Bully for Brontosaurus…

“I am truly convinced that both the shipping and the offshore markets will recover.”

Mads Syversen, CEO Arctic Securities (26 Jan 2016)

Arctic and ABG Merger valuation.png

From the Solstad Farstad merger prospectus (9 May 2017) highglighting the extreme optimism of the investment bankers putting the deal together. It should be noted the asset market was under huge stress at the time (the bankers of course were paid in cash on completion).

The Golden Bough

In point of fact magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings.

 James George Frazer, “The Golden Bough” (1890)

The Emporer

Courtier T.L. — Amid all the people starving, missionaries and nurses clamoring, students rioting, and police cracking heads, His Serene Majesty went to Eritrea, where he was received by his grandson, Fleet Commander Eskinder Desta, with whom he intended to make an official cruise on the flagship Ethiopia. They could only manage to start one engine, however, and the cruise had to be called off. His Highness then moved to the French ship Protet, where he was received on board by Hiele, the well-known admiral from Marseille. The next day, in the port of Massawa, His Most Ineffable Highness raised himself for the occasion to the rank of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and made seven cadets officers, thereby increasing our naval power. Also he summoned the wretched notables from the north who had been accused by the missionaries and nurses of speculation and stealing from the starving, and he conferred high distinctions on them to prove that they were innocent and to curb the foreign gossip and slander.

 Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor” (1978)

Mons Aase, DOF Subsea CEO, said: “The appointment of Mr. Riise is an important step towards realizing our vision of being a world-class integrated offshore company, delivering marine services and subsea solutions responsibly, balancing risk and opportunity in a sustainable way, together, every day. I look forward to working closely with our new CCO and I welcome Steinar to DOF Subsea.” (15 October, 2018)

“Our business will probably die over the next 10 yrs because the demand for oil probably will start peaking – we think in 2028-2029.”

Ian Taylor, Vittol Chairman, June 8, 2019

“If you get lucky for a long period of time, you think the rules don’t apply to you… These guys thought they could walk on water. They weren’t smart, they were lucky”.

Maarten Van Eden, Anglo Irish Bank CFO, in Anglo Republic: The Bank that Broke Ireland

(Anglo Irish bank initially assessed its downside losses in the credit crunch at less than €2bn. Over €45bn later they had nearly bankrupted the Irish state by lending on illiquid property assets reliant on a booming Irish economy and a global credit boom).


Have a look at the graph in the header, particularly 2016/17, and then the Solstad liabilities for 2016/17, just as they were “buying” Farstad and DeepSea Supply:

Solstad liabilities 2016_17.png

(I saying “buying” because it was then second major rescue attempt after Aker made a spectacular error in timing with REM. It was a deal pushed by the bankers who didn’t want to deal with consequences of Farstad and Deepsea Supply).

That would be just the time the rig count in the Permain was to explode:

BH rig count June 2019.jpg

And here are the latest Solstad Q1 2019 liability figues:

Solstad Q1 2019 Liabilities.png

Roughly NOK 2bn higher! The assets are older, the market isn’t much better, and they owe NOK 2bn more! (Don’t get me started on look at the assets side of the balance sheet: it was well known the Farstad/DESS were worth significantly less than book value).

If you believed Solstad had a future in anything like its current form you would be asked to believe the impossible: that despite the most extraordinary structural shift the oil and gas industry, despite owning depreciating assets barely covering actual running costs, despite no indication of oversupply ending (and in fact every indication that funding a mutually assured destructive battle will continue with NAO planning to raise money), you would be asked to believe Solstad could actually pay that money back… And of course they can’t: the numbers on paper, the amounts the banks and creditors claim they are due, are indeed a fantasy. A wish, with no basis in economic substance despite their accounting clarity.

Solstad made an operating profit of NOK 162 918 000 in Q1 2019 on NOK 33bn of balance sheet and asset risk. If someone had lost the petty cash tin they would have been in a loss. It’s totally unsustainable.

It may have been reasonable to believe that NOK 30bn of debt could be supported by offshore demand when the US graph was at 2014 levels but it is no longer credible now. Too much of the investment and maintenance expenditure flowing through the global energy industry is just going to other places. This is a structural shift in the industry not a temporary drop in demand like 2009.

