E&P versus offshore strategy plans… Not what you think?

Last week ExxonMobil released its analyst day presentation. It has a number of interesting things, but I wanted to highlight the fact that although it feels like E&P companies are back making real money, which they are, it may not feel like that to them. And as this article on Bloomberg makes clear investors in these companies want management to keep the lid on CapEx, which is one of the cash flows they really can control:

Exxon argues it has a formidable set of projects, pointing to such goodies as offshore Guyana discoveries, as well as the Permian basin. The problem is that investors have seen this story before, and quite recently, with the oil majors. And while Exxon’s reputation might once have enabled it to simply be trusted to deliver, that is no longer the case.

Here is a Bloomberg shot showing you what would have happened had you purchased 1000 ExxonMobil shares in 2013 and sold at the end of 2017 (about when plans were probably being agreed):


You were down fractionally in the share price and up overall marginally only after reinvesting dividends. So the Directors are probably not coming under massive pressure to throw more money at production when 4 years after the price slump the owners of the ExxonMobil are trading below their 2013 entry cost (or fund market value). This is very oversimplified, but I make the point only because it has become an article of faith amongst some in the offshore space that E&P companies are verging on the irrational by not increasing offshore project spend when it is far from clear they are, or that they face pressure to do so.

Which is why you end up with a slide like this from a company that has just made some huge offshore discoveries:

Disciplined value.png

ExxonMobil focuses on Brazil and Guyana in terms of offshore development. I think the larger E&P companies switching to larger developments only offshore continues to mark a real shift in the market because the smaller companies just don’t have access to the development funding they used to for smaller fields.

I thought this was interesting:

XOM Guyana.png

Versus shale:

XOM tight oit.png

ExxonMobil appears to be implying shale has a lower breakeven pricing at $35 to get to a great than 10% return? And as always productivity is increasing:

XOM productivity increase.png

The other thing that struck me about the presentation was just how many investment opportunities management have across the portfolio, and they are increasing CapEx across the forecast period from USD 24bn to USD 30bn, but it is clear that downstream and other activities are also important. Investors want growth but maybe some at lower volatility that a fluctuating oil price offers, and as this graph shows ExxonMobil will make money at USD 60 ppb oil, but not ridiculous amounts.

XOM Fundamental.png

Obviously XOM is a leveraged bet on the price of oil increasing. But at the moment the upstream managers probably feel they have a free option on the excess capacity in the offshore supply chain that means any rapid price increases can be met with shale and a slower commissioning pace of offshore fields. Also these larger discoveries allow greater flexibility to speed up infield developments at a lower cost and asset utilisation.

Bourbon Offshore recently released it’s Bourbon in Motion strategy which to my mind is one of the most honest assessments of the scale of the challenge facing offshore companies I have seen. I think Bourbon are well worth listening to because I cannot think of another company that has played the capital markets as well as they have in financing their operations. Here in 3 simple points is the problem every offshore company faces:

3 issues.png

And it was really nice to see it wasn’t followed by a slide which said “but we are doing lots of tendering”.

A little history is required: In 2008  Bourbon had €1.3bn in debt and was focusing almost exclusively offshore. The annual report for that year described the returns in the offshore business as “exceptional”, and like all good companies it took this as a price signal to invest and grow the business further. Bourbon did this, because as the financing market was so flush it could borrow a lot of money, by 2013 debt had increased by €1bn to reach €2.2bn and the Directors were so confident about the business they proposed a 34% increase in the dividend.

In 2013 and 2014, taking advantge of the exceptional sentiment in the market Bourbon sold, and then leased back, vessels worth €1.65bn to Standard Chartered and ICBC which also allowed them to write up the value of the rest of the fleet by €900m in value. It’s hard to overstate how good the timing of this transaction was, timed literally to perfection, as the vessel market peaked in value they got two banks to pay not only top dollar for the assets but lease them back at less than 11% per annum. I doubt if sold on the open market here these now commodity vessels would fetch a third of that.

I am not implying Bourbon knew this would happen, what I am saying is they worked out that perhaps this was as good as it was going to get in the industry and they should bank what they could and take some (more) money off the table for their shareholders. As a management team it made them look very smart.

