Deflation, Shell, and Bourbon…

Shell gave a strategy update this week (the graphic above is from the presentation). More of the same really if you read this blog: more investment in shale and targeted and steady investment in offshore:

Shell 2025 outlook.png

And you can see the effect that over time Deep Water will be an increasingly smaller (but still important) part of production at Shell:

Shell 2025 Investment Tilt.png

But there is a clear tilt to shale and power. Yes they are spending more but the supply chain aren’t getting it:

Shell cost reduction to 2025.png

Shell Vendor Spend.png

For the offshore supply chain this is a very different world because a large number of the assets were acquired when that 2015 number was sloshing around the industry along with all the other money. Boats and rigs were ordered with 2015 dollars in mind and those days are long gone.

This is an age of deflation. Oil companies can, and have, sustainably changed the cost of production and met long-term demand expectations. The last offshore asset price bubble required both a demand boom and a credit boom. The demand boom has clearly gone and instead of the credit boom were are starting to see a credit contraction in a meaningful sense.

Slowly banks are realising that when the industry declines this much they don’t own and asset (loan), all they really own is a claim to the economic value an asset can produce. For all offshore assets that is much lower now than it was in 2015, and therefore those assets are not going to pay back anything like all the money they owe in an accounting sense. Slowly some banks stop rolling over credit, as has happened with DOF and Solstad among other firms, and the liquidity really starts to dry up.

The smaller banks are trying to force the larger banks to buy them out of these positions. This is clearly what is happening at DOF and Solstad. The larger banks in these deals will have to double down or accept large write-offs. In addition the number of hedge funds and other who have lost money on asset recovery plays is now so large that selling these deals is all but impossible (see Seadrill). Easy to get into but very hard to get out.

Bourbon creditors appear to have realised this.  A restructuring proposal has been sent to the Board for consideration. In reality the default is so large the creditors own the company. The creditors will write down billions of debt, Bourbon will reappear as a new financial entity, looking operationally a lot like the old, but like everyone else in the market believing their assets must be worth at least what they restructured them at. Capacity will be kept high and competition will ensure rates continue at below economic levels. It is a parable of the whole industry at the moment which shows no sign of abatement. Watching with interest DOF and Solstad because the larger Nordic banks stand to lose some real money here and yet the investment required to go on pretending would seem untouchable to any serious investor without write-offs in the billions of NOK from the banks. As offshore supply leads so will the rig companies as the head for their second round of restructurings (who inexplicably still seem to have access to bank financing).

But this is crazy world we live in. Much like the dotcom boom people are going to ask one day how they ever put money into a shipping company that excluded the cost of running a ship from it’s reported numbers:

  1. Positive EBITDA (adj.) of USD 617 thousands, excluding start-up cost, dry dock, special survey and maintenance (Q1 18 USD 400 thousands) from chartering out the 5 large –sized PSV’s. Including the ownership in Northern Supply AS (25.53%) the group netted a positive EBITDA (adj.) excluding start-up cost, dry dock, special survey and maintenance of USD 518 thousands (Q1 18 USD 200 thousands).

This isn’t going to happen quickly. Credit effects take significantly longer to work through than demand side effects. Once these banks have written off loans in a meaningful sense getting them to lend against these assets again will be nearly impossible.

And yet the cost pressure will continue:

Shell Cost pressure.png

When group think and economic incentives collide …

I’m never sure with this whether it’s a collective case of Norwegian thinking that refuses to accept the scale of the change taking place in the offshore industry or simply the desire to try and get investment banking fees? Maybe a little of both.

Either way it’s clear the market has realised Seadrill is headed for restructuring way before the analyst community…

Seadrill yesterday:

Down 23%. Analysts yesterday morning:

Look at the price targets! And it’s not like anyone didn’t see it coming (Seadrill over 6 months):

There is a liquidity squeeze coming in offshore as all these crazy asset play deals, that were nothing more than momentum trades, have no momentum. The fact is Seadrill is performing miles behind the restructuring plan of only a few months again. Yet again the promised summer hasn’t come and financial markets know it.

The address that never was…

“Not all barrels are created equally,” she said. “60 per cent of our cash flows are not coming from our upstream business. There shouldn’t be a correlation with our reserves or capital expenditure in upstream. It’s not tied to that.”

Jessica Uhl, CFO Shell


Money is not the value for which goods are exchanged, but the value by which they are exchanged.

