DOF Subsea, Bibby Offshore, and The Pecking Order Theory…

We always plan too much and think too little.

Joesph Schumpeter

We were succeeding. When you looked at specifics, this became a war of attrition. We were winning.

General William Westmoreland on US involvement in Vietnam

DOF AS/ Subsea reported numbers yesterday that were frankly terrible. All those who keep telling you the market is getting better seem blithely ignorant of the constantly decreasing financial performance of nearly all the companies in the sector. It’s like Comical Ali or General Westmoreland constantly assuring everyone that victory is just around the corner, if not in fact delivered. Tendering, like the Viet Cong, never ceases to stop appearing in increasing numbers, and it will bring victory…

I have another theory why tendering is increasing: there are a lot of engineers who are worried about their jobs. In a completely rational strategy they are increasing the number of parties who receive tendering documents, spending more time assessing them, and making the tenders ever more complex. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. More people appear to be spending increasing amounts of time and money on the same tenders and it is making industry margins even thinner, and allowing management to claim that completely unproductive work is actually a sign of an industry returning to health.

But back to the numbers… this is the same DOF Subsea that as recently as Q1 and Q2 this year was hoping to get an IPO away. It’s a good reminder, as if anyone needed one, that when insiders are selling out you should be wary of what you are buying. I call it the Feltex Carpets or Dick Smith theory. Economists have however developed a far more robust theory about how firms decide on their capital structure: The Pecking Order Theory. It’s based on the information asymmetry that exists between the insiders of the firm (shareholders and management) and the outsiders (investors and funders). Basically it’s a deeply cynical view (which probably means it is right) that managers and owners use internally generated funds first, then use debt and only issue equity as a last resort.

In a classic paper Myers and Majluf (1984) argue managers and owners issue equity only when they believe it is overpriced. It is very hard not believe that early in 2017 the insiders at DOF Subsea (i.e. the private equity owners) looked at the vessel schedules and the likely win/loss ratio of the tender pipeline (not the amount of tendering), and decided that if they could dump some stock they would. Luckily investors are aware of the asymmetric information problem and “they discount the firm’s new and existing risky securities when new issues are announced“. Or in other words they just refuse to buy at the asking price which is what happened in the DOF Subsea case.

You should always be wary of financial presentations that start with highlights that don’t include any financials (like the latest DOF Subsea one). Just to be clear the DOF Subsea revenue was down 11% on the same period as last year and EBITDA was down 6%. Luckily, they are doing more tendering.

DOF also helpfully provided this chart of the business:

DOF Business Model.png

Basically without the long term chartering business, which is really just a risk diversification move by Technip, there is no business: the 10% EBITDA on the projects side wouldn’t cover the economic costs and frankly potentially the cash costs either. This is a business where unrealised gains from derivatives (probably interest rate and/or currency swaps) were 6 x the operating loss for the period of NOK (41m).  Year to date DOF Subsea has had to turnover NOK 2.8bn to get a mere NOK 45m in profit. It is pretty clear from the above that actually the projects business, with 17 very expensive fixed costs assets, is not an economic entity; and as I have said before you need a very good return on the vessels on long-term charter in Brazil because as the above graphic makes clear if their contracts aren’t renewed (and no one believes they will be on anything like the current terms) then the value of the vessels will drop like a stone if you believe at some point a vessel is only worth what it can earn in cash terms. The number of other activities you can perform with a 650t vertical lay system is actually pretty small which lowers resale value regardless of how much it cost to build. In which case the value of the business is probably much smaller than the current shareholders would be willing to admit to themselves. Time is not a friend to the investors in this deal because everyday they hold this company future investors get one day closer to finding out what happens in Brazil.

DOF Subsea is a pretty good projects house and the EBITDA margin is just a reflection of market overcapacity. If you were going to invest new money in a subsea projects business you would need therefore to look at that as a realistc EBITDA margin you could earn for the foreseeable future until further supply capacity leaves the market or there is a significant increase in demand. Bear that in mind if you were, for example, looking at injecting funds into a company about to default on its bonds…

The Pecking Order Theory is also helpful in explaining (some of) the shennanigans involved in the Bibby Offshore attempted refinancing at the moment. The insider shareholders in this case also saw the writing the on the wall and in January 2016 took a cheeky £20m off the table in the form of a dividend (after a c.£40m dividend recap that was flagged in the prospectus). In the next 12 months Bibby Offshore lost £52m at the operating profit level, and it must have been known to the Directors by June 16 that without some sort of miracle the business would require a restructuring (which to be clear is an event of default as defined by the ratings agencies even if consensual). It was certainly apparent to any responsible Director by Oct 16.

