Reach(ing) for the absurd… Structure-Conduct-Performance

Situations emerge in the process of creative destruction in which many firms may have to perish that nevertheless would be able to live on vigorously and usefully if they could weather a particular storm.

Joseph A. Schumpeter

I have been busy lately and therefore not had as much time to write as I would like. I am working on a longer post about how much a North Sea DSV is worth (following the Nor and Bibby results), and another post on DeepSea Supply. But the constant theme in the market at the moment seems to be that no matter how bad the numbers are to claim an increase in tendering activity, as if all will be well if we just hold on a little longer, and it is this that has forced me to write…

The most logical explanation, borne out by the numbers at the moment, is that tendering is increasing because those putting out the tenders have realised there is a marginal benefit in doing so: they get cheaper prices and do not face diminishing returns from the increasing tender costs. Such an explanation fits easily with everyone reporting declining margins (Maersk, Bibby, Reach, Bourbon, DeepOcean, Solstad etc.,) across the entire supply chain while unanimously claiming to be tendering more. I get contracting lags tenders, and at some point this will mean that tenders will increase prior to work, but it simply isn’t happening at the moment: the schedules are still being cut and work delayed as all those reporting weaker numbers tell you, with no sense of apparent irony, at the same time as they report increased tendering activity.

I still feel that many people in the industry haven’t yet come to grips with the scale of change in the supply change that will be necessary for the market to balance and the structural nature of that change. Until investors who don’t understand this have been flushed out, and it would appear that this will only happen when they have faced mutliple capital injections at ever decreasing rates of return, the entire supply chain will suffer with profitability and utilisation issues.

Reach Subsea reported results and commentary this week in exactly this vein. The ROV industry in particular reminds me of my first job in NZ when a couple of weeks into it someone flew down from Germany to have a strategy meeting with us. “We are going to grow twice as fast as the market” he stated, when I asked “Isn’t everyone else saying this at their planning day as well, so what are we going to do differently” I realised my career at this company was off to a bad start. (I also realised that marketing wasn’t for me. Although the hilarity did ensue when the said individual returned later in the year (1997) to demand higher returns as the Asian currency crisis was having a poor effect on his P&L. When I pointed out 65% of NZ’s trade balance came from APEC countries I was pleased to have a UK passport.

Collectively it is axiomatic that the sum of all firms in the industry can only be equal to the market size and the overall market growth rate. Yet everyone in the ROV space at the moment claims to be growing market share or holding up despite new companies launching and no one making any money.

ROV systems are preferable to own over an offshore vessel only because they don’t have the running costs and you can put them in a warehouse until a recovery appears. But the ROV industry has very low barriers to entry, are in huge oversupply, and the industry is dominated by 5 very well capitalised and global companies. I have lost count of the number of companies striking a deal with a vessel owner to put the system on for free while they take the risk and cost of tendering on. It is not an original business model.

This graph from the market leader, Oceaneering, makes it clear the scale of the large companies:

ROV Market 2017

Source: MS Presentation, May 2017, IHS Data

And the largest company in the market (OII) has poor utilisation and a day rate reduction of 25% since 2014:

OII fleet utilisation.png

The question is really why you would want to go long on this market? Reach to be clear has 6 systems while OII has 282. Four competitors control more than 50% of the market. This is a market that has declined significantly in the last couple of years and seen a small number of new competitors (i.e. M2) come in and buy assets below depreciated value from previously bankrupt companies. If you speak to anyone in the market at the ROV companies they will tell you they are giving away the ROV for free and trying to make money off the personnel and mobilisations. It is a totally unsustainable business model.

The only economically rational strategy here is for a massive consolidation amongst the larger industry players, starting with the grey quarter in the graph who don’t even get their own colour. There is no differentiation in the end product to the customer and no ability for ROV contractors to add value in all but a few extreme circumstances. The longer investors support companies like this the longer the entire industry will operate at below a profitability level required to get CapEx to equal depreciation and ROE to equal the cost of capital.

Reach to be clear reported revenue down more than 50% on the same period last year but at the same time like everyone else reported increased tendering. Reach are krill that will eventually be eaten by a blue whale (hence the photo). I understand that smaller contractors face risks where one vessel is in proportion a larger part of their business, but that just reinforces the economic necessity of having the assets controlled by a larger firm, because the cost base doesn’t vary by the same amount and the lack the scale and scope required to market and develop such assets.

