A money creation theory of offshore asset recovery…

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

Smithson Investment Trust, Owners Manual

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

Akerlof and Shiller, Animal Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irving Fisher, The Debt Deflationary Theory of Great Depressions

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

Wolfson, Cambridge Journal of Economics

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

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

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

Andrew Haldane, Bank of England, Folk Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As The Great Man said:

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

Scrapping and UKCS North Sea demand…

Spirit Energy (67% owned by Centrica) awarded a 3 well / 6 month drilling contract this week to the Transocean Leader. The Transocean Leader was built-in 1987, 4500ft 3G semi, that had a major upgrade in 2012. I remember 1987, my first year of high school, the All Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup with ‘The Iceman (Michael Jones)’, Fleetwood Mac and U2 were cool (or I thought they were), my sister listened to Whitney Houston (okay that isn’t strictly true more The Dead Kennedys). In other words it was a while ago. I’m not a rig expert, and like vessels there are a lot of nuances around what kit can at times do what job. I don’t want to get into those, and my point here isn’t to publish a post every time an old rig wins a job.

My point is that this is a 31-year-old rig, that earlier this year had operational problems forcing it to return to a shipyard for repair before it could continue its contracted workscope, could comfortably win work with a significant UKCS (and international) operator. At 31 years old, and operating in the UK sector, it would be unreasonable to not to expect the odd issue, and indeed when that happened Dana and Transocean settled on a commercial deal to avoid contract termination. E&P operators may prefer new kit, find me an engineer who doesn’t, but the commercial guys like best priced kit in the current environment, and at the moment they are firmly in-charge of procurement.

For all the talk of scrapping being inevitable there are a lot of examples of older kit being contracted by big owners. Simply marking a build year and saying that everything older than that will be scrapped is proving to be an unrealistic forecast methodology across all asset classes (i.e. Fletcher Shipping with the Standard Drilling PSVs). Scrapping is likely to be far more selective around owner financial resources, work programmes forecast, and age, with the relationship between all three more important than any one variable.

In any other industry with cyclical demand equipment is often worked until likely maintenance costs exceed marginal profits. Fully depreciated equipment can have a major (positive) impact on the P&L for struggling companies. As industry demand rises older, less efficient, equipment is brought out to operate at a higher marginal cost. The oil industry is going the same way and while newer rigs and jack-ups may be preferred for drilling work that is clearly not the case in all situations. In plug-and-abandonment work in particular, which is less time-sensitive and more price-sensitive, there is absolutely no indication that new rigs are preferred unless their performance compensates for a cost differential (a very high bar to pass). There is also minimal-to-no evidence of newer rigs attracting anything like the sort of day rate that would allow them to cover their cost of capital versus new-build cost which is surely the first stage in a demand driven recovery?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the new investors in the North Sea and how they are changing the economic makeup of the area, the UKCS in particular. For the supply chain one thing the new (operationally and/or financially) leveraged companies definitely bring is a relentless focus on pragmatism and cost control that simply was not as evident at larger E&P companies (who tend to excel at larger more complex developments). These might well be the right type of companies to extract the maximum resources from a mature basin, but for the supply chain the relentless focus on cost control over global and gold standards marks a significant change in procurement priorities. This is a long-term deflationary trend for the supply chain.

However, for the subsea and supply industries on the UKCS they better hope this works. The most recent stats from Oil and Gas UK show that CapEx work simply does not have the drilled inventory for a quick upturn in demand, and while the construction assets play in the maintenance market oversupply will continue. The decline in development wells, which drive tie-back activity and is leading indicator of small field developments, is what is causing huge problems for the tier-2 subsea contractors on the demand side. This isn’t going to change until drilling programmes increase in volume.

UKCS Statistics (2017)

Oil and Gas UK activity 2017.png

Source: Oil and Gas UK.

 

Financial crises comparisons…

This article from Gillian Tett on whether we have learnt the lessons from previous financial crises contains this quote:

But whatever their statistical size, crises share two things. First, the pre-crisis period is marked by hubris, greed, opacity — and a tunnel vision among financiers that makes it impossible for them to assess risks. Second, when the crisis hits, there is a sudden loss of trust, among investors, governments, institutions or all three. If you want to understand financial crises, then, it pays to remember that the roots of the word “credit” comes from the Latin “credere”, meaning “to believe”: finance does not work without faith. The irony, though, is that too much trust creates bubbles that (almost) inevitably burst.

