Illiquid or insolvent? Bagehot and lenders of last resort to the offshore industry…

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

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

 

Irving Fisher

The Singapore Government think they have found a case of market failure:

SINGAPORE – Offshore marine services firm Pacific Radiance has been granted S$85 million in loans under two Government-backed financing schemes.

I’d suggest the Singaporean Government brush-up on the difference between a shift in the demand curve and a shift along the demand curve To non-economists the difference may look semantic but to every stage 1 student it is drilled into them that a shift along the demand curve occurs when price changes and then the quantity demanded responds, a shift in the demand curve means a fundamental change in demand. It is the difference between a change in the quantity demanded versus a change in demand, which are self-evidently two completely different things.

I would argue, and have on this blog consistently, that we are seeing a complete reconfiguration of the offshore supply chain, think Woodside moving to electronic Dutch Auctions for commodity supply vessels, rather than a short-term fluctuation in demand as the result of temporarily low oil prices.

Quite why the Singaporean Government feels it knows better than the market is beyond me here? I should note at this point I am not an unadulterated free-marketeer, my favourite paper at University in NZ at the height of Rogernomics and its successors in a supply-side revolution, was “State-Led Development in South-East Asian Tiger Nations: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea”. In the debate between the World Bank and the activists I took my lead from Robert Wade (also from NZ) and others who saw active government involvement in the economies as an essential part of the process that drove these economies to outperform and pull their people out of poverty. I was a believer, I agree still to a certain extent, with Alice Amsden who argued the governments’ of the region actively set out to “get the market price wrong”.

But I also grew up in New Zealand, which terrified of rising oil prices in the 1970’s had launched Think Big, and by the time the Motonui synthetic “gas-to-gasoline” plant was finished the tax payer footed the bill for every single litre manufactured. It was in short an economic disaster. Trusting a Government ministry to out-judge the energy market is a dangerously expensive passtime.

I should also note that Stanley Fischer, in an unbiased review of South East Asian development policies following the East Asian Crisis noted:

As to Asian industrial policy… some degree of government involvement can in principle be successful, and that it was successful in practice, too, in some Asian economies by allowing new industries to overcome coordination failures and exploit economies of scale. I also believe the potential for such interventions to go wrong is very high, both because the government may make the wrong decisions, and also because they are conducive to corruption. In most cases the best approach is for a country to create a supportive business environment, including policies and institutions that encourage innovation, investment and exports in general, and to leave allocative investment decisions to the private sector.

So when I read that Pacific Radiance has secured loans from two entities affiliated with the Singaporean Government I have to question what is going on?

Firstly, there is a moral hazard element here as the shareholders and the banks appear to benefit from an overly generous dose of leverage on average assets. The Straits Times notes:

The Government will take on 70 per cent of the risk share for both the IFS and BL loans, which were rolled out last November to help local offshore and marine companies weather the current prolonged industry downturn by gaining access to working capital and financing.

These are loans largely owned by DBS and UOB. I don’t undertand how if this is an economic transaction these banks need this level of support? This is an assymetric payoff where the Government takes most of the risk and the banks pick up most of the upside.

Secondly, the sanity: this money is going on OpEx:

The loans … will help support the group’s working capital needs over the medium term, said Pacific Radiance in a statement on Thursday.

Really? Does the Government of Singapore believe that a short-term market dislocation has occured that will see USD 5-10k per day per vessel of OpEx recovered when the market comes back? Pacific Radiance has USD 605m of liabilities over a fleet of 60 vessels and JVs with a further 60 in Indonesia. Like Deepsea Supply, and a host of others pretending the vessels are worth anything like this is a fantasy. But another problem isn’t just the size of the debt, and the quality of the assets underpinning it, but the income being generated to service it:

PAC RAD Sales Q1 2017

Sales are dropping like a stone, and as a general rule depreciating assets that earn less than you thought are worth less. The loan doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: Pacific Radiance have borrowed too much money relative to the revenue these assets can now earn and are likely to in the forseeable future. As you can see over the same period comparison as above Pacific Radiance is consuming cash at an alarming rate:

PAC RAD Cash Flow Q1 2017

Most worrying is the amounts due from related companies which would have to be seen as doubtful, but the business is also using large amounts of cash in operations and this loan is simply going to go in and then go out on that operational expenditure. Loan covenants on fixed assets were simply not designed to cope with turnover dropping 24% quarter-on-quarter: there was too much leverage in the offshore sector to support this. The banks need to come to the party here for this to be a viable firm.