I am not picking on Solstad here, they are just the most obvious example as their resolution seems (reasonably) imminent. Without exception all these crazy asset play deals that relied on the market coming back will fail.

When I was at university I first read the palaeontologist Stephen J Gould who introduced me to the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution (Bully for Brontasaurus). If you can’t bothered clicking through to the links the easiest way to think about this (in a purely demonstrative example) is that Lamarckian evolution argues that giraffes evolved by gradually growing longer necks and reaching for higher leaves on trees that others couldn’t reach – which is wrong. One of the many brilliant things about Darwin was that he realised that it was the randomness in evolution that caused the process – giraffes that just happened to have the long neck gene prospered and had more baby giraffes and passed the gene on. The race of giraffes that prospered was the result of random selection that ended up adapting best to their environment. They got lucky not smart.

Offshore is full of companies that may have been lucky on the way up but are totally inappropriate financial and operational structures to survive in the modern energy era. Evolution is a brutal, mechanical, and forward acting process. It is irreversible and path dependent. In economics the randomness of the evolutionary process is well understood with most research showing industry effects are stronger than firm effects. By dint of randomness the genes of many of the asset heavy offshore companies companies, but especially those with debt held constant at 2015/16 levels, are fundamentally unsuited to their new environment.

In case you are wondering where I am going with this (and want to stop reading now) I have two points:

  • A lot of the offshore supply chain confused managerial brilliance on the ride up to 2014 with good luck, a high oil price, and a credit bubble. Seemingly being lucky enough to have been running small fishing vessels when North Sea oil was found was rarely posited as an explanation for the growth of many West Coast Norwegian offshore firms, but it is in reality true. A random act of economic circumstance that threw them into a rising commodity and credit bubble. A newer, far less wealthy, future beckons for many of the small coastal towns that supported this boom.
  • The randomness of US geology colliding with the most efficient capital markets in the world, the largest energy consuming nation, and technological circumstance has caused a complete change in the structure in the underlying oil market. The profound implication for North Sea producers, and the supply chain underpinning them, is a transition to be an ever more marginal part of the global supply chain. That will mean less dollars in flow to them and that however long companies try to fight this will be in vain because we are dealing with a profound structural change not a temporary reduction in demand.

What the offshore industry is faced with now is a fundamental regime change – in its broadest sense both statistically (which I have argued before) and sociologically. The economic models of debt fuelled boats and rigs with smaller contractors are over in principal. It’s just the messy and awkward stage of getting to the other side that beckons now.

For pure SURF contracting and drilling consolidation is the answer and will occur. Financial markets will squeeze all but the largest companies from taking asset risk. DOF Subsea’s business model of buying ships Technip wasn’t sure about long-term will look like the short term aberration to economic rationality it was. For offshore supply the industry will be structurally less profitable forever. Asia shows the future of offshore is a vast array of smaller contractors, operating on minimal margin and taking vast risks, and yet the E&P companies are happy with this outcome because they get competitive prices. There is no reason to believe this model will not work in Europe as well. Where procurement is regional there are no advantages to being a global operator as the unit onshore costs are such a small proportion of the offshore/asset costs.

Although it feels unique to many in offshore it isn’t. If you only read one book about a collapse of ancien regime make sure it is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor” (1978)  on the collapsing Ethiopian empire. By interviewing a large number of the courtiers Kapuscinski gets you into the collective mind of an institution unable to face the reality of circumstance. The inability of Haile Selassie to realise that his random luck was totally unsuited to adaptation in the modern world is deeply reminiscent of the management in offshore, and to a certain extent the banks behind it (I’ll write more on the Stiglitz- Grossman paradox which answers why this may occur later).

Slowly the power and the capital of marginal oil production is being shifted to the Lower 48. Make no mistake the replacement of low capital cost Super Majors for high cost of capital (often PE backed) E&P companies in the North Sea marks the slow withdrawal of capital long-term from the area. Note not removal: just slower investment, higher cost hurdles, more pressure on cost etc. That will require a structurally smaller supply chain.