Bibby Offshore cannot realistically make an interest payment in December, and management have qualified the accounts such that it is not a going concern without a refinancing. And now  the insiders (Bibby Line Group and management) have decided they want outsiders to put money in. They don’t think the equity is overvalued (they know it is valueless);  the insiders think the debt overvalued is and there is too much of it. All the talk of a supportive shareholder reveals it for the sophistry it is: the insiders don’t believe enough to contribute financially. BLG aren’t putting in any of the £60m they have taken out not just because they don’t have it but also because they know the business better than anyone and The Pecking Order Theory makes clear they want someone elses money here.

One deal that is on the table is some “Super Senior” financing (i.e. paid before anyone else) provided by the distressed debt desk at Deutsche Bank. Now Deutsche are arguably the best desk at this in the City, but if you need this sort of financing it is pretty much the end of the road. If EY have resorted to the distress desk at Deutsche as an alternative it shows that no long term investor is interested. This form of financing is more suited for a company in bankruptcy (where it is called debtor-in-possession financing) than for one imminently approaching it. The Deutsche plan would be to lend fully secured against the Polaris and the Sapphire and give Bibby enough money to make until next summer when DSV day rates miraculously improve and the business can service this new debt and bonds. But don’t the bond holders own those boats I hear you ask? Yes. And I am not close enough to this to know exactly the specifics but the security agent is only likely to hand over the ownership papers to the vessels if the bond holders agree to this (I guess); and (I guess) Deutsche would only advance the funds in conjunction with a writedown of their claim. Unbelievably management will argue they are they best people to trade the business out of this mess.

The real tension here appears to be how much equity the bondholders take, and how consensual the handover is, as the business undertakes a debt-for-equity swap. The bondholders can hold out for 100% of the equity as their only other asset apart from the DSVs (and a couple of ROVs) is the shares of Bibby Offshore, but in  order to follow through on this they have to push the company into administration and a liquidation scenario is completely possible at that point as customers and suppliers refuse to trade. The Bibby/Management/EY plan envisages a far more generous structure whereby any money Bibby Line Group put in is also fully secured and they retain majority control so they can consolidate Bibby Offshore in their Group accounts (20% of net assets). The problem with this is of course that BLG don’t have anywhere near enough money to put in proportionately.

A nightmare scenario for the bondholders is taking over a company in such circumstances where agency conflicts abound and in a practical sense now it is a hostile takeover with management having acted until the last possible moment to realise the rights of the debt holders. It is arguable for all of this year Bibby Offshore should have been run with the creditors interests at the forefront of all decisions and it is clear that this has not happened.

In case you’re wondering what is in it for Deutsche: it’s the fees. They are looking at advancing c. £20-30m on the vessels and it would have to be cleared before the bondholders get paid. They would get a 7 figure upfront fee and an interest rate of c. 15%, and if a default occurred they would sell the assets in a fire sale to get their money as quickly as possible. Which is why you can’t get much money from such deals because the bank needs to be conservative here (and I think this deal will die on broker valuations given the likely fire sale prices of Polaris and Sapphire). The problem is of course that debt got Bibby into this mess and it is very unlikely to be the cure to get them out of it. I don’t think the Deutsche proposal has passed credit committee and even though they would make an eye-watering fee on the this the risk is clear: becoming the proud owner of 2 x North Sea class DSVs (and as their offices are some way from the Thames they wouldn’t even add to the famed Deutsche art collection).

With no significant work booked for next year the Bibby plan relies 100% on day rates increasing significantly above current levels. And therein lies the real problem for the bondholders and any potential distress desk coming in on this: at some point the only solution to a market in oversupply is for some capacity to go. How can Bibby credibly claim to make a better margin than DOF Subsea? At the moment Boskalis look almost certain to enter the market in a big way and other companies are also looking to enter the market. Not only does Bibby need tens of millions of pounds under its current cost structure just to make it until next summer there is actually no certainty that this magical scenario of higher rates will allow them to come close to settling the outstanding debt obligations they are generating to get there.