So when Bourbon tell you things are grim I think it comes with a degree of credibility few can match. Particularly when backed by some solid data:

The worst crisis ever

Which we all know by now. As I have said here repeatedly understanding that CapEx expenditure is what drives utilisation at the margin, and therefore overall fleet profitability, is crucial. And the reason I used ExxonMobil above was to show that this CapEx number, which I call “The Demand Fairy”, is unlikely to miraculously change in the short-term.

Offshore will still be an important part of the energy mix, but the growth of shale, as the left hand graph below makes clear, is having a huge impact on vessel utilisation and therefore industry profitability:

Bourbon Offshore production.png

The region reserved for shale is an area 3 or 4 years ago most people investing in offshore would have believed their assets would be servicing. And when you rely on 75-80% utilisation just to break even that in effect changes the whole economics of the industry, because if it knocks even 10% utilisation back across the fleet everyone is struggling to break even on their assets.

The right hand graph shows the enormous drop in CapEx. The fact that more projects are being sanctioned but the spend is lower just highlights what company results are showing: the volume of work has increased slightly this year but the value being paid for it has not (or reduced in some cases). This is likely to be a structural feature of the industry going forward that previous margin levels will simply not recover.

Like everyone else Bourbon is making a play to drive down the cost of operation of its commodity assets and add more value to the value of its subsea assets through moving up the value chain. Across the industry an entire species of contractor that used to make a good living by supporting larger contractors now aims to do more projects directly with E&P companies. Bourbon, like others, will likely win some market share, but they will do this by competing on price and driving industry margins down overall. For Bourbon it will still feel like more revenue than running the vessel alone, and in the long run it maybe, but grow to big and the larger contractors will be unlikely to charter your vessels. That slow increase in the blue bar on the graph is a result of all this extra capacity coming to market on the contractor side and why good Bus Dev staff in the industry are still remarkably employable.

It’s a post for another day the problem for offshore demand in shallow water, where projects could be done by flexibles and a vessel-of-opportunity, is that the smaller companies who used to do these projects simply have no access to the capital markets. Capital markets prefer smaller projects to be shale-based now where the cash-flow cycle is shorter. Think of the last time an Ithaca Athena development was commissioned on the UKCS?

Obviously the E&P companies are doing better than the offshore supply chain, the point is that they are not doing so much better that things are likely to change immediately. Bourbon seems to realise the future may look a lot like the present on the demand side and adjusting its business model accordingly.

(Hat-tip: SE).


Rigs and vessels… traders become operators…

Yet again another great commentary from Bassoe on the Borr acquisition of Paragon. I like this bit:

In the beginning, some may have considered Borr to be an asset play with no intention of becoming a long-term, established contractor.  The company could stack its rigs efficiently, wait for a rise in rig values, and sell everything for a profit.  In and out.

As time went on, Borr continued adding assets.   And although jackup values rose (primarily as a result of Borr’s transactions), the prospect of Borr selling off rigs at higher prices faded as they eventually became too big for any of the established drilling contractors to acquire them.

Whether this was the plan the from the beginning or something that just happened over time, the quick sale and profit option became less tenable.   So what could have started as a pure asset-flipping maneuver turned into a deliberate quest to become a fully-fledged drilling contractor. [Emphasis added.]

That has happened to a lot of people in the industry. Standard Drilling now aim for medium term capital appreciation, which is a significant change in their original position. The Nor bondholders had to sell out to an operational company in less than a year after their 2016 capital raise. York can’t really believe the Bibby DSVs or their Rever Offshore assets will ever appreciate? Will the Boa Deep C and Sub C ever return to active service? What on earth will someone pay for the Lewek Constellation? etc…

Without some fundamental change in the demand side of the market the asset recovery story should really be dead-and-buried now under a welter of evidence and transactions. You need to be long delivery capability and short assets to profit from “The New Offshore”. Backlog, liquidity, and capability. Everything else is noise.