Old capital structures, and especially debt obligations, written in the good times will be completely re-written. Over the next couple of years the Nordic banks are going to write off billions dollars (that isn’t a misprint) as the hope thesis of recovery loses credibility. They will shut down credit to all but the most worth borrowers and sellable assets (if you think that is happening now you aren’t watching the crazy deals going on in the rig market). Equity across the industry will rise and leverage will substantially decline.  Smaller operators will vanish driven the same process reducing biodiversity on earth now: a less munificent environment. I believe when these banks have to start really taking write-offs, and Solstad and DOF are important here because they are close in time and significant in value, bank loan books will in effect close for all but the largest companies. In the rig market where are few companies have been responsible for nearly all the deals and private bubble has built up in the assets this will be contrasted with a nuclear winter of credit. And if banks aren’t lending then asset values fall dramatically.

How much is the Skandi Nitteroi really worth? There is no spot market for PLSVs, Petrobras have no tenders for flexlay? No one else capable using it needs one and Seadras are getting theirs redelivered? Banks are going to take the hit here and then the industry will really feel it.

I am reading Anglo Republic, a book about the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, at the moment. Again the inability of management (and Treasury, and the goverment) to see the scale of the losses has a strong parallel with offshore. And like offshore initially everyone believed the Irish propery market would come back, that liquidity not solvency was the problem, that this was temporary blip. The crisis was a slow burner for this reason. But when it really came, just like all asset heavy industries, it starts with the refusal of credit institutions to renew liquidity lines because they know it’s a solvency problem. And that is why Solstad and and DOF are significant. They are the BNP Paribas of the next phase. But you know what… my next book is this, and it will have the same story of excessive optimism, leverage, an event (literally a revolution in this case), and default. If there are only really seven major plots in literature there is surely smaller set in economic history? So we know what is coming here.

This needs to happen in an economic sense. The cost to produce offshore will have to rise to reflect the enormous risk the supply chain take in supplying these hugely unique assets on a contract basis. But for this to happen there needs to be a major reduction in supply and it needs to happen while competing against shale for E&P production share. And it cannot happen while the industry continues to attract liquidity from those who buy assets solely on the basis of their perceived discount to 2016 asset values in the hope of a ‘recovery’ to previous profitability levels.

Which brings us on to what will happen to Solstad? It is in the interests of both the major equity investors (Aker/ Fredrikson) and the banks to play for time here. I fully expect a postponement of the 20 June deadline. Next summer, the bankers will tell themselves, the rates will be high and we will be fine (just like the Irish bankers and countless others before). But some of the smaller syndicate banks clearly get the picture here, the business is effectively trading while insolvent, regulators will also eventually lose patience, and the passage of time will not be kind. The solution everyone wants: to put no more money in and get all their money back isn’t going to happen.

Normally in situations like this, where the duration of the assets is long and illiquid, like a failed bank, a ‘bad bank’ and a ‘good bank’ are created. One runs down (as DVB Bank is doing with offshore) and the good one trades and is sold (as DVB Bank have done with aircraft finance). That would see the Solstad of old split off into a CSV fleet maybe or a Solstad North Sea while the old Asian/Brazil DESS was liquidated and the Farstad AHTS business also liquidated. But that will require the banks writing off c. NOK 20bn (maybe more) and I don’t think they are there yet.

After Solstad comes DOF. And in all likelihood following them will be some smaller tier 2 contractors, and certainly some rig companies, who realize that in an economic sense this just cannot continue. No matter how hard they keep reaching for the greener leaves higher up.

The slow fade to obscurity and Gell-Mann amnesia…

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida ætas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

(While we speak, envious time will have fled; seize today, trust as little as possible in tomorrow.)


For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian 

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that by stepping aside for a moment man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Michael Crichton

Fearnley Securities resumes OSV coverage as slow pickup starts to take shape…Analyst Gustaf Amle places buy ratings on Tidewater and Standard Drilling at a time market is experiencing a slow recovery…


Energy companies and investors are focused on profits and reluctant to boost spending even after crude prices surged to four-year highs, a senior Goldman Sachs banker said on Thursday…

But this time round, the barriers for investments are high, with investors seeking returns of as much as 15 to 20 percent from multi-billion dollar oil and gas projects, Fry said.