DOF Subsea made clear that while tendering activity is robust project work is dismal (and indeed they made a specific comment that amounted to a profit warning about it). At 7.0 x debt to last-twelve-months EBITDA DOF Subsea (and everyone else in the market) will be throwing everything into trying to win work… all the non-DSV work will compete with Bibby (no one really expects them to reactivate the SAT system on the Achiever) and they will keep margins at ~EBITDA breakeven in order ot get utilisation. As a committed industrial player that is a rational economic strategy. Subsea 7 and Technip are booking DSV days at less than £120k for 2018 to get utilisation in early and they can clearly keep this up virutally indefinitely. The dumb non-industrial money won’t last as long as those with an operational logic and an industrial strategy + balance sheet in this market.

The problem for the Bibby bondholders is that not only at current prices (.36) have they capitalised the firm at c. £63m, way above what it could hope to earn in an economic sense, it also needs £20-40m just to keep trading until next summer.  The major competitors have no cash flow issues (Boskalis has €1bn in the bank) and every reason to chase market share over profit. There is therefore no rational economic reason why under this scenario North Sea class day rates will rise, particularly if Boskalis enters, and every reason to believe they will stay at current levels. Any rational investor in Bibby Offshore would shut down everything apart from the UK business, but 2 x DSVs in the UK doesn’t justify anything like £60m in value…

The Nor bondholders tried super senior financing on their DSVs in Nov 2016 and it is clear, as they slowly run out of money and cannot raise anymore at anything like the 15% fully super senior they did last time, that when someone says you can’t lose on a North Sea class DSV, you can on some. It’s all down to asset specificity as I have said before. Deutsche and other distress desks will be well aware of the mistake the Nor bondholders made, and frankly if I was going to make a mistake on two DSVs I’d rather do it with the Nor vessels than the Bibby ones.

This will all be resolved soon. A bondholder meeting is scheduled for next week and everyone will lay out their plan. The problem is of course there isn’t one really and it should never been allowed to have get this close to Dec 14 when the interest payment is due. The Bibby plan is for it to continue as a lifestyle business where external investors allow the family and management to stay in control and fund it until the market returns. A few (27) redundancies are underway but in a microcosm of the cost and conflict issues that define the company the CEO’s wife, who runs the Business Excellence department, is staying , as is the Director of Small Pools and Innovation, while the Engineering Manager is made redundant (seriously).

The Bibby plan relies on a small number of bondholders, enough to block the majority, being so afraid of the great unknown they back them to carry on as before. This will just delay things until next summer because the cash burn is just so high that even £20-30m would be gone by this time next year without a wholesale change in market conditions. Handing back the Olympic Bibby cuts the cash burn, and may allow the business to come close to cash break even, although the US will make another substantial trading loss in 2018 as will Norway (and without the Ares why bother?); but doesn’t solve the core problem that the business itself is unprofitable at an operating profit level. Call it the slow-burn and pretend strategy. It was disastrous for Nor as eventually reality comes and the cash is gone. As plans go it is pretty terrible.

But the bondholders don’t have a good one either. The bondholders appears to have spectacularly misread the willingness and ability of Bibby Line Group to support Bibby Offshore as well as how badly the business would perform in 2017 versus 2016 (revenue -50%). Some of the funds involved in the bonds don’t need money from an institution like Deutsche, but unless they control the company they have to hold a bondholder vote every time they want to make any significant moves, and letting the company go into administration risks a total wipe-out of value. Stripping the company back to a smaller business locks-in a loss, continue funding it until the market returns is simply throwing good money after bad and it’s real cash. If they do take the business over they will have an awkward period where almost the entire senior management are changed out and they will be cash funding a business, with an unknown financial commitment, while their consultants re-do the numbers and tell them how much capital they will need to inject. I have done that as a management consultant and it is hugely destabilising while it goes on and makes normal operations almost impossible. If if takes consultants 6 weeks to produce an initial report (30 working days), and Bibby Offshore is losing c. 100k a day in the interim even an emergency facility of £3m + £1m for the consultants is real money given the limited upside sale potential. And then they are only in February with a real funding commitment until the mythical summer season that will save everyone… until it doesn’t…

There is a more complicated scenario here where the Bibby Offshore is restructured through a pre-pack insolvency that the current bondholders control. This will remove the historic liabilities incurred (i.e. property leases, Trinidad tax) and see a new company emerge free of its past shareholders and with a new capital structure. I think this the most likely but it will be a dramatically smaller business and will be run solely for sale ASAP. I also see no guarantee it will realise more value than a liquidation despite it being enormously risky given changing market conditions.