My hypothesis is that offshore energy has suffered both from the bursting of a credit bubble (that saw for example its largest specialist lender DVB Bank go effectively bankrupt), as well as a structural change in the demand for offshore oil brought on by shale. The interrelationship between these two events is at the core of my thinking.

But the above paragraph is clearly a good summation of the 2000-2014 offshore boom. As in a banking crisis offshore asset owners had high embedded leverage on long term financing contracts funded with a series of smaller and shorter duration contracts with E&P companies. The asset owners, like banks, were committed to a long-term collection of highly illiquid assets that relied on a buoyant short-term contracting market. Like all booms there was clearly “hubris, greed, and opacity”.

When this delicate balance changed the enitre funding model of the industry was called into question and the lack of rebound on the demand side has led to severe overcapacity issues that – understandably – have left stakeholders reluctant to address. This quote also seems apt:

But shattered trust is hard to restore — particularly when governments or bankers try to sweep problems under the carpet, say with creative accounting tricks. “You can put rotten meat in the freezer to stop it smelling — but its still rotten,” one Japanese official joked to me as he watched American attempts to reassure the markets, turning to some of the same tricks the Tokyo government had once tried — and failed — to use a decade before.

Group think and conventional wisdom…

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

J.K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society

 

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

Friedrich Hayek

 

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

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

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

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

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

#groupthink 

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

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

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

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

SLB Forecast.png

Source: Schlumberger

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

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

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

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

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

Oil prices, technology, volatility, and productivity…

Oil prices are unusually prone to volatility because both supply and demand are insensitive or “sticky” in responding to price changes in the short term, while storage is limited and costly.

Robert McNally, Rapidan Energy Group

 

Last week Citi’s lead oil analyst came out and said he thought oil prices might dip to $45 per barrel in 2019 and be in the $45-65 per barrel range by the end of 2019. This contrasts with Goldman Sachs ($70-80), Morgan Stanley ($85), and Bernstein ($100). I don’t have a view on the oil price, all this shows you is that intelligent, well-informed analysts, with almost endless resources, can vary in their forecasts by around ~50-100%. Read the whole story to understand how looking at exactly the same data set as all the other equally capable analysts Citi’s analyst reaches such a different conclusion.

What this really shows is model risk: a few percentage points difference in key input variables, even over a short space of time, can have a huge influence over the outcomes. And actually, there are in reality too many influences to model them all accurately: Will there be a supply outage in Libya? What will happen with Iranian oil? What will happen in Venezuela? And these are just a few of the big geopolitical questions alone. You need a forecast for many planning assumptions but in the short-run the oil price is a random walk.

A good example is this graph from the EIA showing the difference between their February prediction of US oil prediction and the current one:

IMG_0717

If you are wondering why your jack-up, rig, or vessel isn’t quite getting the utilisation or day rate you were looking for in that graph may lie the answer? It’s a bold Board that sanctions too many projects in this environment, and in fact the one that is, Exxon Mobil with the huge Guyana finds, is getting slammed by the stock market. Barclays, summing up the “market view” saying:

IMG_0718.JPG

Shale isn’t a swing producer as McNally makes clear, but it does have a much shorter-term impact on the market in way that nothing did prior to 2013. But it also isn’t a given that offshore will have a cost or volume advantage over offshore in 10 years time: companies need to hedge their bets if they are large portfolio corporations. McNally has published ‘Crude Volatility‘ which may make  my summer reading list.

The big area where I agree with Citi/Morse is on technology and productivity.  Morse obviously believes, as I do, that a few percentage points of recovery and technological improvement over the well lifecycle has the potential to radically alter physical oil output assumptions over the long-run. And that is before you get into the wonkish areas such as on what base you forecast the decline volume on.