The fallacy of composition and offshore equilibrium…

There is a really eloquent quote from the Hornbeck conference call that I didn’t want to get lost in my other post (courtesy of Seeking Alpha):

James Harp (CFO, Hornbeck Offshore):

The recent rise in commodity prices has led to a generally positive sentiment for the broader oilfield service industry including the offshore sector. But as Todd said we see little that leads us to believe that deep and ultradeepwater exploration will see a sharp rebound in activity in the immediate near-term.

While of course we are encouraged by equity analysts and larger oilfield service companies calling the bottom on this offshore cycle and it is certainly nice to hear major oil companies announcing more deepwater discoveries, FIDs, and FEED studies in our hemisphere. We are still a long way from reaching OSV market equilibrium. There is always a lag effect from when these types of macro sound bites actually result in increased demand for marine transportation and subsea services.

Investment research should be forward looking (my thoughts here), so it’s no surprise there might be a valuation gap between the current price and when cash flows into a company, but it is also true there have been a number of people claiming a market recovery when it doesn’t seem to be reflected in how owners feel? Both might be right: it is a recovery but off a low base and this recovery is miles away from an economic equilibrium. Also some sectors will do well, and others less so, this certainly won’t be a broad recovery.

Everytime a new offshore project, especially a major one, is announced people seem to try and use it to illustrate a turning point in the cycle, despite the fact that the macro numbers are clear: investment is way down from 2014 and the number of working rigs/ jackups etc is so low that anything other than a slow recovery is unlikely. This is the fallacy of composition: inferring the whole is true based on a small part of it being true.

Rystad on the future of offshore NW Europe…

Really good article and graph from Rystad Energy on the future of NW Europe and the size of reserves and output of the region but highlighting the challenges to production through a lack of exploration activity. It is very hard to disagree with this conclusion:

Northwest Europe, as one of the leading offshore regions globally and with OECD exposure, should therefore expect to see continued capital and resource allocation as along as the projects are competitive. Given the wide array of commercially very robust projects in the region, the expectations are towards a new development boom. However, poor exploration results over the last four years have not filled the project portfolio, potentially creating declining activity past 2020. [Emphasis added].

Rystad make a good point about resource availability and is something I have mentioned here under the #shalenarrative. E&P companies don’t always make capital allocation decisions on a strictly rational basis. The one area I think Rystad could help clarify (given their database) it looks intuitively to me like the bigger E&P companies are divesting smaller offshore areas in favour of larger projects. Statoil announced an increased stake in Roncador (Brazil) today and all the West of Shetland work is harsh environment/ high capex/high flow rate investments.

As an example Subsea 7/ Aker Solutions have won the Skogul tie-back to North Alvheim. These are large contracts, technically complex (pipe-in-pipe) with umbilicals, risers etc. Again it highlights to me that the project work that is going ahead favours larger contractors. In this case case the Aker BP/Aker solutions link was vital: but that is the point that all are large companies and Aker has been actively continuing exploratory and production drilling. It is the smaller E&P companies who have pulled this work back disproportionately.  Those who think there will be a linear increase in offshore work with a rise in the oil price I fear will be disappointed.


Brazil, The New Offshore, and Contractor Profitability…

“My salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood, To say as I said then!”

Cleopatra – Act 1, Anthony and Cleopatra

Bassoe Offshore had a very good and insightful article on Brazil this week. The key thing for me was the sheer drop in volume of rigs working in Brazil:

As we noted earlier this year, the number of drilling rigs in Brazil has gone from over 80 to under 30 during the past five years.  Currently, 26 rigs are on contract (all for Petrobras), but only about 20 are on full dayrate and drilling due to Petrobras’ reduced effective demand.  By the end of 2018 – assuming no new contracts or contract extensions – Petrobras will have 14 rigs working for them.  By 2021, this number becomes three. 

We estimate that Petrobras has a minimum requirement of around 20 rigs to sustain production through 2021.

Rigs are obviously the leading indicator of future subsea work and it’s worth putting some context on this as Bassoe Offshore did in April:

If you were an offshore rig owner back in 2010–2014, Brazil was the land of opportunity.  Petrobras offered long term contracts with solid dayrates.  Everyone wanted to be there.  Rigs were built; demand seemed insatiable. 