The Bibby Offshore refinancing is a mess and liquidation is clearly a very real possibility here. Getting to less than 28 days of an interest repayment before trying to finalise a refinancing is irresponsible in the extreme when it has been telegraphed for months and your plan is simply not to hand the company to the bondholders. The only thing I can definitely tell you is that if you brought Bibby bonds at .36 you are going to lose some real money here.

Subsea 7 and Conoco Phillips… industry bellwethers…

[N]othing can have value without being an object of utility.

Karl Marx

[I couldn’t agree more with the philosophy outlined in the Conoco Phillips graphic in the header].

A stark contrast in the fortunes of two companies reporting numbers yesterday and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that an E&P company (Conoco Phillips) is benefitting from a higher oil price while an offshore contractor (Subsea 7) is suffering from lower committed offshore spending. But I think it’s worth delving into a little deeper because the scale of the changes taking place in investment terms I think provide a note of guidance for how the future of the industry will look.

CP makes an excellent E&P company to use as an example. In 2015 CP announced they were giving up deepwater exploration but not deepwater production. All economic change occurs at the margin, the change in preferences of different actors in the economy melding into demand and supply curves which intersect at equilibrium points: in this case the decision to invest in deepwater production, or not, depending on market conditions. CP looks to be a hard task master in this regard: based on the statements and actions they have taken if CP decides to invest in offshore production others will as well.

I start with CP because E&P demand for offshore services is obviously crucial. Firstly, and this is not an original thought, the entire tone of this presentation (Q3 2017) is geared to financial returns to shareholders (you should actually read the whole thing to sense this) at the expense of production growth. Just as Shell, and other E&P companies have done, there is a signalling effect that this is a company that will not turn an oil price rise into a feast of mega-growth projects:

CP Priorities

The whole focus is being able to pay dividends even at a $40 per barrel price, gone are the 2013 days of boasting about reserve replacement ratios in excess of 170%. CP helpfully shows that this focus has helped them outperform their peer group: Executive level pay generally includes a link to performance against a defined peer group, if other E&P managers start losing bonuses by not being as disciplined on returning money to shareholders as CP, and their share price appreciation is less, their strategy will change extremely quickly. But in reality all the big companies reporting now are making “credible commitments” to return any excess cash to shareholders and focus on demand increases through short cycle production. Just as it would take years to turn investment decisions into projects now so much offshore engieering capability has been turned off, so too it will take a long time to change this investment narrative and performance incentive system in E&P companies that drive offshore demand. Any perceived linear link between an increase in the oil price and an increase in offshore demand is wrong in my view.

COP Works.png

Secondly: CapEx: for the 2018-2020 period CP is guiding sustaining CapEx at $3.5bn per annum and $2.0bn for expansion. Of the $2.0bn expansion $1.2bn is short-cycle unconventional and only $0.5bn for conventional/offshore and $0.3bn for exploration (split evenly between conventionals and short-cycle). To put that in context in 2012, when the offshore industry was going long on boats and rigs based on future demand, CP guided 2013 CapEx at USD $15.8bn! Of that 10% alone ($1.6bn) was for the North Sea and Alaska (i.e. offshore), 26% ($4.2bn) was for short-cycle, 15% ($2.4bn) for offshore Angola and GoM, and another 14% ($2.1bn).

Graphically it works like this: To keep production constant CP will spend $3.5bn

2018-2020 Flat Production.png

The green is entirely offshore. But to increase production:

COP Growth Production.png

The green in the second graph is almost all historic commitments. That is the future of offshore in a microcosm for the largest independent E&P company in the world and historically a major investor in deepwater offshore. The point is, for those bored of the minutiae, that CP have knocked ~$9.5bn off theirCapEx (60%) in 5 years (they have also divested assets so its not a straight relative comparison) and that the portion devoted to offshore is really related to legacy investments only now, not new fields or developments.

Third: productivity. I keep saying this but the productivity improvements look real to me the economist, as opposed to some of the geologists I know, who argue shale is bound fail:

CP Shale Productivity.png

The last line: >50% more wells per rig line! It’s all about productivity and scale and large companies investing in R&D are extracting more for less on a continuous basis from their shale wells. This is becoming a self-reinforcing cycle where they invest, improve, and re-invest. As I say here often: Spencer Dale is right.