Third, this seems completely contrary to what other major players in the market, like Bourbon are saying (and they are surviving without government assistance):

Mr Pang noted that the longer-term outlook for the industry has improved, as Opec and certain non-Opec producers have sustained oil production cuts until June this year and have also agreed to extend these cuts by another nine months. “This concerted effort by oil producers should enable supply and demand to balance in the medium term.”

The Singaporean Government is essentially making a bet on a private company that seems to have no other plan than simply hanging around waiting for the market to improve. To be honest that doesn’t strike me as a great plan, and if enough investors agreed with Mr Pang surely getting an equity rights issue away should be easy for the company to raise the money and wait for this miraculous occurrence? In fact of course with the Swiber AHTS going for 10% of book value the loan already looks doubtful.

The government of Singapore has now become the Lender of Last Resort to the offshore sector and therefore the Bagehot dictum applies “lend freely at a penal interest rate against collateral that would be good quality in normal times” (I have discussed this before) . The formula is help the illiquid but not the insolvent. Bagehot outlined this formula in 1873 after repeated shutdowns in the London money market put sound financial institutions at risk. The Bank of England had followed this dictum in 1866 when London had its own Lehman moment and the Bank of England allowed Overund, Gurney and Co., one of the largest institutions, to fail.

I haven’t done a full valuation of the Pacific Radiance fleet but a quick overview of the assets on the website makes it clear this is pure commodity tonnage and some of it very low end. Quite why anyone thinks this is going to recover to previous levels needs to be outlined explicitly I would have thought given the scale of the commitment that is in the process of being made. I don’t think in the current market this would qualify as high quality collateral in normal times. There also appears nothing penal in the loan at all.

Worringly for Singaporean tax payers, looking at Ezion and others, Bagehot also wrote:

‘either shut the Bank at once […] or lend freely, boldly, and so that the public will feel you mean to go on lending. To lend a great deal, and not give the public confidence that you will lend sufficiently and effectually, is the worst of all policies’

I think Pacific Radiance had a solvency problem not just a liquidity issue, but the systemic problem is now the longer Singapore props up companies like this the longer the industry will take to recover. If Singaporean taxpayers decide to support Ezion and a host of others they need to be prepared to write some very big checks, and the US companies fresh from Chap 11, with clean balance sheets, will be in a far better place to compete.

During the last Global Financial Crisis Paul Tucker of the Bank of England stated the Bagehot dictum as ‘to avert panic, central banks should lend early and freely (ie without limit), to solvent firms, against good collateral, and at ‘high rates.’ These loans do nothing of the sort by backing poor quality collateral and providing uneconomic liquidity to a company with an unsolvable problem. People are not paying less for these vessels because there is a panic they are paying less because E&P companies are using them less and they cost a lot to run! These loans will only delay the pain and hinder other struggling firms. The banks should have been forced to realise the assets at current market values as the penal rates both Bagehot and Tucker outlined and the shareholders should have been completely wiped out.

As a comparison I do not think Mermaid Maritime Australia will be so lucky. I have experienced Australian banks first hand and I suspect the “Big Four” will be ruthless and simply shut the company down soon having given the company temporary respite to see if this was just a short-term dislocation. Unfortunately from an economic perspective this type of capacity reduction is exactly what is needed to rebalance the industry.

Follow the money… it’s all in the numbers…

“We no longer believe because it is absurd: it is absurd because we must believe.”

 Julio Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

At some point companies are going to have to stop reporting poor financial results and say things are looking good from a tendering perspective to retain credibility (or will they maybe their shareholders want to believe as well?). This week Solstad seemed to pull this trick, while the most brazen appears to be Subsea 7 who while annoucing that their order book had dropped significantly, stated that:

[We have] [c]ause to believe in an improvement in SURF project award activity within 12 months

Early engagement activity increasing

This despite the fact that 1 year ago they had $6.1bn in backlog and they currently only have $5.1bn. Subsea 7 is more exposed to EPIC projects and I believe these will form a bigger percentage part of the market going forward, but it’s still a bold call.

For Solstad the alternative explanation, announced by Bourbon, is that there is no recovery. Or as Siem Offshore stated this week:

we believe there will still be an oversupply of AHTS vessels and PSVs and expect the market to remain challenging for several years. The charter rates and margins still remain below what is sustainable. (Emphasis added).

Part of me thinks the offshore industry just isn’t used to an environment where the forward supply curve price isn’t fundamentally different from the current price. It is worth noting that on an inflation weighted basis the oil price peaked in 1979 and then dropped in real terms for 19 years to reach an all-time low in 1998, before stagnating for a couple of years, before the inexorable rise that we all regard as the new normal, began.