John Law, Money and Trade (1705)


Roughly a year ago this week I gave an address at the OSJ Conference where I was pretty gloomy about the future for offshore. I was invited back this year but unfortunately a change of work circumstances mean it is no longer really the thing for me to do. Having said that I don’t think it is a bad time for a State of the Union speech.

You can guess where this is going…

Last year we had a mini-rally in offshore mid-year. Some of the more outlandish ideas raised more money and invested more capital in an industry already suffering an excess of capital and the share prices of all these public investments are seriously underwater. The banks also continued to pretend things could only get better, when in fact they were clearly getting worse. Solstad and Pacific Radiance are the two most prominent examples of this philosophy but there are a slew more in offshore supply and drilling.

And all the while shale simply grows in scale and scope. I am actually bored now with the really complicated theories about how and why the shale revolution will die. The offshore optimists who touted this theory have been comprehensively wrong in the past and will continue to be so in my opinion.

A few data points show the scale of the infrastructure being used to grow the shale fields:

That folks is your offshore recovery: prices above breakeven at best and lower utilisation as the prices are just high enough to keep zombie companies in business. Welcome to the new normal.

Shale growth may be slowing down,  but it will still grow over 1 million barrels a day in 2019. This slide from Exxon Mobil is reflective of the huge amounts of capital going into Lower 48 production and the continuous productivity immproveents creating the virtuous feedback loop:


So you can believe some really complicated story about this “offshore recovery” and how it has to happen because reserves are low, or demand will outstrip supply, or shale production isn’t economic, or you can look at what is happening in the US now and accept the logical conclusion: this is the offshore recovery.

Just like the steel industry in the US when it was hit with Asian competition so offshore now has a serious competitor for production investment at the margin. Offshore production isn’t going away but nor is there a boom in store. Projects at the margin are being delayed or cancelled and never coming back. The fleet built for 2014 is still too large by an order of magnitude and operating well below economic break-even. Only a massive increase from the demand fairy can save the current industry structure and that isn’t happening. There are too many boats and rigs with too many operators and this year will bring the start of the slow rationalisation needed. We will end the year with less companies and less tonnage and still the job will remain incomplete.

The most likely scenario at this point is years of oversupply with grindingly poor margins, struggles to get to economic profitability, and a gradual reduction in the fleet as ever so slowly those with less commitment and cash drop out of the race to stay alive. Eventually prices will have to rise to pay for new investment in the offshore supply chain but that looks years away and most firms don’t have the liquidity to wait. Raising new money is getting near impossible for all but the most serious candidates: hedge funds who piled in last year are underwater and look unlikely to wade back in unless the terms are extraordinary, and long-term investors are rightly terrified at the losses the Alternative fraternity have suffered calling the recovery far too early.

The interesting thing is why? In this paper “The elasticity of demand with respect to product failures” by Werner Troesken (pdf) shows that while markets are selection mechanisms they don’t always choose the best products. People continued to buy snake oil in the US long after its efficacy could be argued for.  Maybe the offshore crowd waiting for the boom can comfort themselves with this fact?

However, I see however that in an era of mass production, and rapidly increasing efficiency and unit cost reductions in shale production. To avoid shale, to take your firm off the technological trajectory, would so limit the future  options of a large E&P company that it would not be a wise strategic decision. More marginal capital will be deployed not less. has It is far less risky to invest in a lower margin product like shale, with a shorter payback period, than those custom designed deepwater fields with economic lives vastly in excess of price forecast accuracy.

Worringly for people in offshore is this paper: “Depression babies” by Ulrike Malmendier and Stefan Nagel. If you want to understand how formative experiences can be in lifelong economic actions then this paper demonstrates that investors whose careers were built in recessions invest in fewer equities (i.e. risk capital) even in positive economic times. My rough analogy, which I have no intent to take further, is that E&P execs who lived the 2014 downturn are in no hurry to turn on the CapEx spigot to satisfy all those who tell the world is running out of energy (and as 3 above shows are consistently wrong). And they will be like this forever. Just as those in offshore sit around waiting for the next boom E&P company execs sit around trying to avoid the next investment driven crash.

I have said before loss-aversion theory greatly explains the behaviour of the banks who are crucial to the clean-up of the industry (particularly in Europe and Asia as American losses have been equitized). Every time they have delayed the losses pretending the comeback will happen. And offshore supply in particular was dominated by European and Asian banks. Sooner or later, when the cash flows from the offshore supply and rig asset base cannot make even token payments, and the banks loan books are revealed to be more like Italian regional banks, the real contraction will begin. John Law intimately understood the link between a banks assets and liabilities in a way that would do a modern risk officer proud.

