SOCAL, Saudi Arabia, and Bitcoin… If you thought the oil industry had booms…

I meant to note this two days ago but the photo on the top is the signing ceremony on 29 May1933 between SOCALm (Standard Oil Company of California) and Saudi Arabia to manage the Kingdom’s oil concession. Clearly a historic event in the development of the oil industry.

As a contrast… I couldn’t help noticing this story about Bitcoin and it’s energy usage. In Chelan County, renowned for cheap electricity and:

an area famous for apples, wheat and conservative politics [it] has been transformed into a kind of cyber-boomtown, with Bitcoin mining operations that range from large-scale, state-of-the-art warehouses to repurposed cargo containers to backyard sheds. By the end of this year, according to some estimates, the Mid-Columbia Basin could account for as much as 30 percent of the global output of new Bitcoin and large shares of other digital currencies, such as Litecoin and Ethereum.

There is a boom going on:

In a normal year, demand for electric power in Chelan County grows by perhaps 4 megawatts ­­— enough for around 2,250 homes — as new residents arrive and as businesses start or expand. But since January 2017, as Bitcoin enthusiasts bid up the price of the currency, eager miners have requested a staggering 210 megawatts for mines they want to build in Chelan County. That’s nearly as much as the county and its 73,000 residents were already using…

 The scale of some new requests is mind-boggling. Until recently, the largest mines in Chelan County used five megawatts or less. In the past six months, by contrast, miners have requested loads of 50 megawatts and, in several cases, 100 megawatts. By comparison, a fruit warehouse uses around 2.5 megawatts.

However, the acquisition of resources has not gone quite as smoothly:

China electricity.png

I am pretty sure the crypto-miners from China are thinking about crypto-sceptics (like me), from the comfort of their private jet, sure that we are the people who just don’t get it.  In future years maybe someone will dig up a photo of the dam master and the Chinese miner signing a supply agreement… but I have my doubts…

What could possibly go wrong?… The $130m MBA….

For those with some knowledge of the financing of offshore assets over the last few years comes this amusing little story in the FT this morning:

Hedge funds are turning in increasing numbers to the business of buying planes and then leasing them to airlines, as the era of low interest rates pushes firms into more esoteric corners of finance in the hunt for higher returns.

A yield backed by an asset… Where have I heard that before?:

“People today are very focused on yield and it is driving investors to focus on aviation assets because you get yield and you have a hard asset — you have collateral,” said Marc Lasry, Avenue Capital’s co-founder.

As the article points out equity yields are dropping and a credit bubble follows:

The rising interest in buying and leasing aircraft has also triggered a surge in sales of debt tied to aircraft leases. Sales of bonds backed by aircraft leases jumped to $6.6bn in 2017 from $4.2bn in 2016, according to data from Finsight.

What is more, newer hedge fund entrants have focused on the higher yields available from leasing older, typically less fuel-efficient aircraft, but the rebound in oil prices is cutting their attraction for airlines.

This time it’s different….

I am writing a book on Nimrod/ the offshore bubble with the working title “The $130m MBA: The Nimrod Sea Assets Story”… a chapter on comparing the forthcoming airline crash would make a nice comparison I feel.

New ship Saturday…

Yet again UDS seemed to have pulled off an amazing feat, right after becoming the greatest DSV owner and charterer in the world, with a record 4 out of 4 (or maybe 5) DSVs on long term charter, they appear to have Technip, McDermott, and Subsea 7 quaking with fear as they look at helping a company enter the deepwater lay market:

UDS Lay vessel.png

This is a serious ship. Roughly the same capability as the Seven Borealis.

Seven Borealis

Although the Seven Borealis  can only lay to 3000m, not the 3800m UDS are looking at. As depth is really a function of tension capacity then I guess they will have a significantly bigger top tension system than the Seven Borealis as well?

I can see why you would go to UDS if you wanted to build a pipelay vessel significantly more capable than any that the world’s top subsea contractors run. Sure UDS may never have built a vessel of such complexity, and actually haven’t even delivered one ship they started building, but they have ambition and you need that to build a ship like this. Not for this customer the years of accumulated technical capability, knowledge building, and intellectual competency, there is nothing an ex-diver can’t solve.

UDS is building vessels the DSVs in China. The closest the Chinese have come (that I know of) to such a vessel is HYSY 201:

HAI-YANG-SHI-YOU-201.jpg

But that only has 4000t system? No wonder this new mystery customer, who I assume is completely independent of the other customers that have chartered their other vessels, wants to up the ante. The HYSY 201 cost ~$500m though, which is quite a lot of money to everyone in the subsea industry, apart from UDS.

The last people I know who went to build a vessel like from scratch were Petrofac. There is a reason this picture is a computer graphic:

Petrofac JSD 6000.jpg

To do this Petrofac hired some of the top guys from Saipem, a whole team, with years of deepwater engineering experience… And when the downturn hit Petrofac took a number of write offs, and even with a market capitalisation in the billions, didn’t finish the ship. To be fair though, they hadn’t engaged UDS.