This is the link point to Subsea 7, and all the other subsea contractors frankly. Subsea 7 have performed better than most other contractors throughout the downturn (not McDermott), but the issue is backlog and the pace of future work delivery: as CP seeks to please the stockmarket by avoiding all but the most promising of offshore investments (if any), SS7 and others must show huge declines in their order backlogs which de-risk a hugely expensive and specific asset base. I have said before I think you almost need to value subsea contracting companies like a bank: they fund long-term assets with a series of shorter duration contracts of uncertain redemption value, yes they have a much higher equity cushion, but they need it as they are borrowing short from a market to fund long term assets. Certainly smaller contractors are susceptible to “runs”.

In the last quarter SS7 had revenue of ~$1bn but it took in orders of only .5 of that (book-to-bill ratio) in new orders which left it with a backlog of $5.3bn (against liabilies of $2.4bn). At Q4 2013, when companies like CP were spending all their CapEx, SS7 had backlog of $11.8bn (against $3.8bn of liabilities).

Now SS7 is a well managed company and as can be seen they have reduced debt as the downturn continued, continued to return chartered tonnage,  and they have over $1.2bn in cash, so there are no problems in the short-term. But if you were owed money by SS7 I would rather be owed a higher amount backed by nearly 3x backlog than owed a smaller amount by 2x (a declining) backlog. The problem is the pace at which all the contracting companies are eating through their backlog of contracted work that was at a significantly higher margin than the work they are bidding for now. The actual booked backlog number is the only certainty guiding real expectations of future profitability.

It is a function of the SS7 business model that they have an extremely long position in very specialist assets that sap meaningful amounts of money from companies if they are not working as the graph from the FMC Technip results makes clear:

Technip margin erosion.png

The single largest fact in Technip’s declining subsea margin is lower fleet utilization. If Technip and SS7 are expecting poor utilization in 2018 then it is locked in for the rest of the supply chain.

The fact is the huge offshore CapEx pull back and reallocation by the E&P companies is continuing unabated. Offshore allocations may not be declining in real terms any more but E&P companies are making clear to their shareholders that it isn’t going to materially increase either. The offshore fleet built for 2014 isn’t getting a reprieve from the Oil Price Fairy, the gift from that fairytale should it come true for the E&P companies will be given to shareholders, who after the volatility they have suffered in recent years feel they are owed higher risk weighted returns. E&P companies are locking in systems and processes that ensure their procurement in the supply chain will systematically lower their per unit production costs for years to come and ensuring that other asset owners get lower returns for their investments is a core part of that.

And it’s not only backlog the SURF business now is declining year-on-year of you look at the Q3 2017 SS7 results:

Q3 2017 BU performance.png

~$50m is a meaningful decline in revenue (6.3%) for SURF alone and the decline in i-tech shows that the maintenance market hasn’t come back either. Both CapEx and OpEx work remain under huge margin pressure and in the maintenance market the smaller ROV companies with vessel alliances are all mutually killing any chance of anyone making money until a significant amount of capacity leaves the market. The point of reinforcing this is that it is clear that the E&P companies do not view higher prices the start of a relaxation of cost controls: this is the new environment for offshore contractors.

Subsea maintenance costs involving vessels are time and capital intensive. Internally E&P companies are weighing up whether to invest in maintenance CapEx for offshore assets or new CapEx on short cycle wells. At the margin many like CP are choosing short cycle over offshore and hence the demand curve for offshore is likely to have shifted permanently down and price alone is simply not clearing the market.

I have only used SS7 as they are the purest subsea player in the market. I definitely think it is one of the better managed companies in the industry buut it is impossible to fight industry effects this big when demand is falling, and therefore the size of the market is shrinking, and you have such a high fixed cost base. Not everyone can take market share.

SS7 will be a survivor, and longer term given the technical skills and scale required to compete in this industry I think it likely in the long run they will earn economic profits i.e. profits in excess of their cost of capital, along with the larger SURF contractors excluding Saipem. But they will do this by being brutal with the rest of the supply chain that has gone long on assets and simply doesn’t have the operational capability and balance sheet to dictate similar terms. For everyone below tier one the winter chill is just beginning.