Petrobras even initiated Sete Brazil, a company with plans to build 29 Brazilian-content, deepwater semisubs and drillships, which was slated to be Brazil’s path to global prominence in rig construction and a boost to the country’s industry and economy.

And in order to keep production going from all the well work these rigs would be doing Petrobras went just as long on flexlay capacity. The strategy here was slightly different: Petrobras choose the two most capable subsea contractors in the world and signed them up for a vast investment campaign to buy specialist Pipe-Lay Support Vessels (PLSVs) and contract them for a period of c. 30% of their expected economic life. Technip, who always seem to call these things correctly, decided to share the risk 50/50 with DOF Subsea for four vessels, while Subsea 7 decided to build and own its three vessels.

There is a constant commentary about how high the margins are on these contracts, and it is true that during the firm period they look good, outstanding even, but there is a very real risk that some of these vessels will be re-delivered. A company that had 80 rigs working and went long on flex-lay capability with 7 vessels is unlikely to need that number in the future when it has c. 20 rigs working. For a whole pile of reasons the drop in demand is unlikely to be linear, but you only need to be directionally correct here to understand the scale of the issue.

Brazil also has proper emerging market risk characteristics in it’s local cabotage regulations that favour local tonnage as Subsea 7 found out this year when the Seven Mar had its charter terminated early,effectively for convenience, and therefore had to reduce backlog by USD 106m. So clearly the economic reason you get a good margin is because there is actually a fair bit of risk in building such a specific asset for such a unique (and having worked on a Petrobras contract I use the word in its most expressive sense) customer: the downside here is in 7 years you get a ship back quayside in Brazil that costs USD 15k per day to run and is only good for laying pipe in 3000m of water. All of a sudden that healthy margin for the last seven years doesn’t look quite so attractive, and this is a very real possibility here for at least 3 or 4 of these vessels.

This fact clearly had a massive impact of the ability of DOF Subsea to get an IPO away and is one of a number of huge strategic issues DOF Subsea has. The DOF Subsea investors were hoping to remove some of the risk of vessel redelivery, and the price the investors were offering to do this just wasn’t enough, or in sufficient volume, for a deal to be agreed. Given the binary nature of the payoff involved it is no surprise a mid-point on the two positons could not be reached: Because a downside scenario is that Petrobras halves the number of contract PLSVs it wants and Subsea 7 comes in with a low bid and the Technip/DOF Susbea JV has its entire fleet redelivered. It may not be likely but it cannot be ruled out either.

The greater IOC involvement in Brazil may also change what has been one of the great comparative anomolies of the market: the complete lack of a spot market (which made sense when Petrobras was the only customer). Should PB and the IOCs decide to bid flexlay work on a project-by-project basis the revenues for the purpose built PLSVs will be much less secure and the valuation assigned to them will be significantly lower to reflect this income volatility. These investments rightly required a very healthy margin.

I always find it amusing to read statements like “the investors think this is an even better investment” and then read the latest accounts and come across comments like this:

In the 2nd quarter the Group has seen improvement in both numbers and activity compared to 1st quarter, however the general market conditions within our industry are challenging, especially in the Atlantic region and the North America region…

During the quarter, the Group has seen a low utilisation of the vessels Skandi Constructor, Skandi Neptune, Skandi Achiever and the JV vessel Skandi Niteroi… In the Subsea/IMR project segment the idle time between projects has increased, however the Group saw an increased project activity toward the end of the quarter.

Ah… the famous greenshots of recovery… at the end of every quarter everyone always sees activity picking up… not quite enough to make it into the current results… but jam tomorrow…

Which led to these numbers:

DOF Subsea Q217

So you might believe it’s a “real out performer”, but in a financial sense it’s a very hard case to make. All the key indicators are going South.