“In the near term the focus is on returns as opposed to growth for the sake of growth,”

Big Oil still reluctant to open spending taps: Goldman

I haven’t written much lately a) because I have been busy with an LNG project I am working on, and b) because it’s a bit like Groundhog Day at the moment: a bunch of offshore companies come out with bad results and tell you it’s grim out there and then a bunch of Norwegian investment banks and consultants write reports about what a good time it is to invest. In the same way the relentless expansion of shale continues apace so to does the inevitable decline in value of the offshore fleet and the capital intensity required to maintain it.

Offshore supply is so grim, with such vast oversupply, it is not even worth the effort to rebut some of the more outlandish claims being made. But if you buy Standard Drilling shares expecting the World Wide Supply Vessels to reocver anything like 60% of their historical value I wish you luck, the money would probably be better spent on lottery tickets, but good luck. If you have relied on one of these above-mentioned reports it is likely you are suffering from Gell-Mann amnesia, forgetting the false positives these self-same analysts saw before (this time it’s different…)

On the contracting/subsea side in the North Sea a denouement slowly approaches regarding capacity and the number of firms. I am interested in the North Sea not only because I worked in that market but also as a quite specialised market, with a small number of players and potential assets, it is as close to a natural experiment in economics as you are likely to get. So when you see a load of small firms losing cash, charging rates below what it would cost them to replace capital equipment, and competing against diversified and well capitalised multi-national corporations, the most likely scenario is that sooner or later their private equity owners decide they are not worth putting money into and they are shut down.

It isn’t the only scenario: the investment industry is awash with liquidity, every PE house wants to be the hero that called the bottom of the market right before it boomed. This idea found its ultimate expression in Borr Drilling, but York Capital buying Bibby Offshore was based on a similar sentiment. The problem is that the price of oil has doubled and the amount of offshore work has remained relatively fixed. Next year (apparently?) the oasis in the desert will appear…

Despite the music journalist from Aberdeen claiming that the management reshuffle at Ocean Installer a few months back was just a small thing and all about focus, this week the ex-CEO left to join DOF Subsea. No one would have had more share options in OI than Steinar, and I bet DOF Subsea wasn’t buying any out: when insiders know the shares are worthless you can bet they are. Even a PE house as big as Hitec Vision has to admit sometimes they cannot keeping pumping money into such a marginal venture as OI with such clearly limited upside for an exit? McDermott and OI couldn’t agree on price and unless another bidder can be conjured up to pay more for a business than you could build it from scratch then it’s days are surely numbered?

OI is a subscale business with a few chartered vessels and is exposed to their charter rates rising if the market booms. The downside is limited to zero for equity and but the upside effectively capped. It is no one’s fault it is just a subscale firm in a remarkably unattractive industry from a structural perspective. Eventually, just as with M2, the grown-ups take charge and face reality. As my shore-based offshore engineering guru reminded me: only a well-timed exit from the Normand Vision kept the business open as long as it has been in all likelihood.

But in the long-run OI has no competitive advantage and will be lucky to earn a cost of capital beyond Reach or other such comparable firms, certainly not one to move the needle on a PE portfolio for Hitec. Is there a market in Norway big enough to keep OI as a Reach competitor? I doubt that despite it being a favoured Equinor outcome.

DOF Subsea revealed in it’s most recent numbers that it only makes a ~9% EBITDA margin on projects (excluding the long-term pre-crash Brazil boats).

DOF pre-post.png

That one graphic shows you the scale of the change in the industry: contracts signed pre-2014: profitable, business post that? Uneconomic. No firm in the market will be making much more than DOF Subsea in IMR  and that is loss making in an economic sense: a signal to the market that there is severe excess capacity in contracting.

The Chief Strategy Officer of Maersk Supply recently went public and admitted even an oil boom won’t save them (a relatively frank admission for a company seeking a buyer whose only interest must be seeing MSS as a leveraged play on an oil boom!). For Maersk Supply the future is charity projects (waste collection), decom (E&P forced waste collection), deepsea mining, and a crane so clever it will make windfarms more than a zero sum game for the vessel provider. The chances of that being as profitable as helping an oil company get to “first oil” are zero. But still with a big corporate parent Maersk remain there supplying capacity at below economic cost and ensuring “the great recovery” remains an elusive Loch Ness styled creature.