I also noted in the Reach private placement memo this note about their strategy:

8.9 The Group’s strategy

The strategy of the Group in a five-year perspective, could be outlined as follows:

8.9.1 Strategy in the OPEX-market (fields in operation)

  • Target IMR frame agreements
  • Export of North Sea technology and standards to selected major deepwater areas in the world (emphasis added)
  • Provide new services in the segment
  • Bid for seasonal contracts in key regions  (FTSS: Really?)

8.9.2 Strategy in the CAPEX-market (fields under construction)

  • The goal is to be a preferred subcontractor to the major EPIC subsea contractors
  • Securing the right assets will be key (FTSS: They are everywhere and in huge quantity, no problem)
  • Gradually develop assets and resource base
  • Do smaller EPIC-contracts at own risk

8.9.3 International expansion (FTSS: And take market share off who? How?)

  • Develop the international market in parallel with the North Sea market when opportunities appear
  • Seek international partners in selected areas like Australia, Mexico, Brazil and West Africa
  • Develop a foothold in new deepwater areas

8.9.4 Asset base

  • Invest in new assets (FTSS: Why?! The industry has overcapacity)
  • Secure the right assets
  • Mix of owned and hired equipment

I don’t know when I have disagreed with something more. Firstly, if offshore is to grow as industry it needs to compete on cost and that means the North Sea becoming more like the rest of the world not the other way around. Taking the North Sea standard overseas is a proven failure. Bibby tried it in the Gulf of Mexico with disastrous results, and in Asia with a DSV, it was worth trying in Asia but it wasn’t needed or wanted. Technip did the same in Australia. Anyone who thinks they can take the North Sea standard out of the North Sea hasn’t been out of the region. The North Sea is like it is because a) the environmental conditions are more severe than anywhere else, and b) the regulatory environment. You can’t force E&P companies to add to their cost base when it adds no value in the current environment.

If Reach are looking to expand internationally in a declining market then someone else is losing market share. Call me sceptical but in this market that is simply unrealistic. That a company with 6 systems, could have the resources to do this and start to drive consolidation when they are 276 systems behind the market leader isn’t real.

OII and others have literally tens of spare systems, they make them, and are giving them away for free. OII and others are here for as long as there is an industry (and OII have a current market cap of USD 2.3bn). I am not saying Reach is a bad investment (I don’t give investment advice), although it does strike me that it is an asymetric payoff where either someone buys them at a takeover premium, or they slowly make a return at less than their cost of capital and eventually funding runs out. Quite why you would pay higher than NAV for some ROVs which are cheaper on the second hand market and some vessel commitments is beyond me though.

I could go on. I don’t want to do a hatchet job on Reach, that isn’t my point. My point is simply that this industry needs to be signficantly smaller on the supply side and that this requires letting some firms go under. The economic rationale is called the structure-conduct-performance paradigm and is a well known feature of industrial organisation analysis. Porter’s five forces model (that all MBA’s learn), is based on this intellectual strand and the simple expedient that industry effects can be stronger than firm effects (there is much more to this and it deserves a much bigger piece for another day, including the move in the 80’s to the Resource-Based view of the firm which argues that firm effects are stronger and markets not so deterministic:, but in a consolidating industry the evidence is clear). No matter how competent the management of Reach Subsea are, and they clearly are skilled operators, they cannot in the long run compete against market structures so entrenched and differing in scale. Path dependency counts.

The offshore supply chain is clearly going to evolve in a way that was very different from the past. In the pre-2014 environment the industry had large numbers of small subcontractors, like Reach, who made money because the big companies were too busy, and making too much money, to concentrate on the small stuff. That isn’t the case now where they are under pressure to supply assets with very high fixed costs at below breakeven to win work. In order to do that they using the supply chain for ROVs (and other equipment) to supply their kit at below cost and ensure both sides lose their equity. When there is no more for the supply chain to give they will internalise the costs and reduce unit costs where possible. There is no other way this will play out.

Financial investors like Standard Drilling (PSVs), Nor Offshore (DSVs), Reach (ROVs) have all brought in expecting this was some temporary downturn and thought prices would start rising, as per previous models, and then they would then be handsomely rewarded for their (sic) foresight. It is becoming apparent now that this is not the right narrative: this is a structural downturn (Rystad  put a demand return in 10 years!). Only last week I learnt Shell was making a major commitment to ROVs on platforms (again) to consistently reduce OpEx where previously they had used vessels. Examples like this are legion, and I believe in total these stories to be representative of a wider and deeper change where E&P companies will seek to drive down unit costs offshore and this favours consolidation in the industry. So far the numbers are with my theory.