DOF Subsea is an extremely hard investment case to make (to highlight just the three most obvious examples):

  1. Is it a contractor or a contractors’ contractor? A falling out with FMC Technip would devastate the business yet it is hard to see where the clear division of capabilities and competencies at the lower end between the two is? Are DOF Subsea really going to put the Achiever to work against the Technip North Sea DSVs? Even if you really believe they will do this how many jobs would they have to win off Technip before Mons got a call asking what was going on?
  2. The pay-off from the Brazil PLSV project is highly uncertain but it is almost certain that the current margins will drop from their current levels
  3. DOF Subsea has all the costs of being an international EPIC contractor with none of the associated scale benefits. The scale benefits of being international require large diameter pipelay and its associated margins, a move into this area is financially impossible given their current constraints and would clearly precipitate a major ruction with FMC Technip

I think DOF Subsea is just the wrong size to compete as a global contractor and I mark it as likely to underperform significantly in the future. I see a world where FMC Technip, Subsea 7, McDermott, and maybe Saipem, become almost unassailable as the profitable global SURF contractors for mid-sized field development up. Each with a very strong base in one geographic region, with an asset base that can trade internationally enough to gain scale economies from other international operations, and with the balance sheets to invest in capabilities that will standardise and drive SURF costs down. DOF Subsea, despite having a lot of nice ships and clever people, is by an order of magnitude behind these companies.

These Tier 1 contractors will make disproportionate margins to the rest of the supply chain where overcapacity is rampant and balance sheets are weak. These Tier 1 contractors will need to own only core enabling assets and simply contract in all commodity tonnage, which will remain oversupplied for years. Tier 1 margins will improve as they need proportionately less CapEx, or operational leverage, now the OSV fleet has more options. It is not all salad days as apart from MDR the Tier 1’s have some issues from the boom years, but on a project level, for larger SURF work, they are creating a very strong competitive position. You will able to have a strong regional presence/competitors, but the gap between the few global SURF contractors and the “also rans” is going to become very wide indeed as backlog declines going into 2018.

Expect DOF Subsea to remain privately held for a good while longer if the investors really believe it’s undergoing a current period of out-performance that no one else is clever enough to see.

“Short-cycle production” could be about to get an economic test…

The dots clearly show that oil prices and oil production are uncorrelated…

Caldara, Dario, Michele Cavallo, and Matteo Iacoviello

Board of Governers of the Federal Reserve System, 2016

The number of US oil rigs went down by 5 last week to 744 rigs, while the number of US gas rigs increased by 4 to 190 rigs. In terms of the large basins, the Permian rig count increased by 6 to 386 rigs, while both the Eagle Ford and Bakken rig counts declined by 3 each to 68 and 49 rigs respectively. 

Baker Hughes Rig Count, Sep 25, 2017


The multi-billion dollar question is: Can shale handle an increse in demand? Closely related: Is shale in a boom that is unsustainable and not generating sufficient cash to reward investors for the massive risk they have taken? Because if the latter is correct the former must be answered in the negative. The above quote is slightly mischevious and merely highlights economic research that supply factors have historically had a far bigger impact on the oil market than demand factors  (whether this is true going forward is not for today).

The NY Fed today reports that it is supply shortages now that are driving the price (and I have no idea about the construction of the model but the reduction in the residual leads me to believe it is broadly accurate), so this is a supply driven event not a demand driven event:

Oil Price Decomp 25 Sep 2017.png

If, as Spencer Dale argues (speech here), we are in the midst of a technical revolution then this is what we would expect. Hostoric levels of inventories should come down because supply is more flexible, these short-term kinks in demand caused by natural or geopolitical events should merely spur an increase in the rig count or a change in OPEC quotas. Other senior BP staff today were on message:

“Rebalancing is already on the way,” Janet Kong, Eastern Hemisphere Chief Executive Officer of integrated supply and trading at BP, said in an interview in Singapore. But OPEC needs “definitely to cut beyond the first quarter [2018]” to bring inventories down and back to historically normal levels, she said…

“If they extend the cuts, yes it’s possible” to achieve $60 a barrel next year, she said. “But it’s hard for me to see that prices will be sustainably higher,” she added.

Or is Permania simply the result of the Federal Reserve flooding the market with liquidity that is allowing an unsustainable production methodology to continue unabated storing up yet another boom and bust cycle? Bloomberg this week published this article on Permania, where the incipient signs of a bubble are showing in labour and infrastructure shortages and the outrageous cost overruns:

Experienced workers are harder and harder to find, and training newbies adds to expenses. The quality of work can suffer, too, erasing efficiency gains. Pruett said Elevation Resources recently had a fracking job that was supposed to take seven days but lasted nine because unschooled roughnecks caused some equipment malfunctions.