I also mentioned the DSV market last year. I am not mentioning names but building a $150m DSV and selling the vessel for 100k per day for 150 days (at best per annum) is a fools errand in economic terms regardless of the outstanding organisational skills required to deliver it in physical terms. It is simply not possible in a market as competitive as as the Asian DSV market for one firm to outperform others over the long run.

The sale of the Toisa DSVs for between $20-34m shows the economic clearing price of such assets. Such a large gap between actual economic values of operational assets and the historical build costs of new assets can be met by the Chinese taxpayer forever, but eventually the unsustainable nature of this will catch-up with itself. I shall say no more. But Uber can lose money on running taxis for longer than I thought… eventually I will be right here too. Delivering cold Starbucks at $5 won’t keep Uber at a $60bn valuation and IRM work in Malaysia cannot pay for $150m DSVs.

Offshore will continue to be an important part of the energy mix. But the supply chain supporting it to be like that has a great deal of shrinkage to be an economic part of this mix.

A total failure of governance… McDermott and the cost of money at the margin…

If you want to know what the cost of raising funds for a corporation in trouble following a failed acquisition is the recent disclosures from McDermott provide a good guide. Crucial to the continued ability of the firm to stay within its banking covenants and remain a going concern in the Q3 2018 results was the $300m in 12% preference shares sold by McDermott to Goldman Sachs and Company (and affiliated funds). From the sale McDermott received $289m, meaning Goldman banked $11m in fees… to start with… The kicker is that Goldman and its funds (likely credit opportunity funds managed by the bank) also ended up owning warrants to purchase 3.75% of MDR at .01 per share… at the time of pixel those options are worth ~$51.5m (at an MDR share price of c. $7.61).

If you don’t believe MDR is in real financial trouble you need to ask yourself why the best course of action for management was to engage in a financing that cost shareholders ~$62m to “borrow”/ strengthen their balance sheet (sic) to the tune of $300m. The $289m the company got has an interest cost of $36m per year (excluding tax effects) and cost the shareholders 3.75% of their company. No wonder the shares dropped ~40% when the news was announced (already well down on the pre-acquisition price): investors knew they were losing a lot more than 3.75% of the value of the company. Not only that the increased working capital lines ($230m) required that this capital went in. MDR had maxed its borrowing capacity just a few short months after the takeover. In short: it was a financial disaster.

This isn’t a rage against the Great Vampire Squid, because if you need to get your hands on $300m quickly, and you are running out of cash, then for a good reason money tends to be expensive. The real question is how MDR got here, and so quickly, since acquiring CBI?

In my view the short answer is: a total failure of governance from the MDR Board that allowed management to buy a much bigger business they knew literally nothing about. The famed “One McDermott Way” was about installing cheap pipe and jackets in the Middle East and Africa not building on-shore low-margin refining plants. It is about as relevant as an orange juice manufacturer buying Tesla because they are going to apply the lessons learned in de-pipping oranges to extending the battery life of electric-powered vehicles.

The failure of this deal will I believe lead to the end of the MDR offshore contracting business as an independent entity. The reason is nothing more than a failure to ask a basic and honest question about where the skills of the company reside? And for the Board to realise that for MDR management the worst option of being acquired was probably the best option for the shareholders.

This presentation given to shareholders in August indicates that shareholders already had a serious case of post-acquisition regret, and reading between the lines here management are clearly under huge pressure despite the upbeat tone of their communications. The 40% decline their investment post-August is likely to have induced a sense of humour failure amongst even their most loyal of followers. Someone senior is going to have to carry the can soon and that does not make for a harmonious exec. I can’t think of another M&A deal that has locked in  such a loss of value so quickly.

McDermott got into this because in late 2017 their viability as an independent company looked shaky. Management had a very good offshore crises through a mix of skill and luck: their low-cost Middle Eastern model, not applicable when the Norwegians and French were in competition to build a more expensive OSV than the company before them, was more shallow-water focused than Brazil/UDW, and they didn’t have a complex about working old assets to death. McDermott picked up some cheap assets like the 105 when the opportunity presented itself, but management didn’t blow money on value dilutive acquisitions either or go to long on assets or debt. MDR management had steered the company back from the brink to create a genuinely competitive company with an ideal geographic footprint and asset base for the new offshore environment. I was a real admirer of the company.