But I think the reason you go to UDS “to explore the costs”, you know instead of like a shipyard and designer who would actually build it, is because they appear to have perfected the art of not paying for ships. So if you go to them and ask for a price on an asset like this chances are you get the answer: the ship is free! It’s amazing the yard just pays for it. Which is cheap I accept but ultimately the joy-killing economist in me wonders if this is sustainable?

Coincidentally I am exploring the costs of building a ship. I have just as much experience in building a deepwater lay vessel as UDS. On Dec 25th 2017, with some assistance from my Chief Engineer (Guy, aged 9), we completed this advanced offshore support vessel, the Ocean Explorer,  from scratch!

Ocean Explorer.jpg

Ocean Explorer Lego.jpg

Not only that I had take-out financing for the vessel in place which is more than UDS can claim at this stage!

Now having watched Elon Musk launch a car on a rocket into space (largely it would appear to detract some appalling financial results, although far be it for me to suggest a parallel here) we (that is myself and my Chief Engineer) have designed a ship: It will be 9000m  x 2000m, a semi-sub at one end to drill for oil, a massive (the biggest in the universe) crane to lay the SPS,  j-lay, s-lay, c-lay, xyzzy lay in the middle, and two (Flastekk maybe?) sat systems at the other end in case we forgot something, and to make it versatile. Instead of launching a car into space we are having a docking station for the space shuttle in order to beat the Elon Musk of Singapore. It is also hybrid being both solar powered and running on clean burning nuclear fusion. Not only that the whole boat works on blockchain and is being paid for with bitcoin. The vessel is also a world first having won a contract forever as the first support vessel for Ghawar field. We are also committing to build a new ship every week forever.

I expect to bask in the adulation on LinkedIn forever once I announce this news, and it will feel like all the hard work was deserved at that point. I am slightly worried about the business model as my Chief Engineer asked “Won’t we have to get more money in for the boat than we paid for it?”. When I have an answer for that trifling problem I will post the answer.

A market recovery? Not in the data…

Danish Ship Finance have just published their latest report. As usual it is thorough and measured, and frankly not uplifting if you are long on vessels or rigs. The graph above really covers a lot of things I have blogged about here, it’s all well and good coming up with graphs showing how offshore MUST get more investment, as if it were a divine economic law, but that isn’t what companies are ACTUALLY planning on spending.

Another great graph is this one:

DSV Charter Rates DSF.png

What the commentary in the report omits, and I think is very important, is the fact that the divers costs, which are c. £50k for a 15 man team, have not dropped. So for the vessel owner the rate hasn’t dropped 50% it has actually dropped 67% because the labour cost of the dive crew is fixed (again I have blogged about the Baumol effect here). This is probably more pronounced on DSVs than any other asset class but it is a real problem for offshore because the industry isn’t getting more productive (just cheaper which is different). Removing 67% of the revenue for any business is bad, in an industry that had binged on debt, as can be seen, it is beyond a disaster.

DSF also note that while spending on Subsea Production Systems is rising this because smaller step out developments are being done, which require less vessel days, than larger greenfield developments. Again I have discussed this before here.

DSF SPS.png

Finally, it highlights again the scale of the pullback in offshore and why any recovery will not be a repeat of the past. The speed at which contractors are working through backlog is a real concern. Subsea 7 won work recently on the Johan Castberg field that was valued at c. USD 2.0 – 5.0m per well, a 75% decline from the peak. So even an increase in the volume of work awarded will not help the industry recover to previous levels.

Big Three Backlog.png

Subsea Contract Awards.png

This matters because offshore used so much leverage to purchase assets in the past. Now the companies revenues and profits are materially smaller and they are struggling to pay the banks back leading to a credit crisis in the industry. Debt is a fixed obligation that must be paid back for firms to have value and that is much harder to do when the industry is in a deflationary cycle. This is no different to a banking crisis without a central bank.  It is this credit crisis that when combined with the demand crisis makes this so serious. DVB Bank, a specialist lender to the sector, went bankrupt! Indeed I have discussed this many times and it is one my one recurring theme.

Last year probably was the low point in terms of demand. But as the first graph makes clear there is not a wave of investment coming here, just a long slow increase in spending.

Read the whole thing. Many business plans simply don’t reflect this reality yet. Not everyone will survive. 2018 promises to be another tough year for asset heavy companies.

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.

Dogecoin … you can’t make this up…

Great NYT story about a guy who made a digital coin as a “satirical mash-up” to poke fun at the Bitcoiners… But then it’s market value climbed to $400m before dropping to a mere $100m! You literally cannot make this up: read the whole thing.