By this point, “we’ve given up all of our profit margin,” he said, referring to the industry. “We’re over-capitalized, we’re over-drilling and, if prices don’t rise, we might be facing a double dip in drilling.”

If I was being cynical about offshore production I would note that he was two days over with a rig crew while in the same calender week Seadrill and Oceanrig had collectively disposed of billions of investment capital and will still have the inventory for years. This guy is literally two days out of forecast and he is worried about being over-capitalized (and also that wiped his profit margin? Hardly redolent of a boom?) Offshore drilling companies are like 10 years and 100 rigs out of kilter… Anyway moving swiftly on…

Bloomberg also published this opinion on Anadarko noting:

Late on Wednesday, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which closed at $44.81 a share, announced plans to buy back up to $2.5 billion of its stock; which is interesting, because almost exactly a year ago, it sold about $2 billion of new stock — at $54.50 apiece.

(That’s pretty clever, they sold stock at $54.5 and are buying it back at $44.8, like Glencore never buy off these people when they are selling, at heart they are traders. More importantly most research suggest companies nearly always overpay when buying stock back so if the oil price keeps creeping up they are going to look very smart indeed.)

But the real point of the story is that capital is slowing up to the E&P sector, well equity anyway no mention of high-yield:

Equity US E&P Sep 2017

Meaning that maybe people are getting sick of being promised “jam tomorrow”. However I can’t help contrasting this with productivity data, Rystad on Friday produced this:

Rystad Shale Improvement Sep 17

So despite the anecdotal evidence on cost increases in the first Bloomberg article the productivity trend is all one way.  And the stats seem clear that a large part of deepwater is at a structural cost disadvantage to shale:

ANZ cost structure 2017

Frac sand used to be c.50% of the consummables of shale, but surprise:

Average sand volumes for each foot of a well drilled fell slightly last quarter for the first time in a year, said exploration and production consultancy Rystad Energy. Volumes are expected to drop a further 2.5 percent per foot in the current quarter over last, Rystad forecast…

Companies including Unimin Corp, U.S. Silica Holdings Inc (SLCA.N), and Hi Crush Partners LP (HCLP.N) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new mines to address an expected increase in demand.

On Thursday, supplier Smart Sand SND.O reported it shipped less frack sand in the second quarter than it did in the first. Rival Fairmount Santrol Holdings Inc (FMSA.N) forecast flat to slightly higher volumes this quarter over last.

In the last six weeks, shares of U.S. Silica and Hi Crush are both off about 30 percent. Smart Sand is off about 43 percent since June 30…

Some shale producers add chemical diverters, compounds that spread the slurry evenly in a well, and can reduce the amount of sand required. Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) and Continental Resources Inc (CLR.N) are reducing the distance between fractures to boost oil production. The tighter spacing allows them to extract more crude with less sand.

Technological innovation and scale: Less sand used and increased investment going on that will reduce the unit costs of sand for E&P producers. This is the sort of production that brought you the Model T in the first place and the American economy excels at. Bet against if you want: just remember the widowmaker trade.

Shale is a mass production technique: eventually it will push the cost of production down as it refines the processes associated with it. To be competitive offshore must emulate these constantly increasing cost efficiencies. I have said before that shale won’t be the death of offshore but it will make a new offshore: a bifurcation between more efficient fields, low lift costs, and economies of scale in production that make the “one-off” nature of the infratsructure cost efficient, and smaller, short-cycle E&P of shale (and some onshore conventional).

Offshore is going to be here for a long time, it is simply too important in volume terms not to be. But what a price increase is not going to see is a vast increase in the sanctioning of new offshore projects in the short-term. These will be gradual and provide a strong base of supply, as there longer investment cycle represents, while kinks in short-term demand will be pushed towards short cycle production. Backlog, or lack thereof, remains the single biggest threat to all offshore contractors.