But then GE started sounding out Subsea 7 (and being turned down), and the MDR footprint would have been perfect for Subsea 7 (BHGE would clearly have made a hash of MDR). There are very few companies the size of MDR that remain independent in an environment where consolidation is the market mantra: they had very little net debt, were big enough to buy and move the needle for a large company in revenue terms, but small enough to acquire in financing to terms. And there is some real intellectual and engineering skills in the core DNA of the McDermott business, no matter how complex the offshore problem, someone in McDermott knows the answer.

At some point in 2017 MDR management and the Giant Vampire Squid decided on a plan to buy CB&I and their shareholders really did think Christmas had come early that December 17th. To avoid being acquired McDermott opted for a type of ‘Pac Man’ defence: it went on to acquire a larger company. You can see the balance sheet of CB&I was substantially larger than MDR:

CBI Balance sheet:

CBI BS .png

MDR Balance Sheet:

MDR BS.png

Crudely MDR had $3.2 bn in assets and almost no debt while CB&I had $6bn in assets but $5.6bn in debt.

The reason MDR could do this was the debt and CB&I losses. CB&I was losing, and had been for a considerable period of time, vast amounts of money in its core business. A pretty crucial question would therefore be “could the One McDermott Way” transform this situation? A secondary question if the answer was yes was how much due diligence should be undertaken to prove this?

This isn’t hindsight talking. Here are the last four years financial performance of CBI:

CBI losses 2014-2017.png

Can any of you, even those without financial training, see something that might worry you about buying this company? (I’ll give you a clue it’s in the last line and it’s a material number). As Bloomberg noted at the time:

MDR Stamp.png

Bridge to Nowhere.png


The problem with buying a larger company as a defence is its asymmetric returns: it is a leveraged bet on management and financial skill and if it goes wrong the value in the acquiring company is wiped out. And that unfortunately is what has happened here.

In case you were wondering the merger between MDR and CB&I consumed ~$300m in fees, slightly more in cash than McDermott later managed to raise from Goldman (and paid in cash of course), a symmetry in irony I am sure the bankers enjoyed.

McDermott CBI fees.png

And yet for the $300m in fees the due diligence didn’t uncover the cost overruns in the projects, and despite having three of the most illustrious banks on Wall Street: Goldman, Sachs, & Co, (lead adviser), Moelis & Co (advising on the financing only), Greenhill & Co (advising the Board of MDR) no one managed to ask: really, can we do this? And if they did, get the right answer!

But after the fees comes the interest bill… in cash and kind now… the hangover so to speak, and this one is mind-numbingly painful:

MDR Capital Structure

MDR Cap Structure.png

MDR are paying an interest bill (per annum) of: ~$90m for the Senior Loan, ~$138m for the notes, $36m for the preference shares (not included here), and the Amazon lease payments which must be ~$30m for a $345m vessel: ~$294m in total per year (say one Amazon per year at current build costs?). MDR only made an operating profit of $324m in 2017.  In addition, the three CB&I projects they have taken a hit on will consume $425m in cash in 2019! So by the end of 2019 MDR will have spent ~$1bn in cash on deal fees, interest, and project costs. As someone nearly said “a billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money“.

All this talk of “synergies” is hokum. Everyone involved in projects knows that the pipeline fabricator in Dubai isn’t getting cheaper steel because MDR are losing money building an LNG train in Freeport. But the interest and fees are real cash. Maybe they will sell the non-core businesses and bring the debt pile down but it brings execution risk and no certainty the debt reduction will be proportionate. These asset sales have the feeling of looking for change down the back of the sofa as they were never announced as part of the original deal and the tanks business is a complex carve out that will involve vast consultants fees and by MDR’s own admission take at least nine month… on the other hand interest, like rust, never sleeps…

The fact is the reason the on-shore business of CB&I is structurally unprofitable is because despite the contract size and complexity there are a large number of equally competent (more so actually) companies who bid all the margin away. That’s no different to subsea but MDR had a genuine competitive advantage in that business and CB&I didn’t in on-shore (as their financials showed).