The major reason for the steady decline was both supply and demand based. New sources of supply came on, technology advanced, and high prices encouraged substitution. Clearly it isn’t an iron law that prices will keep rising over the long run as if it is an immutable economic law, yet it is taken as a given by certain sectors of the offshore community.

Solstad announced results this week that seemed to defy all logic. I don’t know how much money Aker have, but they have played the OSV market stunningly badly since the downturn began, and one would think sooner or later they will get sick of throwing more money away on vessel OpEx. Aker jumped into Solstad way to early, and yet for some inexplicable reason, (other than blind faith in a vessel recovery?) when more than 100 North Sea class PSVs were in lay-up in January, agreed to effectively bail Farstad out and combine with DeepSea Supply. Now Solstad came out with this predictable bullet point from their results presentation:

Majority of revenue and EBITDA from CSV segment

Really what a surprise! You just can’t make this up. What is working for them in this downturn is their high-end CSV fleet and then Solstad jump headlong into the most overbuilt commodity shipping in the offshore industry, Madness. The rest of the presentation is an exercise in mental dislocation from industry reality: DESSC’s cost leading business model is praised… but that doesn’t help at the moment when ships are going out for less than their economic value? It’s also not scaleable or transferable in an acquisition of  other vessels (or companies) because it relies on all vessels in the fleet being similar? And can you really have a low cost business model in this sector anyway? Its a boat + crew? What special insight does DESSC have in making this low cost? Apparently a strategic driver for saving Farstad’s banks is their AHTS experience? Great… Farstad are the most skilled company in a market segment that is structurally unprofitable? If the shareholders are like Aker and like owning companies that are the most competent at what they do regardless of whether they make money or not then this is a very good investment idea. I suspect it’s niche though because investors like that are rare.

It is all well and good highlighting that Farstad and DESSC are non-recourse subsidiaries of Solstad wth the implication being if it all goes wrong then they can be jettisoned. But of course JF took his holding in Solstad not the subsidiary which shows you where he thinks the value is. The Solstad supply fleet will simply not be big enough to generate economies of scale that outweigh the negative industry structure or induce pricing power in any region. It is also debatable what the minimum efficient scale is in offshore supply? This was a transaction driven by the desperation of Farstad’s bankers and recognition by DESSC that trying to do a rights issue without a different investment story would have been extraordinarily dilutive given the cash would have been used for OpEx only. Quite how it was sold to Solstdad/ Aker is anyone’s guess.

A good comparison is Gulfmark which is going into a voluntary Chapter 11. Gulfmark will emerge with a clean balance and 72 vessels in the supply sector. If you want to look at a company with the potential to consolidate the PSV sector it is right there with a simple operational structure and balance sheet focused on one sector that investors can understand and measure. It is very rare  for companies to consolidate an industry that come from one of the high cost markets and then work out how to be cheap internationally – it usually works in reverse. US companies like Seacor and Gulfmark are going to be well placed to drive proper industry consolidation in a way that may not be possible for a company coming from a relatively high cost environment. Yet this industry feels a long way from the bottom when NAO Offshore with a mere 10 vessels, and 30% of the fleet in lay-up, all working at nowhere near their cost base, can say blithely:

Nordic American Offshore closed a follow-on offering March 1, 2017, strengthening the Company by about $48.8 million in cash. The main objectives of the offering were to strengthen NAO financially and position NAO for further expansion...

NAO sees opportunities to grow the Company… 

(Emphasis added).

I sometimes wonder if when Norwegian schoolchildren are young they are indoctrinated with a special ship class in which the answer to every question is “ship”. I imagine an immaculate schoolroom (paid for with petrodollars of course), a very small class, and 20 children with their eyes closed humming and intoning gently “skip… skip…. skip…” And the teacher asking “What is the meaning of life?”… and the gentle reply coming back immediately “Skip”… “What is 2 + 2?” … “Skip, Skip + Skip Skip”… “E=MC2?” “Skip”….

I am just not sure the answer to the current problems are more ships… I have a nagging suspicion it’s less ships. A lot less. Consolidation isn’t the only answer here a quantative reduction in vessel numbers is an yes smaller operators need to go.