During the South  Sea Bubble someone floated a company to “drain the Irish Bogs” and this is of a similar ilk.  No one can really believe this. I keep quoting Keynes beauty theory here because nothing else sums it up better:

“It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.” (Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936).

The article contains a definition of an initial coin offering that is set to become a classic:

Imagine that a friend is building a casino and asks you to invest. In exchange, you get chips that can be used at the casino’s tables once it’s finished. Now imagine that the value of the chips isn’t fixed, and will instead fluctuate depending on the popularity of the casino, the number of other gamblers and the regulatory environment for casinos. Oh, and instead of a friend, imagine it’s a stranger on the internet who might be using a fake name, who might not actually know how to build a casino, and whom you probably can’t sue for fraud if he steals your money and uses it to buy a Porsche instead. That’s an I.C.O

You think it’s a joke but the Wall Street Journal found:

Union Square Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Sequoia Capital all have reacted—using investor funds—by buying digital tokens directly or by putting money into hedge funds that buy tokens. Some venture investors, such as Nick Tomaino of Runa Capital, left their firms to set up crypto hedge funds.

“If you are in the business of investing in the future you probably have to change the style of investment to accommodate novel ideas and opportunities,” said Brad Burnham, managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

Union Square Ventures is a tier 1 NYC VC firm whose founders made hundreds of millions in South American telcos and social media. Maybe cash shells represent the apex of a bubble: Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings Corp. got $600m in an IPO to buy another company who wants to go public but doesn’t want the hassle of it (but then it will be public?).

Dimon calls (unspecified) time on Bitcoin mania…

“I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”

Sir Isaac Newton (who invested £3500 in The South Sea Company and sold out at £7000; he then re-entered the market and lost £20 000).

 

“[T]here shall be one coinage throughout the realm”

An Anglo Saxon rule dated to Athelstan, c. 930AD

So Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co), probably not a reader of this blog, also thinks Bitcoin is a bubble:

I’m going to be really clear in this one. Forget the blockchain, that’s a technology… But… the currency isn’t going to work. You can’t have a business where people can invent a currency out of thin air and think the people buying it are really smart. It’s worse than tulip bulbs, OK?

Note use of the word currency not money. Banks create money out of thin air as The Bank of England agrees. And private money creation has a long intellectual tradition in economics, with Friedman asking the question “Does the Government have any Role in Money?”. And there are less extreme examples: in 1970 during the Irish Bank stike even cheque clearing closed down and Irish pubs and supermarkets continued to “cash” cheques as they passed like money throughout the system for over six months and cheques were cashed by pubs as if the banks were open.

Currency on the other hand is a unit of account given the force of state backing and can be used to settle tax obligations. As soon as there is a threat to the tax base or the control of money the government will extinguish that threat: clearly the more authoritarian the bigger the threat and the quicker they will act.

What is clear is that Bitcoin is a bubble. There is no intrinsic value in it and the price and it is clearly only worth what someone else will pay. I love this quote:

When Stanley Druckenmiller, who managed George Soros’ $8.2 billion Quantum Fund, was asked why he didn’t get out of technology stocks even earlier if he knew they were overvalued he replied that he thought the party wasn’t going to end so quickly. In his words “We thought we were in the eigth inning, and it was the ninth”. Faced with mounting losses, Druckenmiller resigned as Quantum’s fund manager in April 2000… Julian Robertson, manager of the legendary Tiger Hedge Fund, refused to invest in technology stocks since he thought they were overvalued. The Tiger Hedge Fund was dissolved in 1999 because its returns could not keep up with returns generated by dotcom stocks.

A Wall Street analyst who has dealt with both managers vividly summarized the situation: “Julian said, ‘This is irrational and I won’t play,’ and they carried him out feet first. Druckenmiller said, ‘This is irrational and I will play’, and they carried him out feet first.”

Dimon has history on his side. Sooner or later this is going to end badly. Currency creation is a prerogative of the state as is the ability to tax and the two are inseparable. As Redish notes:

Numismatists believe that the earliest coins were produced at Lydia (now Western Turkey.  in the mid-seventh century BC. The coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. They had a designon one side and were of uniform weight but had a highly variable proportion of gold. In an influential article, Cook (1958)  argued that these coins were introduced to pay mercenaries, a thesis modified by Kraay (1964) who suggested that governments minted coins to pay mercenaries only in order to create a medium for the payment of taxes. Both interpretations stress the role of the government in the introduction of coinage.

Something that has worked for thousands of years and used to keep governments in power and is crucial to the tax base isn’t going to be usurped by an unkown computer programmer, a bunch of gun nuts (who don’t want to pay tax), drug dealers (who don’t want to pay tax and get caught (crime clearly has a major impact on Bitcoin valuation)), and a bunch of fintech guys (who don’t want to pay tax and have no sense of economic history). Something Ross Ulbricht could testify to.