Or this thesis is wrong and I, and to be fair people far cleverer (and more credible) than me, are spectacularly wrong, and a new boom for offshore awaits in the not too distant future…

DSV valuations in an uncertain world: Love isn’t all you need… Credible commitment is more important…

“Residual valuation in shipping and offshore scares the shit out of me”

Investment Banker in a recent conversation


“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


The FT recently published this Short View about how the bottom may have been reached for rig companies and that there may be upside from here. The first thing I noted was how high rig utilisation was, the OSV fleet would kill for that level, and yet still the fleet is struggling to maintain profitability (graph not in the electronic edition but currently about 65%). The degree of operational leverage is a sign of how broken the risk model is for the offshore sector as a whole. A correction will be needed going forward for new investment in kit going forward and the obvious point to meet is in contract length. Banks simply are not going to lend $500m on a rig that will be going on a three year contract. Multi- operator, longer-term, contracts will be the norm to get to 7G rigs I suspect (no one needs to make a 6G rig ever again I suspect). The article states:

No wonder. Daily rental rates for even the most sophisticated deepwater rigs have tumbled 70 per cent, back to prices not seen since 2004. Miserly capital spending by the major oil companies, down more than half to $40bn in the two years to 2016, has not helped. Adding to this lack of investment from its customers is a bubble of new builds, which is only slowly deflating.

Understandably, the market is showing little faith in the underlying value of these rig operators. US and Norwegian operators trade at just 20 per cent of their stated book values. The market value of US-listed Atwood Oceanics suggests its rigs are worth no more than its constituent steel, according to Fearnley Securities.

What the article doesn’t make clear, but every OSV investor understands, is that in order to access more than the value of the steel rigs and OSVs have very high running costs. The market is making a logical discount because if you cannot fund the OpEx until operating it above cash break even or a sale then steel is all you will get: it’s the liquidity discount to a solvency problem. That tension between future realisable value and the option value/cost of getting there is at the core of current valuation problems.

The OSV fleet is struggling with utilisation levels that are well under 50% for most asset classes and even some relatively new vessels (Seven Navica) are so unsellable (to E&P customers I don’t think Subsea 7 is a seller of the asset) they have been laid-up.  From a valuation perspective nothing intrigues me more than the North Sea DSV fleet: The global fleet is limited to between 18-24 vessels, depending on how your criteria, and with a limited number companies who can utilise the vessels, they provide a near perfect natural experiment for asset prices in an illiquid market.

North Sea class DSVs need to be valued from an Asset Specific perspective: in economic terms this means the value of the asset declines significantly when the DSV leaves the North Sea region. Economists define this risk as “Hold Up” risk. In both the BOHL and Harkand/Nor case this risk was passed to bondholders, owners of fixed debt obligations with no managerial involvement in the business and few contractual obligations as to how the business was run.

The question, as both companies face fundraising challenges, is what are the DSVs worth? Is there an “price” for the asset unique from the structure that allows it to operate?

In the last BOHL accounts (30 June 2017) the value of the Polaris and Sapphire is £74m. I am sure there is a reputable broker who has given them this number, on a willing buyer/ willing seller basis. The problem of course is that in a distress situation, and when you are going through cash at c.£1m per week and you have less than £7m left it is a distress capital raise, what is a willing seller? No one I know in the shipbroking community really believes they could get £74m for those vessels and indeed if they could they bondholders should jump at the chance of a near 40% recovery of par. A fire-sale would bring a figure a quantum below this.

Sapphire is the harder of the two assets to value: the vessel is in lay-up, has worked less than 20 days this year, and despite being the best DSV in the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t allowed BOHL to develop meaningful market share (which is why the Nor Da Vinci going to Trinidad needs to be kept in context). Let’s assume that 1/3 of the £74m is the Sapphire… How do you justify £24m for a vessel that cannot even earn its OpEx and indeed has so little work the best option is warm-stack? The running costs on these sort of vessels is close to £10k per day normally, over 10% of the capital value of the asset not including a dry dock allowance etc? Moving the vessel back to the North Sea would cost $500k including fuel.  The only answer is potential future residual value. If BOHL really believed the asset was worth £24m they should have approached the bondholders and agreed a proportionate writedown and sold the asset… but I think everyone knows that the asset is essentially unsellable in the current market, and certainly for nowhere near the number book value implies. Vard, Keppel, and China Merchants certainly do… The only recent DSV sale was the Swiber Atlantis that had a broker valuation of USD 40-44m in 2014 and went for c. USD 10m to NPCC and that was not an anomaly on recent transaction multiples. If the Sapphire isn’t purchased as part of a broader asset purchase she may not return to the North Sea and her value is extremely uncertain – see how little work the Swordfish has had.