In really simple terms now McDermott must make a smaller offshore business, in very competitive market that consumes vast amounts of capital to grow; pay for a larger unprofitable onshore operation where management lack skills and knowledge. The odds of success must be seen as low? The square root of zero I would suggest. McDermott will be starved of CapEx as the CFO uses any cash he can to pay for the interest and charter commitments while trying to compete against onshore behemoths much larger in scale. Maintaining market share in offshore will be impressive, forget about growing it. And all this to feed a beast in a low margin onshore business that competes against giants like Fluor.

If the Board of McDermott took shareholder value seriously they would try to get Subsea 7 management back to the table and sell them the offshore business for a price close to what Subsea 7 were offering last year. The world has changed but the price for a trophy asset might still be good. What happens to the rump CB&I would be sold at auction, for probably not much, but such is reality. Such a scenario would yield more than letting this state of affairs continue.

Corporate finance Borr Drilling style…

One of the more curious corporate finance transactions took place earlier this year when Borr Drilling, an enormously leveraged rig company when financial commitments are taken into account and using its revolver for working capital, then purchased 1.5m of its own shares at NOK 35.50. As can be seen above the shares have since declined 18% and are now worth NOK 29, which is signficantly below the price they last raised capital at ($4.6/ ~NOK 39).

In the scheme of things the loss isn’t that much money,  it’s really a question of whether for such a  (sic) “high-growth” company is depleting liquidity to buy back shares the best use of its capital? I noted at the time this was close to extraordinary for a company that needs to raise hundreds of millions of dollars (not a misprint) in capital over the next three years to remain a going concern ? In which case why are they doing it?

For what it’s worth my own view is I think the Management and the Directors of Borr understand how deeply in financial trouble they are: the market simply isn’t coming back to anything like what they and their original backers planned. Without a massive increase in demand the entire investment thesis is flawed and the company has no reason for existing in a very real sense. By embedding leverage in the shipyard delivery times as well as the bonds, and using a revolver for working capital, Borr requires the market to come back strongly and for them to activate a vast number of warm-stacked units in this hypothetical demand pickup… just for Borr to remain solvent, yet alone make an economic return. As an external observer reading the public anouncements it feels like a degree of panic is setting in.

As the Borr Drilling prospectusin early 2018 made clear this is a highly competitive business:

The profitability of the offshore drilling industry is largely determined by the balance between supply and demand for rigs. Offshore drilling contractors can mobilize rigs from one region of the world to another, or reactivate cold stacked rigs in order to meet demand in various markets.

The shallow water segment of the drilling industry is particularly competitive with no single contractor having a dominant market share. Competitive factors include price, rig availability, rig operating features, workforce experience, operating efficiency, condition of equipment, safety record, contractor experience in a specific area, reputation and customer relationships. [Emphasis added].

Particularly competitive” with “no single contractor having a dominant market share” tells you how absurd the plan here is, and how much alternative investors wanted to believe in an outcome they knew to be economically illogical. Market share and competitive factors are directly related to profitability. With no fast growing market this company is simply a financial time bomb. Yet as recently as September Borr’s Chairman stated:

“We have an ambition to return a significant part of cash back to shareholders quickly … if we don’t pay dividends in 2020, we have failed,” Troeim told Reuters.

I’ll bet my house that doesn’t happen. [Actually that isn’t strictly true because Troeim could clearly afford to take me up on that and my domestic happiness would be rapidly curtailed if I started playing in the futures market with matrimonial property… But you get where I am coming from].  But the dividend comment springs from the same belief that the current market is some mis-pricing anomaly rather than a deep structural change in the oil market.

Now for plan B. A rights issue that would heavily dilute shareholders is the most logical fundraising strategy here, but finding more hedge funds to by your stock when it keeps on going down 30% is not easy. I just cannot believe Schlumberger are going to carry on committing capital to this venture on a proportionate basis. Debt? really? With no backlog or even utilisation?

The idea that this slide seems to highlight ,that banks or other debt providers would lend against the unencumbered rigs when they have absolutely no work available, seems so very 2012, quaint almost:

Built to last .png

The title of this slide is surely begging irony? The whole Borr business plan relies on growth significantly faster than the market when the market has extreme overcapacity from well capitalised (and desperate) competitors, and financing this by borrowing against rigs with no work or backlog. What could go wrong? See more here.  Borr management have done a lot, struck deals, brought kit etc., but the possible economic value creation is a simply a vastly leveraged play on a never appearing demand boom. It is a microcosm of offshore investment sentiment and a stubborn willingness to accept the scale of change shale as wrought on the market. At some point the business case must be a logical inconsistency if shale keeps growing at current rates? I’d suggest that point was passed a while ago.