A slow descent into obscurity would seem the best case scenario for OI while the worst case is clearly a suddent stop in funding when the investors realise 2019 will just be another drain on cash. Something the ex CEO and CFO have acknowledged in their career choices…

I fear the same thing for Bibby. Clearly York are delaying spending on the re-branding (required by their acquisition) because they were hoping to sell the business before the year was out. The financial results released make it clear how hard that will be. Not only did they overpay to get into the business they then, despite Bibby having spent £6m on advisers, had to pump in £15m more in working capital. When you have to put 30% more investment into working capital don’t believe the line about customers paying slowly: it was a simple, yet dramatic, complete misundertsanding about how much cash the business could generate and would therefore need. If you really believed Polaris, Sapphire, and the ROV fleet were worth 80m you would take the money and run…

Like OI the most likely, but not the only scenario, is that Bibby is simply ground down by Technip, Subsea 7, and Boskalis. At the moment North Sea DSV day rates are such that they do not come close to covering the funded purchase of a new DSV (likely to be USD 170m), and yet Bibby have a relatively old fleet. The 1999 built Polaris for example only has 10 years life left in her: on a DCF valuation model that means she has a finite life and not a capitalised value. In all probability Polaris simply cannot earn enough money in the next ten years to pay for the deposit on a new-build to replace herself (particularly given the dearth of bank financing). When I talk of capital leaving the industry this is a classic case of how this will happen. Boats can be chartered now but then the value accrues to the owner, a situation Volstad are only too aware of and will take advantage of when the Topaz charter comes up for renewal.

A quiet winter and a couple of dry-docks later in June 2019 and it is going to be hard to convince an investor to put another £15m because the customers just keep paying slowly (sic). A bidding competition to renew the Topaz charter would in effect render the business worthless.

There are other scenarios for these firms. I sometimes think optimism is a mineral in Lofoten. A veritable army of Norwegian investment bankers are no doubt trudging around with pitchbooks and research reports showing that if you just pay them a transaction fee in cash these contracting companies will bring you untold wealth (next year). But the most likely scenario is that a dramatic reduction in demand is followed by a large reduction in supply and at the moment only the first of these outcomes has occured as the previous cyclical nature of the industry has encouraged hope for a demand led revival. “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand” as John Cleese famously remarked.

But it is starting to feel like the end of the road… Solstad has become a national embarrasment, OI a vanity project, and Bibby simply a mistake (to name just three examples). Eventually, when all the other possibilities have been exhausted mean reversion and cash needs will begin dictate economic reality.

One of the most bullish offshore data firms recently published this forecast:


Just remember as a general rule: the larger the orange bar at the bottom (particularly in a relative sense) the less your offshore asset is worth.

[Graph in the header from this Seadrill presentation. Not a graph I suspect that will appear in one from Borr Drilling soon].

The New North Sea…

[Pictured above a sneak preview of the new (TBC) York Capital/Bibby/ Cecon OSV]

Subsea 7 came out with weak results last week and specific comments were made regarding the weakness of the North Sea market. I have been saying here for well over a year that this UKCS in particular will produce structurally lower profits for offshore contracting companies going forward: you simply cannot fight a contraction in market demand this big.

In Norway spending has remained more consistent, largely due to Statoil. But it is worth noting how committed they are to keeping costs down:

Statoil Cost reduction Q1 2018.png

A 10% increase in production is balanced with a 50% reduction in CapEx and a 25% reduction in per unit costs. Part of that is paid for by the supply chain… actually all of it. What I mean is only part of it is paid for by productivity improvements and lower operational costs… the rest is a direct hit to equity for service companies.

But as a major offshore player this presentation from Statoil highlights how efficient they have become in the new environment (and how offshore will compete going forward):

Statoil drilling efficiency.png

Cutting the number of days per well by 45% not only vastly reduces the costs for rigs it clearly reduces the number of PSV runs required to support the rig for example. The net result is that offshore is more than competitive with shale/tight oil:

Statoil break even.png

In fact Statoil is claiming its breakeven for offshore is USD 21 ppb on a volume weighted basis. It’s just a timing and economic commitment issue on a project basis to get there, but the future of offshore in demand terms is secure: it is an efficient end economically viable form of production. Especially when your supply chain has invested billions in assets that they are unable to recover the full economic value from. Demand is clearly not going any lower, and is in fact rising, just nowhere near the level required to make the entire offshore even cash breakeven.