So what does this point to for the future of the industry?

  1. It is a safe bet with all the major E&P companies CapEx locked in for 2018 now and all the OpEx budgets done that demand isn’t going to be materially different from 2017. Slightly higher oil prices may lead to some minor increases in maintenance budgets but nothing that will structurally affect the market
  2. A smaller number of larger offshore projects of disproportionate size and importance fot the larger contractors and industry. Only the largest will have the technical skills and capability to deliver these (hence SS7 ordering a new pipelay vessel). These projects will have higher flow volume and lower lift costs and will be used by E&P majors to underpin base demand
  3. A huge bifurcation in contractor profitability between those capable of delivering projects above and the rest of the industry who will struggle to cover their cost of capital for years
  4. An ROV market that uses surplus vessels and excess equipment equipment that keeps margins at around OpEx for years as vessel owners seek this option for any utilisation
  5. E&P companies consistently seeking to standardise shale production, treat it as a manufacturing process that drives down per unit costs, and increase productivity. Any major offshore CapEx decision will be weighed against the production flexibility of shale
  6. Structurally lower margins in any reocvery cycle for the majority of SURF contractors

I was wrong about Bitcoin: it is an asset class not money…

These curious capabilities make Bitcoins a combination of a commodity and a fiat currency (creating the coins is referred to as “mining” and they have value only because people accept them). But boosters inflated a Bitcoin bubble. Shortly after the currency launched, articles spread around the internet arguing that Bitcoins would protect wealth from hyperinflation and that early adopters would make a fortune. The dollar price of a Bitcoin currency unit climbed from a few cents in 2010 to a peak of nearly $30 in June 2011 (see chart), according to data compiled by Mt Gox, a popular online Bitcoin exchange. Inevitably, the currency then crashed back down, bottoming out at $2 in November 2011.

The Economist on Bitcoin in 2012 when the price was USD 12 per coin

 

This commodity [gold] is a material to be almost indestructible, and one of which therefore the accumulated stocks are very large in proportion to the annual fresh supply. Gold tends, therefore, to have a remarkably steady value.

R.G. Hawtrey, The Gold Standard

The Economic Journal, Vol 29, 1919

I have been prety vocal in the past about Bitcoin as a bubble. Stories like this seem to reinforce that image in me:

Eugene Mutai’s Nairobi apartment is filled with the sound of money: That would be the hum of a phalanx of fans cooling the computers he’s programmed to mine cryptocurrencies around the clock…

“The entire ecosystem could be the biggest wealth-distribution system ever,” Mutai said as his 2-year old daughter, Xena, named after the warrior princess, played with a tablet, swiping from app to app. In the world of internet-based currencies traded without interference from banks or regulators, “big players can’t deny anyone from participating in the financial system.”

And sure enough the CEO of Credit Suisse also explained that:

[f]rom what we can identify, the only reason today to buy or sell bitcoin is to make money, which is the very definition of speculation and the very definition of a bubble

I am not sure I believe that big players are excluding people from the financial system… but it is certainly part of the marketing of Bitcoin. The FT also has a great article on a how people are being marketed the dream of riches via bitcoin (read the whole thing the promoters are “interesting” to say the least:

“Ninety-five per cent of people you’re going to talk to about cryptocurrency, they say to you it’s a bubble. Correct?” he said as the 30 or so men and women packed into a small, hot room on the fourth floor nodded in agreement. In fact, he declared, “the bubble will never burst…

Pro FX Options launched in 2016 and says it can turn people with “zero trading knowledge” into skilled traders. It claims its software can detect short-term trading trends and help ordinary people make consistent profits from binary options, where a bet is placed on whether a stock or currency pair will be higher or lower at a predetermined time in the future. “What we’ve done is really made it simple, simple for anybody from any walk of life to take advantage of it”

But I am erring more now to the fact that while the top prices may be “bubble like” in that they deviate from the mean significantly over time, that some cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, look likely to be a permanent asset class. I don’t think the CEO of Credit Suisse is right, buying and selling for profit only is speculation, but that doesn’t make it a bubble.