DOF came in with revenue 23% below Q1 last year which makes it hard to point to any recovery. DOF also announced this week that they may list DOF Subsea as First Reserve would appear to want out. First Reserve have been in DOF Subsea a long-time, and it’s natural they would want to exit at sometime. But you should always ask why inside and knowledgable investors are selling now, at what some are calling the bottom of the cycle; maybe it isn’t the bottom? DOF Subsea project margins were 2.0%! Yes the DOF PLSVs in Brazil are now up an running, but as we all know Petrobras has far too much PLSV capacity and so I suspect First Reserve is trading off a very low point in the cycle against the cost of waiting which brings you a day closer to the possibility of a vessel being redelivered from Brazil.

DOS Subsea specialise in light IRM and small scale projects and out of the North Sea market (where you need a North Sea class DSV) owning a vessel is a disadvantage not an advantage (which isn’t true at the top end EPIC SURF contracting where you need a specialist lay vessel) for some projects as costs become purely variable. Every single asset DOF Subsea have can be chartered in from another company if you are project management house. There used to be a number of project companies that delivered projects but didn’t own vessels, that didn’t last as the market tightened from 2006 onwards and you simply couldn’t charter a vessel (I am trying to think of the Singapore/Perth company Technip brought?). But now that isn’t the case and so not only is there loads of delivery capacity in vessel owners and charterers, but small project management houses can, and will, bid and compete for jobs, which will lower industry profits structurally. The best strategy going forward is to have a fleet much smaller than your delivery schedule requires but still some core tonnage, companies that didn’t splurge in the last boom are clearly better positioned here.

Whatever the reason for First Reserve selling it is a fact that one of the most successful investors in the energy industry is lightening their exposure to the offshore sector. If you buy DOF Subsea shares you need to ask what you know that First Reserve don’t? Interestingly First Reserve hasn’t invested in an offshore exploration company since 2011 (Barra), but has invested in 7 tight oil plays since 2011, a pattern that seems to mirror capital flows in the industry. One wonders if Technip weren’t encouraged to try and by DOF Subsea and a lack of interest led to this way of getting out?

The obvious reason that First Reserve might well be selling is that they think the poor financial results are likely to continue for sometime and they see no easy answer to an industry awash with capacity and declining levels of investment and simply don’t want to fund working capital with an uncertain payback cycle. DOF Subsea has excellent project delivery capability but it simply too long on ships and unlike other contractors these are an essential part of their strategy going forward and they have no ability to given chartered tonnage back as the industry continues to contract.

DOF Subsea also have 67 ROVs. The quiet underperformer in the industry at the moment is the ROV space. Everyone at the moment is giving the ROVs away at costs + crew only. In the old days ROVs were so profitable because you used to able to hide a mark-up on the vessel in the contract amount and they looked very profitable. Now the vessel is given away for free as is the ROV and only the engineering generates some margin. There is clearly going to be some consolidation here and I believe it will be very hard for the smaller companies to raise additional funding without profitable backlog as it becomes clear that there will not be a recovery in 2017. A lot of companies in the ROV market have raised money yet offer the same thing as the industry leaders who have very strong liquidity positions and can play this game far longer than speculative investors. Reach is a well managed company, and can give vessels back eventually, M2 got it’s ROVs cheap, but both are going up against companies like DOF and Oceaneering and eventually, surely, investors are going to realise that without some sort of increase in demand the structure will favour the larger companies who have more equity to dilute to see them through to the final stages of consolidation. There is an argument that smaller nimbler ROV companies can respond better to IRM workscopes than larger companies, particularly at the moment with oversupply in the vessel market; we are about to find out if they can win sufficient market share to be viable.

Obviously there are different views about when the industry is going to recover and how it will look. That is legitimate as no one can know ex ante what will happen ex post but it is becoming apparent that 2017 isn’t going to be the recovery year people hoped and that more people are going to have to raise money to get through this. The Nor DSVs will need to start fundraising in August at the current burn rate, as will others, the dilution that the new money makes on the old money for these secondary fundraisings will be a clue I believe as to how close we are to pricing the bottom. The investors in Nor represented a group who thought there would be a quick bounce back in 2017 in the price of oil and subsea asset values, there are bound to be fewer the next time around and surely they will charge a higher price for their capital, and in many ways this is microcosm of the industry.

The best guide to calling this appears to be those that have looked at previous investment bubbles. Charles Kindleberger, in his classic study of financial panics and manias stated the final stage of an investment bubble led to panic selling which would mark the bottom of the cycle:

‘Overtrading,’ ‘revulsion,’ ‘discredit’ have a musty, old-fashioned flavor; they convey a graphic picture of the decline in investor optimism.

Revulsion and discredit may lead to panic (or as the Germans put it, Torschlusspanik, ‘door-shut-panic’) as investors crowd to get through the door before it slams shut. The panic feeds on itself until prices have declined so far and have become so low that investors are tempted to buy the less liquid assets…

We still look a long way off this in offshore supply and subsea.