Against this backdrop is a new wine in the old bottle of peak oil demand: lack of investment and the coming supply shortage. A whole host of energy consulting firms say underinvestment may cause a supply driven price rise: Rystad and Energy Aspects in this WSJ article:

IMG_0712.JPG

This despite the fact that gross investment doesn’t reflect the increased volume of supply gained from each incremental dollar at the moment (a point Morse makes), or the fact that oil companies don’t need the same level of reserves now (and investors don’t want them to pay for them).  Woodmac, who in the latest “gotcha” on why shale won’t work (sic), has now discovered shale well rates decline faster than thought… I’ll bet by 2040 the 800k a day production cited in the article is made irrelevant by productivity improvements in extraction and production techniques. But I guess again it shows how senstive large data models are to small input changes (and how desperate research firms are to have some uncertainty and upside to discuss with certain corporate clients where an element of group think appears to be pervading Board thinking).

“Preparing for the Recovery”

Preparing for the future.png Rystad also run’s strategy days for Maersk Supply and numerous other subsea and offshore companies…. “Hang in there guys the recovery is just around the corner when the supply crunch happens…”… (however remember The Dominant Logic is dangerous?)….

Meanwhile the capital deepening in the US shale industry continues apace. Have a look at the new pipelines going in:

IMG_0716.JPG

Once these are built the price discount will disappear, further raising E&P company profitability and some railway carriages and trucks they displace will still exist (‘unit trains’ with 100+ carriages carry >66 000 barrels). Some will be scrapped but the railway carriages are like offshore vessels: high fixed costs and commitments and low marginal costs. That is a short way of saying they will reduce their costs to compete… and the virtuous cycle will continue with the capital base even deeper.

What really matters for offshore at the moment is the competition for marginal investment dollars. Does an E&P company choose to invest onshore or offshore? The big advantages of shale are potential productivity increases and lower upfront cash costs despite a lower margin (i.e. low CapEx high OpEx), this flexibility has a number of distinct advantages in  an era when forecasts are so divergent. It is worth noting that Shell, Exxon Mobile and Chevron all underperformed the stock market last week despite oil prices having risen signficantly over the last year. Shareholders want their money back in an era of uncertainty, not mega-projects that offer future pay-offs.

In an era when the volatility of oil prices is clearly increasing you can be sure that tight oil will be favoured over long cycle production at the margin. The ability to take margin risk over commitment risk is a key part of the investment making decision process.  The graph above shows how volatile oil prices has been, in particular since 2003. It is irrational to go long on fixed commitments in a age of increasing volatility: just as it is illogical to take on a massive mortgage on a rig or vessel in the current market it is illogical to go long on too many 20 year deepwater developments, and the two symptons are obviously related to the same cause. For a baseload of demand that is logical, but that only works for the larger players with significant market share, at the margin assets and projects become harder to finance.

The other issue driving investment towards shale, in a time of capital discipline, is path dependence. Path dependence is a process where each step forward can only be achieved with the prior steps preceeding it. Deepwater followed shallow water as an extension of the skills developed there.

The productivity benefits of shale are such that larger E&P companies must fear if they miss this technology cycle catching up on the “path” may be too hard or expensive given the dependent steps they will have to get there. History matters.

Offshore will remain an important part of the energy mix. But the price rise of the past 12 months has led to only marginal increases in work and a firm commitment from E&P companies to control CapEx in a manner that breaks with the past. Price rises not increases in long term production projects are the short term adjustment mechanism at the moment. In a era of price volatility and extraordinary technical change the future could look a lot like the present.

“Preparing for the recovery”… Whatever…

The IEA has recently published it’s new World Energy Review and if you have been reading this blog this comment will come as no surprise:

One notable trend concerns the relationship between oil prices and upstream costs. In the past, there has been a roughly linear relationship between upstream costs and oil prices. When price spiked, so did costs, and vice versa. What we are noting now is a decoupling. While prices have more than doubled since 2016, global upstream costs have remained substantially flat and for 2018 we estimate those increasing very modestly, by just 3%. Companies appear to have learned to do more with less.

Too many business models in the offshore supply chain are simply ignoring this. If you are going long on Borr Drilling shares (for example), as anything other than a momentum trade, then you need to look at data driven forecasts like this, which in statistical terms are called a structural break. Look at the cost deflator in the graph above! In an industry with high fixed costs (both original and operating) that is a straight financial gain for E&P companies and with the volatility in the oil prices they will not give that up easily… and in a world of oversupply they won’t have to.

The future will be different. Some vast market snapback where the Deamnd Fairy appears, and everyone brave enough to have paid OpEx in the offshore supply chain has found a clever get rich quick scheme, is an extremely unlikely event.