Bitcoin isn’t a currency as defined by monetary economists in the classical sense, but it appears to have become an asset class, which seems likely to give it some enduring value. It just needs enough people to believe it worth something at it will have a floor of demand that should give it some value, even if intrinsically it generates no income. There are enough reports now that people are starting to treat it like gold, risk small stakes and hoping to profit wildly. All it needs is this number to keep growing faster than the Bitcoin system mines coins and the price will go up. Last week CME announced they would start a futures service for Bitcoin. It seems almost inconceivable that a global market this big will simply vanish, the price may go down as some buyers lose confidence, but there is surely enough market depth now that this is simply becoming a recognised asset class, albeit one with likely extreme volatility in demand/pricing.

The mistake I made was treating it as currency and as money. I am not the only one this attempt to value Bitcoin on a rational basis was :

based on the presumption that bitcoin’s core utility value is serving as a currency for the dark economy.

Bitcoin is clearly neither money nor a currency but it is becoming an asset class.

The reason I missed 9 of the last 0 housing recessions in NZ is simply because I was too rational in my analysis on the overall return not the capital gain: Asian buyers and peoples innate desire for a secure house has increased faster than the stock of housing and ergo the prices have boomed.

newzealand-house-prices-gdp-per-cap

Its all about the capital gain in NZ but that doesn’t make the gain any less real if you cash it in.

I’m not pretending Bitcoin is perfect: there are security issues, and the price will be volatile, to name just two. But there is a longevity in the prposition that simply didn’t exist with Dutch Tulips (a fashionable perishable item amongst a small domestic population) or the South Sea Company (effectively a financial engineering that overreached combined with fraud).  Some of the Initial Coin Offerings are clearly fraud and a bubble but the more I read the more I can see a case for investing in Bitcoin: the rate of supply will grow less slowly than the rate of demand.

Gold has no value beyond what someone is willing to pay and and 37% of its demand come from people who just hold for “investment purposes”. A fraction of those people worldwide who decided to invest in Bitcoin would likely make it a great investment.

Gold-Demand-by-Source

But I still would pay someone £1100 for a three day couse to learn how to trade the stuff. I may regret that later but that is a bubble.

Just what the world needs…. another dive support vessel…

Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is, and yet it remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings in time.

Heidegger -who revived the concept of Aletheia in philosophy

Congratulations to CCC (Underwater Engineering) UAE for delivering the DSV Said Aletheia. It’s a fine looking vessel, a single bell 12 man system that is perfect for the Middle East and built in China for probably a very attractive price.

Unfortunately for the owners it is arriving at a terrible time in the market and I use it to highlight one of the big problems for a market recovery that the subsea/offshore industry faces with it’s over capacity: the over segmentation that has resulted in the build programme.

This table from Kennedy Marr makes clear how large the fleet expansion has been:

KM DP Fleet Aug 17.png

In the old days (pre-2010) all vessels were multi-purpose to a certain extent. They might not operate optimally all the time but some work where they were over specified balanced out higher days rates for more specialised work. As the number of vessels grew so did the number of more specialised vessels.

In Asia and the Middle East this has seen a number of purpose built dive support vessels delivered for contracts that used to be important charters for contracting companies to win. The best example of this, if delivery occurs, is the Vard new-build for Kruez, that will go long-term to Shell Brunei. This vessel will displace older tonnage in the market and at the lower end modular systems but in such price sensitive markets the productivity benefits this vessel offers are unlikely to command a price premium. In other words it is going to keep prices low.

Here is the big problem for DSV owners (in all markets):

Global E&P Capex

Shallow water Capex is forecast to remain near stagnant for years at levels significantly below the period preceeding 2014. Shallow water fields are smaller, and often more marginal fields and they require vast amounts of DSV days to support pipelay and general construction. As the graph makes clear there has been a structural change in the market and even if the oil price recovers it will not flow into shallow water construction and ergo a portion of the market that existed prior to 2014 has gone.

There is no magic cure here and no deus ex machina that is simply going to allow the “maintenance fairy” to make all the problems go away. A DSV in field construction mode uses far more days than one involved in IRM work. Now all the DSVs are trading down from construction work into IRM and that isn’t going to change either. Logically asset values in the DSV sector have dropped significantly because there is no plausible story for how a DSV could deliver the cash flows you used to be able to believe it could. Markets are mean reverting eventually but the process is going to continue being extremely painful financially for a while yet.

Aletheia apparently means “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident… it also means factuality or reality”. I find that highly apt for a new DSV delivering into the current market.