The beauty of capitalism is that you can place bets with money that help determine the outcome. I could be wrong and some huge, totally unexpected, market recovery could take place. The investors in the Nor vessels have so far been way off in their judgement, and I believe Standard Drilling have as well. Let’s see with Reach. But as long as there are investors for companies like this out there, and demand remains at current levels, expect to read plenty more stories about increased tendering while digesting appalling financial results.

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.

 

Bourbon results offer no comfort or light

Bourbon released numbers this week that were bad, this isn’t an equity research site so I don’t intend to drill through them. Bourbon is a well-managed company and there is little it can do given the oversupply. But I can’t look at these stats without feeling like the HugeStadSea merger was too early. And quite how NAO, with 10 PSVs, raised money at USD 15m per vessel when the industry is at this level also looks like a triumph of hope over data. Subsea looks just as bad.

First, I think the graph below (from the Bourbon presentation) is telling and worrying for offshore. One of my constant themes is productivity. Shale is generating increasing productivity (i.e. constantly reducing unit costs) from all this investment, offshore fundamentally isn’t. The cost reductions from offshore are the result of financial losses, not more outputs from unit inputs.

Capital Investment Forecast: Shale versus Offshore

Capital Outlook

Clearly, the capital increase is good for vessel owners, but as this graph shows, the fleet was built for much better times.

Global E&P Spending

Global E&P Spending

And as the Bourbon numbers show, demand isn’t going to save offshore because the supply side of the market is too overbuilt.

Stacked vessels

The subsea fleet globally looks just as bad. Rates are only just above OPEX if you are lucky and nowhere near enough to cover financing or drydocking costs. The hard five-year dry-dock is the real killer from a cash flow perspective.

In order for this market to normalise not only vessels, but also capital, needs to leave the industry. I was, therefore, surprised that NAO raised USD 47m to keep going. NAO have 10 vessels, and are clearly subscale by any relevant industry size measure, are operating well below cash breakeven including financing costs (USD 11 500 per day), and still, they plow on. I understand it’s rational if you think the market is coming back (and the family/management put real money into this capital raise), but if everyone thinks like this then the market will never normalise. And when Fletcher/Standard Drilling can keep bringing PSVs back into the market at USD 8-10m, that do pretty much the same thing as your 2016 build, and 1/3 of the fleet can be recommissioned, the scale of a spending increase needed to credibly restore financial health to operators looks a long way off. Someone is going to have to start accepting capital losses or the industry as a whole will keep burning through new infusions of cash on OPEX. ( I know PSV rates, in particular, have increased this week but this looks like a short-run demand as summer comes and vessels come out of lay-up than a recovery.)

Specialty tonnage, such as DSVs, are in a worse position because as Nor/Harkand are showing people are reluctant to cold-stack due to the uncertainty of re-commissioning costs. Project work simply isn’t returning to at anything like the levels needed to get vessels and engineers working. Subsea construction work significantly lacks rig work, and companies are delaying maintenance longer than people ever thought possible.

Rig Demand

I think restructuring, consolidation, and capital raising are clearly the answer don’t get me wrong. I just think some falling knives have been caught recently (the Nor/Harkand bondholders being the best example) and the industry seems reluctant to admit the scale of the upcoming challenge. And again I am perplexed why the Solstad shareholders allowed themselves to dilute their OSV fleet with greater exposure to supply, when the dynamics are clearly so bad? The subsea and offshore industries appear to be facing structurally lower profits for a long time, and more restructurings, or a second round for some, seem far more likely than an uptick this year and next.

 

Morton’s Fork, Nor Offshore, and the North Sea DSV market

John Morton was my kind of optimist (and economist actually): as the Archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1500) he devised the logic for imposing forced loans on people that those who were rich could obviously afford to pay, and those whom lived frugally obviously had savings buried away somewhere (and could therefore afford to pay). This somewhat quaint logic is the origin of Morton’s Fork, a bifurcation that leads to no good options.

An article in the FT today on the increasing free cash flow of North Sea oil producers highlights the Morton’s Fork for the Nor bond holders. In November last year, after raising money again they had the decision to make of continuing the spectacularly unsuccessful strategy of sitting in Blyth, with no diving contractor,. waiting for work when all the dive contractors had excess DSV capacity, or changing. Admittedly the decision was a Morton’s Fork, work anywherre is hard and there is excess capacity everywhere. But serious work in the North Sea, given the industry structure and regulations, was never possible. Suddenly the USD 15m liquidity issue, having been depleted roughly a third, without a day of work and absolutely none in the schedule, just on OPEX, doesn’t seem like such a big number (and there appear to be valid questions about the technical condition of the Atlantis where the crane for example has been downrated to 50t).

