm and that the rents are shared. Ex ante limits to competition keep costs from offsetting the rents.

In diagrammatical form it looks like this:

Cornerstone of competitive advantage.png

Note economists call profits above breakeven “economic rents”. I should obviously point out that while it’s easy to look back with hindsight about this creating these rents is considerably more difficult and represents the dividing line between economics and management.

The diagram in simply says:

  1. Heterogeneity: Firms must be different and the profits must come from limiting the supply of factors (monopoly) or an inability to increase those factors that drive profits in the short run (Ricardian)
  2. Ex post limits: Essentially the imperfect imitability and substitution from the ‘Porters’ Five Forces’… not everyone can copy what your firm does or replace your product service with a substitute
  3. Imperfect mobility: A competitor can’t just go and buy your superior skills on the market. For example anyone could approach Airbus suppliers but could they really build a plane?
  4. Ex-ante limits: Not everyone decides to do the same thing before it becomes profitable.

Prahalad and Hamel became famous because the summed this up with three factors they said made something a “Core Competency” if it:

  1. Provides potential access to a wide variety of markets.
  2. Should make a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefits of the end product.
  3. Difficult to imitate by competitors.

So to bring all this back to the ROV market I think you can argue that a wide base of economic research says this is structurally a very unattractive market: low barriers to entry, easy substituability and imitability, high customer bargaining power, and intense competiton. And I look at most of the small ROV firms, not just Reach, and I see no core competencies or economic factors that would give rise to economic rents (i.e. profits above break-even) and a lot of red ink still being spilled. I see lots of good relationships, smart people, and great technical skills; what I don’t see is a lot of differentiation on anything other than price.

All of which leads me to believe none of the smaller ROV firms satisfy any of the conditions that would allow them to be statistical outliers against industry trends. They are all offering to put cheap ROVs on vessels and work at marginal cost only hoping someone else goes out of business first which makes them a hostage to industry forces only. I can’t see anything other than a wave of consolidation as the larger companies, who can manage their ROVs cost base better by cross-subsidising it while times are poor, taking the smaller companies who eventually struggle to fund OpEx. Sooner or later there needs to be a reduction in the number of operating ROVs to restore the industry to “normal”/breakeven profitability and the smaller companies simply lack commitment that the larger companies have.

I could be wrong… I have been before… I miscalculated for example how good a deal Subsea7 had struck on the EMAS Chiyoda assets … and I think we are in for a better market in some segments in 18 than 17, but continued cost pressure will favour well capitalised substantial companies in this industry not start-ups/growth companies I feel in this market segment… but getting there could be financially painful.

Boats, Bitcoin, and (Asset) Bubbles…

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

H.C. Emory

 

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

Kindelberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes. 1986

 

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

Alan Greenspan, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are  two kinds of asset price bubbles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was also found in Venice where the :

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

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

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

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

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

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