The blow-up here is unlikely to be as dramatic and spectacular as something like EMAS because the perceived asset value is so high. But the scale of the amount of capital that needs to be raised, and the likely time period before it could be returned is so long, that each additional round of funding here is likely to be very expensive. Something “the market” seems to be belatedly waking up to. Borr Drilling is the ultimate measure of investment risk and sentiment in the alternative investment community in my opinion and serves as a useful barometer for how to perceive market risk.

I think Borr were trying to use the share buyback as a small signal to keep the share price high and to cut the dilution effect that will be imposed on the insiders who hold a large amount of the shares. I think the reactivation of 4 rigs speculatively was literally a gamblers last-roll as there have been no updates since about possible work for these units. A signalling event spectacularly mis-timed given the decline in the price of oil.

Share buybacks, particularly open-ended purchase programmes like the one Borr is engaged in, are extremely well-studied. There is evidence that managers can time the market (i.e. buy the shares cheap) and that smaller firms do this better than bigger firms… but you can also see “Share repurchases as a potential tool to mislead investors“, which is close to what I think happened here, although I temper this a view that offshore seems to have a number of people who see a declining oil price as contrary to some law of nature.

The fabulously optimistic Rystad Energy (more recently here and in direct contravention to DOF on AHTS, (who like actually own boats)) predict higher rates, proof that maybe you can build a great information business without having great information… a skill I grant you.  But there is no question now that most rational participants are coming to grips with the fact that the subsea and offshore market isn’t going to “recover” next year and that leaves Borr Drilling with an enormous funding hole to cover. Borr is the ultimate leveraged play on the “market recovery and scrapping” thesis, a momentum play that has lost inertia, and slowly the (hot) air seems to be draining from this balloon and the market sentiment in general.


Random weekend energy thoughts… Productivity, costs, and DSV asset values…

Permian shale and tight production in the third quarter was 338,000 barrels per day, representing an increase of 150,000 barrels per day. Let me say it again: this is up 80% relative to the same quarter last year. As many of you will realize, that’s the equivalent of adding a midsized Permian pure play E&P company in a matter of months.

Pat Yarrington, CFO, Chevron, on the Q3 2018 results call

John Howe from UT2 posted the photo above on Friday and kindly allowed me to reproduce the it. The Seawell cost £35m in 1987 and according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator the same vessel would cost ~£94m in 2018 in real terms. In 1987 the USD/UK exchange rate was ~1.5 so the Seawell cost $53m and inflation adjusted around $132m (at current exchange rates).

Compare that with the most recent numbers we have for a new Dive Support Vessel (“DSV”) of a similar spec: the Vard 801 ex Haldane that was contracted at $165m (sold for $105m).  That price is roughly 25% above the cost of the Seawell in real terms. You get a better crane and lower fuel consumption but in productive terms you can still only dive to 300m (and no riser tower) and I doubt the crane and the lower fuel consumption are worth paying 25% more in capital terms.

These prices don’t reflect how much the MV Seawell pushed the technological boundary when she was built when and recognised as one of the most sophisticated vessels in the world. The major £60m/$75m upgrade she received in 2014 highlights again the myth that old tonnage will naturally be scrapped as an iron cast law is wrong, but more importantly highlights the technical specification of the vessel has always been above even a high-end construction class DSV (clearly visible in the photo the riser tower must have been seen a major technological innovation in 1987) and yet it is more economic to upgrade than build new for a core North Sea well intervention and dive asset. Helix has invested in an asset that brings the benefits of low-cost from a different cost era to a new more uncertain environment.

The reasons for price inflation in OSVs are well-known and I have discussed this before (here): offshore vessels are custom designed and have a high labour content which is not subject to the same produtivity improvements and lower overall cost reduction that manufactured goods have (Baumol Cost Disease). The DP system and engine might have come down in real terms, but the dive systems certainly haven’t. Even getting hulls built in Eastern Europe and finished in Norway has not reduced the cost of new OSVs in real terms (you only have to look at Vard’s financial numbers to see the answer isn’t in shipbuilding being a structurally more profitable industry).