Friday morning cheer for the bulls… and safe thoughts for those in Houston…

“Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on the one hand…’, then ‘but on the other…”

Harry Truman

 

As I am off on holiday to Spain I thought I would spread some cheer for the weekend…The Bull case for oil was made by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco yesterday looking at oil demand in China and combining it with The Varian Rule (which I hadn’t heard of either):

A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today; middle-income people will have something equivalent in 10 years, and poor people will have it in an additional decade.

The economists from the Federal Reserve conclude what every offshore bull hopes for, even if it is in a delightfully non-commital and unspecified in timeframe:

In particular, if both domestic and foreign oil producers are reluctant to invest now in exploration and development, they may be unable to expand quickly to meet a sharp increase in Chinese demand. If global supply cannot expand fast enough, oil prices will have to rise to balance the market, as they did in the early 2000s.

On the other hand DNB came out with this graph this week:

DNB Offshore Spend 2017e

The point about being “unable” to expand is a good one. Even if the price spiked now the supply chain has laid off so many people in the short term all that will happen is there would be an explosion in wage costs not asset utilisation (and therefore day rates) as projects would take time to wind up. For the supply chain there is no easy solution to the current problems apart from slow deleveraging and the occassional exogenous shock maybe?

To all my friends in Houston I hope all is well and you are hunkered down safely. For the record no one obviously wants an increase in demand generated in such a way.

Hornbeck Hurricane map.png

Source: Hornbeck

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.

On holiday…

I have been coming to Greece for years and every year for the past three years there has nealy been a currency and banking crisis before we arrive (last year only foreign Visa cards worked at the ATM)… I have no wish to open the Euro debate while on holiday I just note the past which is one of the reasons I like economic history:

“Throughout the latter half of the 1920s Germany was living on borrowed time. Foreign debts, many of which called be recalled at short notice, were allowed to pile up to an extent which, in view of the industrial development of the country and high tariff barriers imposed by the creditors, could never be justified by her actual or potential export earnings. How Germany was supposed to meet her obligations once capital imports ceased seems never to have been seriously considered by creditors, a lack of foresight difficult to explain. Even had there been no economic crisis or check to lending at the end of the decade it was inconcievable that Germany could have gone on absorbing such large capital imports for much longer. The alternatives were limited; any attempt to secure an improved external balance would have required severe deflation and even ths would hardly have been sufficient. It is possible that the Germans shrank from positive action to demonstrate their aversion to the obligations imposed by the Aliies. That the Allies should have attempted to conceal the impossibility of the burden, at least in the short term, by pouring capital into Germany speaks volumes for their economic wisdom”

Derek Alcroft, From Versailles to Wall Street, p257

From Reuters June 15:

But the Washington-based Fund, which Europeans value for its rigor but had fallen out with over its demands they forgive Athens some of its debt, will not disburse any of its money yet. It still wants the euro zone to offer sufficient extra detail on possible debt relief in 2018 to let the Fund calculate that it will be enough for Athens to sustain its debt in the long run.

The standby arrangement was a second best solution to a full debt deal, Lagarde said, but it would buy the euro zone, Greece and the IMF time to work out the details for next year.

A senior IMF official said they were still not satisfied the euro zone was ready to do enough on debt relief but had joined the bailout anyway as Greece risked being in difficulty again.

To accommodate the IMF’s need for more specifics on debt relief, the euro zone finance ministers said in a statement that in 2018 they would be ready to consider extending the maturities and grace periods of their loans to Greece by a range from zero to 15 years. The average maturity now is 30 years.

But they did not go any further than that and the IMF said it was not enough to calculate Greek debt sustainability.

I therefore may read this on my holiday:

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, it was widely agreed that neither Europe nor the United States was an optimum currency area, although moderating this concern was the finding that it was possible to distinguish a regional core and periphery (Bayoumi and Eichengreen,1993). Revisiting these issues, we find that the United States is remains closer to an optimum currency area than the Euro Area. More intriguingly, the Euro Area shows striking changes in correlations and responses which we interpret as reflecting hysteresis with a financial twist, in which the financial system causes aggregate supply and demand shocks to reinforce each other. An implication is that the Euro Area needs vigorous, coordinated regulation of its banking and financial systems by a single supervisor—that monetary union without banking union will not work.

Although this is one of the best books I have read in while… Caio for 2 weeks from Skala Eresou, Lesvos…