More data points like this should make you think as well:

IEA Source.png

Yes, I get the volume in absolute terms is growing, but it is change at the margin that defines industry profitability.

There is still too much liquidity and too many business plans talking as if a return to 2013/14 is a certainty when in reality such a scenario would be an outlier.

Anecdote is not the singular of data…

“As regards the scope of political economy, no question is more important, or in a way more difficult, than its true relation to practical problems. Does it treat of the actual or of the ideal? Is it a positive science concerned exclusively with the investigation of uniformities, or is it an art having for its object the determination of practical rules of action?”

John Neville Keynes, 1890, Chapter 2

Music journalists know a lot about music… if you want some good summer listening I would advise taking them seriously. However, as a general rule, their knowledge of finance and economics is less sound… ‘Greatest Hits’ have for example included complete confidence that EMAS Chiyoda would be recapitalised right before they went bankrupt… or that the scheme from Nautilus to put ancient DSVs in lay-up wasn’t stark raving mad because the Sapphire couldn’t get work either… I digress…

On a logical basis it is very hard to argue that a majority of companies in an industry can consistently be under margin pressure and and that they will exist indefinitely regardless of cash flow losses. It might make a good album cover but as economic reasoning it leaves a lot to be desired.

Let me be very clear here: if the total number of firms in an industry are operating at below cash break-even only one of three things (or a combination of) are possible:

  1. Some firms exit the industry. Capacity is withdrawn and the margins of the remaining firms rise to breakeven (a supply side correction).
  2. The market recovers or grows (a demand side correction).
  3. An external source injects funds into the loss making companies or they sell assets (a funding correction).

There are no other options. I write this not because I want people to lose their jobs, or because I hate my old company, or because I didn’t like the Back Street Boys as much as the next music journalist in Westhill, I write it because it is an axiomatic law of economics. To write that firms, backed by private equity companies, who have a very high cost of capital, will simply carry on funding these businesses indefinitely is simply delusional.

A deus ex machina event where a central bank provides unlimited liquidity to an industry only happens in the banking sector generally (in the energy space even Thatcher made the banks deliver in general on their BP underwriting commitment). Subsea appears to flushed out the dumb liquidity money, convinced of a quick turnaround, and being turning toward the committed industrial money now.

The real problem for both York and HitecVision, or indeed any private equity investor in  the industry isn’t getting in it’s getting out (as Alchemy are demonstrating). Both have ample funds to deploy if they really believe the market is coming back and this is just a short-term liquidity issue, but who do they sell these companies to eventually? It was very different selling an investment story to the market in 2013 when all the graphs were hockey sticks but now anyone with no long-term backlog (i.e. more than a season) will struggle to get investors (even current ones). The DOF Subsea IPO, even with their long-term Brazil work, failed and the market is (rightly) more sceptical now. Every year the market fails to reover in the snap-back hoped for each incremental funding round gets riskier and theoretically more expensive.

Private equity firms have a range of strategies but they generally involve leverage. Pure equity investment in loss making companies in the hope of building scale or waiting for the market to develop is actually a venture capital strategy. Without the use of leverage the returns need to be very high to cover the cost of funding, and if the market doesn’t grow then this isn’t possible because you need to compete on price to win market share and by definition firms struggle to earn economic profits, yet alone excess profits, that would allow a private equity investor to profit from the equity invested. For private equity investors now each funding round becomes a competition to last longer than someone else until the market recovers. In simple terms without a demand side boom where asset values are bid up significantly above their current levels the funding costs of this strategy become financially irrational.

In this vein HitecVision are trying to exit OMP by turning it into an Ocean Yield copy. The GP/LP structure will be ditched if possible and the investment in the MR tankers shows the strategy of being a specialist subsea/offshore vessel company is dead. Like the contracting companies it isn’t a viable economic model given the vintage year the funds all started.

Bibby Offshore may have backlog but it is losing money at a cash flow level. The backlog (and I use the 2013 definition here where it implies a contractual commitment) it does have beyond this year consists solely of a contract with Fairfield for decom work. This contract is break-even at best and contains extraordinary risks around Waiting-On-Weather and other delivery risks that are pushed onto the delivery contractor. It is a millstone not a selling point.