However, the bond holders decided they would wait for the mountain to come to them. After a recent fiasco where the Contracts Department/ Nor were awarded a five day job, and then couldn’t close it commerically, the mountain is looking strangely distant, and the FT article shows why:

Alongside cuts to operating expenses, North Sea operators reduced project investments during the downturn — last year only two relatively modest field development plans were approved, involving BP and Apache. Up to six new projects could get final approval from operators this year, and a further eight in 2018, said Oil & Gas UK, but it warned in a report published on Tuesday that these are “not certain to be delivered and may be subject to delay or cancellation”.

As I have stated before until the construction work returns the maintenance market will not save these vessels. It’s worth pointing out that Clair Ridge, the BP project above, used no DSV days, nor will any West of Shetland (except for potentially some minor riser hook-up work).

Subsea 7 recently reactivated the DSV Seven Pelican, currently off to do 200 days for Apache, and the Seven Osprey, which is having a new thruster installed in Gdansk and then heading East. Subsea 7 and Technip are recommitting to diving because the work is there and they can. With huge engineering and tendering teams they can move old assets back into the market to take advantage of what little work there is. I have been told, but I have no idea of the veracity, that market rates are GBP 65-75k, strip out GBP 50k for divers/project crew and no one is making much money here, but neither are they losing it tied up. But the North Sea DSV fleet will not face a demand driven recovery until the tie-backs/tie-in market, which soak up huge amounts of DSV days return.

Any serious hope the bondholders had that a mild uptick in maintenance work would lead to a charter in the North Sea must now have vanished to all but the most die-hard optimists. Setting up a tin-shed operation in the most regulated market in the work (bar Norway) was simply a bad idea, even had the market returned, but looks even worse in a poor market. The Nor vessels will move before the mountain one would assume.

Increased offshore expenditure not sufficient to change inevitable consolidation and shake-out

Rystad Energy have a good article on offshore CAPEX versus North American Shale. I am not sure it offers a huge degree of comfort for offshore contractors and vessel owners:

  1. 70% of expenditure comes from 10 projects (most of which were in planning long before the current downturn). Should this pattern continue the industry would become dominated by a few large contractors that worked on mega-projects only. The entire ecosystem of smaller contractors would be reduced to servicing these large EPIC contractors at hugely reduced margins and competing fiercely for IRM work to keep utilisation high. The sheer scale of these types developments favours large well-entrecnhed competitors with links across the value chain to subsea processing companies. Again the space for smaller firms is likely to be limited to subcontractors only
  2. As noted above these were all sanctioned and had final investment decisions some time ago. Large, high volume and low OPEX, deepwater fields are likely to be the core of offshore demand going forward. GIven the lead bid times the projects being bid now are likey to be extremely margin compressed for years to come, so an increase in the oil price will drop straight to the E&P company bottom line without helping the offshore fraternity at all. Time is not the friend of those long on ships and drill rigs at the moment
  3. Given current industry supply levels these larger contracting entities will likely be more “asset-light”, apart from core delivery assets, than we are used to. This is likely to result in continued, and long-lived, margin erosion for anyone apart from a tier 1 offshore contractor. If you want an unbiased example of this look to the civil contracting industry where anyone other than the prime contractor makes operating profit at close to marginal cost
  4. Jusr as importantly the pick-up in demand, if indeed it is that, has occured only by a decrease in offshore and subsea rates below what it is economically possible to supply in the long-term
  5. 3-4 large contractors, and Technip, Subsea 7, Saipem, and McDermott (with limited asset and competitive differentiation) will all be there, with some strong regional players, is enough to drive industry margins down to normal economic profit for the foreseeable future

Rystad mention the drop in drilling and offshore subsea rates, but everyone is operating at below cash break even on projects at the moment to win work. Currently in order to fund this cost deflation all drilling operators of note are refinancing and the loss in equity has been huge, and a somewhat more delayed pattern is also occurring in the OSV market. It would not appear that demand and supply are therefore balanced, or even close to it. All it indicates is the brutality of the E&P supply chain and the willingness of offshore contractors, long on fixed assets with high running costs, to bid at whatever it takes to win some work and try and last longer than anyone else.

The market would appear to be some way off equilibrium. The graph at the top is the Subsea 7 (orange line) share price versus Solstad (blue line) over the past 12 months, essentially a proxy for my thesis above (in the most general sense and picked because the weight of their relative debt should strengthen my argument and magnify equity returns), and it would appear the market consensus is similar to mine.