 

More Uber madness… Devil take the hindmost…

The additional rise above the true capital will only be imaginary; one added to one, by any stretch of vulgar arithmetic will never make three and a half, consequently all fictitious value must be a loss to some person or other first or last. The only way to prevent it to oneself must be to sell out betimes, and so let the Devil take the hindmost

A participant in the South Sea Bubble quoted in “The South Sea Bubble”, John Carswell, 

 

I’ve decided to keep a vague running tab on Uber. It’s an investment bubble, I don’t know quite how its’s going to pop… but it’s going to. My previous thoughts are here. In his Nobel award lecture “Speculative asset bubbles” Robert Shiller defines and investment bubble as:

[a] situation in which news of price increases spurs investor enthusiasm which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person, in the process amplifying stories that might justify the price increase and bringing in a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawnto it partly through envy of others’ successes and partly through a gambler’s excitement.

Nothing seems to sum up the investment psychology of Uber more. Having watched the extraordinary returns others have made in companies such as Facebook, and seen a group of tier 1 VC’s get involved, the next round gets fund managers involved (at USD 40bn), and then gets a sovereign wealth fund involved to keep the valuation at USD 62.5bn. I quite like the irony of getting the Saudi’s to put in USD 3.5bn into an unprofitable Uber while convincing them to sell shares in Saudi Aramco… kind of like bait and switch only better… a new modern version of Petrodollar recycling but without the adverse consequences?

This week Uber announced the were gearing up for a flying taxi service:

Uber Technologies Inc. disclosed the initial steps of its air-travel vision this week, announcing five partner companies with various specialties aimed at making the sci-fi staple affordable and common. The initial testing is expected in 2020 in Dallas and Dubai, two car-clogged cities where aviation interests wield great influence.

“If you’re not planting the seeds for five, 10 years out, you have no company in five to 10 years,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said.

The cynic in me see’s this a) as the equivalent of vapourware and b) a desperate attempt to show there may be some inherent value in a company that is clearly going backwards massively in terms at c. USD 2bn a year in cash terms. Uber are trying to fire the “gamblers excitement” that Shiller refers to (“don’t worry this taxi thing is just a smokescreen for our real route to profitability … autonomous drones…”)

But this line really tested my intellectual patience:

“There are a lot of compelling elements to this vision,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, who attended the Uber event in Dallas this week where the plans were unveiled… 

“Whether this becomes a niche service … and how quickly it scales is anybody’s guess,” he said. “But they’ve got the demand.”

Don’t you need a price to gauge (potential) demand? I’ve got a lot of demand for a new Concorde from London to NYC at £500 per ticket… at £500 000 per ticket much less. It’s just all hype an no substance.

It’s not just me either… FT Alphaville (hardly the doyen of left-wing communism) came to the conclusion that:

[u]ltimately Uber’s success comes down to convincing the world that it has made a progressive leap by allocating cheap human resources towards the job of waiting around at the beck and call of an increasingly powerful elite.

From an aggregate economic allocation and welfare point of view that’s an obviously nuts proposition. What it amounts to is a transfer of labour from high productivity sectors to ultra low productivity sectors on the assumption that if this workforce is given autonomy over their non-productive time they can deploy it more efficiently in the market than if it was being allocated by a scaled-up specialist operator.

Since that, by definition, inhibits specialisation or skill acquisition in labour markets, all it really encourages is the purposeful unscaling of the economy and thus the entrenchment of a suppressed, underpaid, servant class with no prospect to ever benefit from a consumer surplus.

I sometimes think that all you need is an idea so outrageous sometimes it will get funding because people don’t want to say no. I half joke that I am thinking of registering the name http://www.chinaflng.com and then raising 10bn from investors and using it to buy a couple of broken VLCC’s for conversion purposes… and then worry about what to do… it’s a better idea than a $400 juicer…

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands. Two backers said the final device was bulkier than what was originally pitched and that they were puzzled to find that customers could achieve similar results without it. Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip. The experiment found that squeezing the bag yields nearly the same amount of juice just as quickly—and in some cases, faster—than using the device.

On second thoughts I am going to go with this… It will be an FLNG company that uses blockchain and has a cloud computing element to it with a big data social media engine driving it’s utilisation…. any maybe a really good juicer in the galley… please leave VC details in the comments section…

One day over a beer remind me to tell you the story of guy who walked into my office and wanted to build a fake tropical island in an abandoned Zeppelin factory, and then tried to shoot the messanger…