That sort of structural cost inflation, a hallmark of the great offshore boom of 2003-2014, was fine when there was no substitute product for offshore oil. Very few OSVs were built in a series (apart from some PSV and AHTS). But the majority of the vessels were one-off or customised designs with enormous amounts of time from ship designers, naval architects, class auditors (i.e. labour) before you even got to the fit-out stage. Structural inflation became built into the industry with day-rates in charters etc expected to go up even as assets aged and depreciated in real economic terms because demand was outpacing the ability of yards to supply the tonnage as needed.

The same cost explosion happened in pipelay but did allow buyers to access deeper water projects. Between 2003-2014 an enormous number of deepwater rigid-reel pipelay vessels were built (in a relative sense) with each new vessel having even more top tension etc. than the last; but the parameters were essentially the same: they were just seeking to push the boundary of the same engineering constraints. The result was (again) a vast increase in real costs but one that was partially offset by advances in new pipe and riser technology that allowed uneconomic fields to be developed. Now Airborne and Magma are working on solutions that could make many of these assets redundant. Only time will tell if those offshore companies who have made vast investments in pipelay vessels will have to sell them at marginal cost to compete with composite pipe if the solution gets large-scale operator acceptance (i.e. Petrobras). However, if composite pipe and risers get accepted by E&P companies on a commercial scale those deepwater lay assets are worth substantially less than book value would imply (I actually think the most likely scenario is a gradual erosion of the fleet as it is not replaced).

But now there is a competitor to offshore production: shale. And it is clearly taking investment at the margin from offshore oil and gas. And shale production is an industry subject to vast economies of scale and productivity improvements. The latest Chevron results make clear that they have built a vast, and economically viable, shale business that added 150k barrels per day of production at an 80% growth rate year-on-year:

Chevron Q3 2018 Permian .png

To put that in perspective when Siccar Point gets the Cambo field up and going they will be at 15k per day and it will have taken them years (and the point is they are a quality firm with Blackstone/Bluewater as investors ensuring the do not face a financing constraint).

What makes shale economic is the vast economies of scale and scope available to companies like Chevron. E&P companies producing shale are adding vast amounts of production volume every year and theories that they are not making money doing this are starting to sound like Moon photo hoax stories. E&P companies throw money and technology at a known geological formation and it delivers oil. The more money they invest the lower the unit costs become and the greater the economics of learning and innovation they can apply at even greater scale.

Offshore has a place but it needs to match the productivity benefits offered by shale because it is at a disadvantage in terms of capital flexibility and time to payback.The cost reductions in offshore that have been driven by excess capacity and an investment boom hangover, these are not sustainable and replicable advantages. In offshore everything, from the rig to well design and subsea production system, has traditionally been custom designed (or had a significant amount of rework per development). When people talk of “advantaged” offshore oil now it generally means either a) a field close to existing infrastructure, or, b) a find so big it is worth the enormous development cost. Either of those factors allow a productivity benefit that allows these fields to compete with onshore investment. But to pretend all known or unknown offshore reserves are equal in this regard is ignoring the evidence that offshore will be a far more selective investment for E&P companies and capital markets.

One of the reasons I don’t take seriously graphs like this:


…and their accompanying “supply shortage” scare stories is that the market and price mechanism have a remarkably good track record at delivering supply at an economically viable price (since like the dawn of capitalism in Mesopotamia). Modelling the sort of productivity and output benefits that E&P majors are coming up with at the moment is an issue fraught with risk because 1 or 2% compounded over a long period of time is a very large number.

As an immediate contra you get this today for example:

(Reuters) – The oil market’s two-year bull run is running into one of its biggest tests in months, facing a tidal wave of supply and growing worries about economic weakness sapping demand worldwide.

Which brings us back to DSVs in the North Sea, their asset values, and the question of whether you would commission a new one at current prices?

Last week the OGA published an excellent report on wells in the UK and its grim for the future of UK subsea, but especially for the core brownfield and greenfield projects in shallow water that DSVs specialised in. And without a CapEx boom there won’t be a utilisation boom:

OGA wells summary 2-18.png

Future drilling is expected to pick-up  mildly, although it is unfunded, but look at this:

EA well spud.png

Development Drilling.png

So the only area in the UKCS that isn’t in long-term decline is West-of Shetland which is not a DSV area. CNS and SNS were the great DSV development and maintenance areas and the decline in activity in those areas are a structural phenomena that looks unlikely to change. Any pickup is rig work is years away from translating into a Capex boom that would change the profitability of the UKCS DSV and small project fleet.