Aside from the cost base another major issue for Bibby is the Polaris. Polaris will be 20 years old next year and in need of a 4th special survery: only the clinically insane would take that cost and on if they didn’t already own it (i.e. buy the company beforehand). Not only that but at 10 years the vessel is within sight of the end of her working life. Any semi-knowledgeable buyer would value her not as a perpetuity but as a fixed-life annuity with an explicit model period and this has a massive impact on the value of the firm. In simple terms I mean that the vessel within 5-10 years needs to generate enough cash to pay for a replacement asset (to keep company revenues and margins stable) that costs new USD ~165m and for a spot market operator might need to be paid for with a very high equity cheque (say ~$80m). Sure a buyer can capture some of this value, but not much and they don’t need to give this away.

In order to fund her replacement capital value the Polaris needs to bank ~USD 22k per day on top of her earnings. Good luck with that. When I talk about lower secular profits in  the industry and the slow dimishment of the capital base that is it in a microcosm: an expensive specialist asset that will be worked to death, above cash flow breakeven in a good year, with no hope of generating enough value in the current economic regime to pay for a replacement. This is how the capital base of the industry will shrink in many cases, not the quick flash of scrapping, but the slow gradual erosion of economic value.

Ocean Installer also have limited work although it is installation work and firmly grounded in Norway. Like everyone else this is not a management failing but a reflection of market circumstances.

McDermott and OI could not reach a deal on  price previously. MDR realised they could just hire some engineers, get some vessels (and even continue to park them in an obscure Norwegian port if needed by Equinor), and recreate OI very quickly. All OI has worth selling is a Norwegian franchise the rest is fantasy. An ex-growth business with single customer risk and some chartered vessels has a value but nowhere near enough to make a venture capital strategy work in financial terms.

Now at both companies there are some extremely astute financial investors are doing the numbers and they must either send out letters to fund investors requiring a draw down to inject funds into these businesses, explaining why they think it is worth it, and putting their reputations on the line for the performance. It may have been worth a risk in 2016, and 17, but really again in 18? Really? [For those unaware of how PE works the money isn’t raised and put in a bank it is irrevocable undertaking to unconditionally provide the funds when the investment manager demands. Investors in big funds know when the money goes in generally and what it is being used for.] And again in 19? And the more they draw down now the higher the upturn has to be to recover. (In York’s case I think it’s more subtle as the investment exposure seems to have moved from the fund to Mr Dinan personally given the substantial person of interest filings).

But whatever. If they do this all the firms do this forever then they will all continue to lose money barring a significant increase in demand. And we know that this is not possible in the short-term from data supplied to the various regulatory agencies. And for the UK sector we know production starts to decline in two years (see graph). So in the UK two years just to keep the same available spend in the region the price of oil will have to go up or E&P companies will have to spend more proportionately on the service companies. This is not a structurally attractive market beset as it is with overcapacity.

Aside from the major tier 1 companies are a host of smaller companies like DOF Subsea, Maersk, Bourbon, and Swire, long on vessels and project teams, and with a rational comnmitment and ability to keep in the market until some smaller players leave. I repeat: this is a commitment issue and the companies with the highest cost of capital and the smallest balance sheets and reources will lose. These companies don’t need to win the tie-backs etc. that OI (and Bibby) are really aiming for: they just need to take enough small projects to ensure that the cost base OI and Bibby have to maintain for trying to get larger projects is uneconomic and expensive in short-term cash costs. It is a much lower bar to aim for but an achievable one.

So the private equity funded companies are left with option 3 as are the industrial companies. The problem is that the industrial companies have a Weighted Average Cost of Capital of ~8-15% and private equity companies who like to make a 2.5x money multiple have about a 25-30% (including portfolio losses) The magic of discounting means the nominal variance over time is considerably larger.

And for both OI and Bibby the fact is they face a very different market from when they started. Both companies went long on specialised tonnage when there was a shortage, taking real financial and operational risk, and growing in a growing market. That market looks likely never to return and the exit route for their private equity backers therefore becomes trying to convince other investors that they need to go long on specialist assets that operate in the spot the market with little visibility and backlog beyonnd the next six months. As someone who tried raising capital for one of these companies in downturns and booms I can tell you that is a very hard task.

So if you want some easy listening summer music I suggest you take advice from a music journalist. On the other hand if you want a serious strategic and financial plan that reflects the market please contact me.