Statoil has also changed its contracting mode which is probably part of the reason Subsea 7 is suffering from margin erosion in the North Sea. Statoil has clearly made a conscious decision to break workscopes into smaller pieces and keep Reach and Ocean Installer viable by doing this (and helping DeepOcean but it is clearly less vital economically for them). Part of this maybe long term planning to keep a decent base of contractor infrastructure for projects, but part of it maybe rational because previously for organising relatively minor workscopes larger contractors were simply making too much margin. A good way to reduce costs is to manage more internally in some circumstances, and especially in a declining market. I doubt you can be a viable tier 2 size contractor in the North Sea now without a relationship with Statoil to be honest, it just too big and too consistent in spend terms relative to the overall market size (Boskalis is clearly a tier 1 if you include its renewables business).

I still struggle to see Ocean Installer as a viable standalone concept. At the town hall recently the CEO stated that Hitecvision were in for another two years as they needed three of years of positive cash flow to get a decent price in a sale. But what is a buyer getting? They have no fixed charters on vessels (not that you need them) and no proprietary equipment or IP? All they have is track record and a Statoil relationship. In a volatile market even investors with as much money as Hitecvision must want to invest in businesses with a realistic chance of outperforming in the market?

The UKCS is a different story. Putting the Seven Navica into lay-up is an operational reflection of a point I have made here before: there is a dearth of UKCS CapEx projects. Demand is coming back in the IRM market overall but the diving market remains chronically oversupplied and this is likely to lead to much lower profits in a structural sense regardless of a cyclical upswing.

As I have said before Bibby, surely to be renamed soon if York cannot sell the business, remains by far in the weakest position now. Bibby appear to have won more than 70 days work for the Sapphire but that is just the wrong number. Bibby are caught in a Faustian pact where they need to keep the vessel operating to stop Boskalis getting market share, but they have no pricing power, and are not selling enough days to cover the cost of economic ownership on an annual basis. The embedded cost structure of the business overrides the excellent work on the ground the operational and sales staff do.

Boskalis with a large balance sheet are clearly using this year to get out and build some presence and market share. The operating losses from the Boka DSVs won’t please anyone, but would have been expected by all but the most optimistic, and all that is happening is they are building a pipeline for next year. Coming from Germany and the Netherlands, areas more cost-focused, gives them an advantage, as does their deep experience and asset base in renewables. Boskalis know full well the fragile financial structure of Bibby and this is merely a waiting game for them.

The problem for Bibby owner’s York Capital (or their principals if the music journalist from Aberdeen is to be believed)  is the lack of potential buyers beyond DeepOcean or Oceaneering. I spoke to someone last week who worked on the restructuring and told me it was a mad rush in the end as EY were £50m cash out in their forecast models of the business (which makes the June 17 interest payment comprehensible). This makes sense in terms of how York got into this it doesn’t help them get out, and frankly raises more (uninmportant) questions, because it was obvious to all in the offshore community Bibby was going to be out of cash by Nov/ Dec 17 but not to the major owner of the bonds? Bizzare.

Internally staff don’t believe the business is in anything other than “available for sale mode” because the cost cutting hasn’t come, the fate of the Business Excellence Dept is seen as a talisman for the wider firm, and there is no question of money being spent on the needed rebranding by year end unless required. A temporary CFO from a turnaround firm continues without any hint of a permanent solution being found for a business that continues to have major structural financial issues.