DSV driven projects have become economic in the North Sea because they are being sold well below their economic cost. Such a situation is unsustainable in the long run (particularly as the offshore assets have a very high running cost). The UKCS isn’t getting a productivity boom like shale to cover the increased costs of specialist assets like DSVs and rigs: E&P companies are merely taking advantage of a supply overhang from an investment boom. That is no sustainable for either party.

So while the period 2003-2014 was “The Great Offshore Boom” the period 2015-2025 is likely to be “The Great Rebalancing” where supply and demand both contract to meet at an equilibrium point. Supply will have to contract because at the moment it is helping to make projects economic by selling DSVs below their true economic worth, and the number of projects will have to contract eventually because that situation won’t last. E&P companies will need to pay higher rates and that will simply make less projects viable. You can clearly see from the historic drilling data that a project boom in shallow water must be a long time coming given the lags between drilling and final investment decisions.

The weak link here in the North Sea DSV market is clearly Bibby Offshore (surely soon to be branded as Rever Offshore?). As the most marginal player it is the most at risk as marginal demand shrinks. Bibby, like other DSV operators on the UKCS, serves an E&P community that is facing declining productivity relative to shale (and therefore a higher cost of capital), in a declining basin, where the cost of their DSVs is not reducing proportionately or offering increased productivity terms to cover this gap. Both Technip and Boskalis were able to buy assets at below economic cost to reduce this structural gap but the York led recapitalisation of Bibby still seems to significantly over value the Polaris and the Sapphire – particularly given implied DSV values with the Technip purchase of the Vard 801 (TBN: Deep Discovery).

DSVs made the UKCS viable and built the core infrastructure, but they did it in a rising price environment where the market was based on a fear of a lack of supply. One reason no new North Sea class DSVs were built between 1999 the Bibby Sapphire conversion in 2005 is because the price of oil declined in real terms but the price of a DSV increased meaningfully in real terms. A new generation of West of Shetland projects may keep the North Sea alive for a while longer but this work will be ROV led. A number of brownfield developments and maintenance work may keep certain “advantaged” fields going for years that will require a declining number of DSVs.

North Sea class DSV sales prices for DSVs are adjusting to their actual economic value it would appear not just reflecting a short-term market aberration.

#structural_change #this_time_it_is_different #supplymustequaldemand

My favourite scandal…

The quote above comes from the excellent Billion Dollar Whale. The culmination of some excellent investigative reporting that broke the original 1MBD scandal story in the WSJ and then later published in the book… [I am sure most people are aware but if you are not in one of the great ironies of the scandal the stolen funds were invested in The Wolf of Wall Street].

1MBD has everything: the sheer scale of the graft ($5bn), the arrogance and incompetence, the Saudis, the purchase of a yacht beyond luxury (cost $250m), a Times Square apartment, the entrenchment of the local elite and then a grovelling apology,  and the Malaysian election with Mahathir Mohamad coming from behind to win… And then it get’s interestingJust one of many outrageous uses of the money:

Nearly US$30 million (S$41.5 million) of funds stolen from scandal-hit 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was used to buy jewellery for the prime minister’s wife, including a rare 22-carat pink diamond set in a necklace, according to latest filings by the United States Justice Department in a civil lawsuit.

And yet the 1MBD scandal just keeps on giving… and now it is getting serious because the US Dept of Justice clearly has Goldman Sachs & Co in its sights (the “unamed bank”. Goldman made $600m from selling three bond issues worth $6.5bn for 1MBD, fee rates that could be considered egregious … Ex-head of Goldman Asia, the colorful Tim Leissner, boasted of a PhD from The Univeristy of Somerset (where they could be purchased via mail for ~£2500) , as the FT acerbically noted “[w]hile an institution of that precise name does not appear to exist, one called Somerset University was fined in the UK in 1992 for selling unrecognised degrees” … Leissner appears to be co-operating… a current MD of Goldman is on leave and the current CEO was on the committee that approved the deals at the time.

Tim Liessner PHD.jpg

There are going to be documents galore here. Funds moved via US correspondent banks are subject to wire fraud regulations, a federal crime that brings the almost unlimited resources of the Department of Justice and the FBI, and encompasses communications made via email, phones etc in addition to just moving the funds. Once you are in that embrace it is very hard to leave and it seems certain now that there is a lot more to come…

Quite how much money the people of Malaysia get back remains to be seen.