Managers at Bibby now report complete a complete lack of strategic direction and stasis, it would appear that winning projects at merely cash flow break even, with the potential for downside, is making the business both hard to get rid of and the current shareholders nervous of where their commitments will end. Any rational financial buyer would wait for the Fairfield decom job to finish and the Polaris and Sapphire to be dry-docked before handing over actual cash, but there is a strong possibility the business will need another cash infusion to get it to this stage. And even then, with the market in the doldrums, all you are buying is a weak DSV day rate recovery story with no possibility to adding capacity in a world over-supplied with DSVs and diving companies. An EBITDA multiple based on 2 x DSVs would see a valuation that was a rounding error relative to the capital York have put into the business. All that beckons is a long drawn out fight with Boskalis who will only increase in strength every year…

On that note Boskalis look set to announce an alliance with Ocean Installer. In a practical sense I don’t get what this brings? Combining construction projects with DSVs from different companies is difficult: who pays if a pipe needs relaying and the DSV has to come back into the field for example? But the customers may like it and having a capped diving cost may appeal to Ocean Installer… it’s more control than most of their asset base at the moment.

Subea 7 and Technip just need to keep their new DSVs working. They are building schedule at c. £120k per day and peak bookings at c.£150k per day and are winning the little project work there is. Although even the large companies are having to take substantially more operational and balance sheet risk to do this. The Hurricane Energy project, where Technip are effectively building on credit and getting paid on oil delivery, highlights that what little marginal construction work there is in the North Sea will go to companies with real balance sheet and field development integration skills. I have real doubts about this business model I will discuss another day: the solution to a debt crisis is rarely more leverage to a different part of the value chain.

But services are clearly holding up better than owning vessels. The contrast between the supply companies and the contracting companies continues the longer the downturn for vessels continues. The  old economic adage that organisation has a value is true. Technip and Subsea 7, along with McDermott and Saipem, have not needed to restructure as many vessel companies have. The worst years of the downturn were met with project margins booked in the best year of the upturn giving them time to restructure, hand back chartered ships, and reduce costs to cope with a new environment. There has been a natural portfolio diversification benefit the smaller companies and supply operators simply haven’t had.

Subsea 7 for example is a very different business to 2014 (investor presentation):

Subsea 7 cost reductions.png

Staff costs down 60% and a very decent effort at reducing vessel costs despite declining utilisation (and despite reducing vessel commitments by 12 vessels):

Subsea 7 vessel utilisation.png

In the past people in susbea used to say they were in the “asset business”. Without assets you couldn’t get projects. And that was true then. Now the returns in subsesa will come from adding intellectual value rather than being long on boats, and that is a very different business. In the North Sea it will lead to a clean out of those businesses who effectively existed only as entities that were willing to risk going very long on specific assets. I count Reach, OI, and Bibby in that group. Historically the returns to their asset base, or access to it, vastly exceeded all other economic value-added for these companies. The Norwegians went long on chartered vessels, Bibby chartered and purchased them, but it doesn’t matter in the end because service returns for such generic assets as OI and Reach run are minimal and easily repliacted, and the returns on DSVs are economically negative due to oversupply in Bibby’s case. Rigid reel pipe, full field development, long term embedded flexlay contracts in Brazil, all these provide sufficient economic return to ensure long term survival (very high organisational and commitment value), and a return that will exceed the cost of capital in an upturn. But for the smaller companies there isn’t a realistic prospect of replicating this now their returns from commoditised tonnage have been so dramatically lowered.

Outside of diving Bibby, OI, and Reach all do exactly the same thing: they charter ships only when they win work, after having dumped a ton of money tendering, and bid the same(ish) solution against each other. Bibby are even using an (ex) core OI asset for a break-even decommissioning job. In the end, regardless of the rhetoric, the compete on price doing this and it is a business model with low margins because it has low barriers to entry (i.e. a lot of people can do it). Eventually in a declining or very slowly growing market that leads to zero economic margin. And as subsea has shown in Asia what eventually happens is someone takes too much contractual risk with a vessel and gets wiped out in a bad contract. This is how the North Sea will rebalance for the marginal providers of  offshore contracting supply without a major increase in demand. That is as close to a microeconomic law as you can get. They simply do not have the scale in a less munificent market to compete.

Goiung forward balance sheets, intellectual capital, visible market commitment and financial resources will all be as important as the asset base of a company. Services will be important in economic terms, they will provide a positive economic return going forward, but not all services, and not in a volume likely to outweigh historic investments in offshore assets. There is a far more credible consolidation story for offshore contracting than for offshore supply with a smaller relative asset base spread over a global service provision set to tilt to regional purchasing by E&P companies.

For the North Sea as whole, a market that provided disproportionate structural profits due to the environmental requirements of the asset base and regulatory requirements, there is also the slow but gradual realisation that the supply chain will have to exist in a vastly less munificent environment than before. Scale will clearly be important here. A market that has contracted in size terms like the North Sea just doesn’t need as many marginal service companies, or assets, and that is the sad fact of life.

Data versus insight…

An interesting report from EY Norway on the OFS sector in 2017. I’d have to say some of the data left me somewhat perplexed. I think they need to go back to the drawing board with this because they appear to have taken pure numerical data without looking to see if it even makes sense:

Subsea Top 5.png

I could almost let them have this because I think they are trying to show the activity of companies in Norway and the scale of their operations, but mixing an on onshore manufacturer of subsea production systems with offshore vessel delivery contractors seems to lose any insight in the data for me.

We then delve into the bizarre in “offshore logistics”:

Top 5 logistics.png

In case no one noticed, because it isn’t mentioned in the accompanying commentary at all, the top 3 companies run helicopters and the bottom 2 vessels? An explanation of why they have been grouped together would be good? I find it very unlikely the industrial dynamics of these two services are similar? And clearly given the data the financial performance of the  helicopter companies is distorting the vessel data?

And then this the “production” segment, which includes:

companies active in production, supporting equipment and services, such as floating production storage and off loading (FPSO) units, facility management, waste management, communication and production operations.

Why? FPSOs and waste management? Communications? How on earth did someone think that was a logical mix of companies? If you are using an SIC coding system then you need to make modifications here because the results are not relevant:

Top 5 production.png

Last time I looked Inmarsat supplied phone services? APL is an intermodal freight company? How on earth would their margin and revenue development, unless you could separate out the OFS component, be relevant?

A basic lesson of data analysis is to check the output makes sense and if not re-think. Either EY need to change their categories here, or change the analysis, because the output is meaningless (even if some of the commentary is okay).

Increased production in the North Sea…

A good article in the FT this weekend on the resurgence in production in the North Sea and the influence of some of the private equity backed companies (behind a paywall):

Production from the North Sea has bucked the long-term decline and energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie expects it to average 1.9m barrels of oil equivalent (boe) a day in 2018, its highest since 2010. This is, in part, driven by new developments such as Catcher, as well as Dana Petroleum’s Western Isles and EnQuest’s Kraken.

The rise “highlights that while the UK North Sea is in decline, these smaller independents and new private equity players are helping drive a bit of a renaissance,” said Neivan Boroujerdi, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

Chrysaor’s Mr Kirk said: “If someone had said then [during the downturn] that UK production from the North Sea would increase for three straight years or more, nobody would have believed them. That kind of thing changes people’s perceptions.”

But the article misses a few things important for the contracting community (and context in general):

  1. As the graph above from Oil and Gas UK makes clear this increased production is the result of historic investment in 2012-2015 and has absolutely nothing to do with these new entrants who were not part of the decision making entities that drove this production increase
  2. There has been a massive drop in Capex that will eventually reduce production
  3. Enquest and Premier, two major “small producers”, are locked out of the capital markets until their debt burdens reduce transformationally and have no plans for significant North Sea developments. Kraken and Catcher simply will not be repeated by smaller players without a massive change in funding conditions for small E&P companies
  4. The FT highlights the reduced cost of per barrel production and unit development costs. These have been at the economic cost to a large amount of equity in the supply chain and really show no short-term likelihood of changing
  5. The new private equity backed companies (and I especially include Ineos in this) are ruthless about supply chain costs. This is healthy for the long-term future of the basis but brutal for those long on assets in an over supplied market

Look, I am as happy about an increase in production as anyone, and clearly it is good economic news, but there is a degree of unreality creeping into this: CapEx spending has dropped by an order of magnitude and is not likely to rebound to anything like it’s previous levels in the next few years. Some firms will do well as the amount of work increases, but for anyone long on vessels or rigs that just isn’t likely to be the case.

Subsea work takes years to work through from initial discovery and field approval decisions, and as this data point from Oil and Gas UK makes clear the outlook in this respect is poor:

UKOG Field approvals.png

One Penguin doesn’t make a summer.