Polaris has a different, but related, valuation problem. In order to access the North Sea day rate that would make the vessel worth say a £50m valuation you need a certain amount of infrastructure and that costs at c.£5-8m per annum (c.£14k -22k per day), and that is way above the margin one of two DSVs is making yet you are exposed to the running costs of £10k per day. Utilisation for the BOHL fleet has been between 29%-46% this year and the market is primarily spot with little forward commitment from the customer base. So an investor is being asked to go long on a £50m asset, with high OpEx and infrastructure requirements, and no backlog and a market upturn needed as well? In order to invest in a proposition like that you normally need increasing returns to scale not decreasing returns that a depreciable asset offers you.

This link between the asset specificity of DSV and the complementary nature of the infrastructure required to support it is the core valuation of these assets. Ignoring the costs of the support infrastructure from the ability of the asset to generate the work is like doing a DCF valuation of a company and then forgetting to subtract the debt obligation from the implied equity value: without the ability to trade in the North Sea the asset must compete in the rest-of-the-world market, and apart from a bigger crane and deck-space the vessels have no advantage.

It is this inability to see this, and refusal to accept that because of this there is no spot market for North Sea class DSVs, that has led to the Nor position in my humble opinion. The shareholders of the vessels are caught in the irreconcilable position of wanting the vessels to be valued at a “North Sea Price”, but unable or unwilling to commit to the expenditure to make this credible. It would of course be economic madness to do so, but it’s just as mad to pretend that without doing so the values might revert to the historically implied levels of depreciated book value.

The Nor owners issued a prospectus as part of the capital raising in Nov 2016 and made clear the running costs of the vessels were c. USD 370k per month per vessel for crewing and c. USD 90k per month for SAT system maintenance. In their last accounts they claimed the vessels value at c. USD 60m each. Given Nor raised USD 15m in Nov last year, and expected to have one vessel on a 365 contract ay US 15k per day by March, they are so far behind this they cannot catch-up at current market rates.

Again, these vessels, even at the book values registered, require more than 10% of their capital value annually just to keep the option alive of capturing that value. That is a very expensive option when the payoff is so uncertain. If you are out on your assumption of the final sale value by 10% then you have wasted an entire year’s option premium and on a discounted basis hugely diluted your potential returns (i.e. this is very risky). Supposedly 25 year assets you spend more than 2.5x their asset values to keep the residual value option alive.

Three factors are crucial for the valuation of these assets:

  • The gap between the present earning potential and the possible future value is speculation. You can craft an extremely complicated investment thesis but it’s just a hypothesis. The “sellers” of these assets, unsurprisingly, believe they hold something of great future value the market simply doesn’t recognise at the moment. Sometimes this goes right, as it did for John Paulson in the subprime mortgage market (in this case a short position obviously) and other times it didn’t as owners of Mississippi Company shares found to their discomfort. We are back to the “Greater Fool Theory” of DSV valuation.One share.png
  • Debt: In the good old days you could finance these assets with debt so the equity check, certainly relative to the risk was small. In reality now, for all but the most blue-chip borrowers, bank loan books are closed for such specialist assets. And the problem is the blue-chip borrowers have (more than) enough DSVs. The Bibby and Nor DSVs are becoming old vessels: Polaris (1999) will never get a loan against it again I would venture and the Sapphire (2005) has the same problem. The Nor vessels are 2011 builds and are very close to the 8 year threshold of most shipping banks. As a general rule, like a house, if you can’t get a mortgage the vessel is worth less, substantially so in these cases because all diving companies are making less money so their ability to find equity for vessels is reduced. Banks and other lenders have worked out that the price volatility on these assets is huge and the only thing more unsellable that a new DSV is an old DSV. It will take a generation for internal risk models to reset.
  • You need a large amount of liquidity to signal that you have the commitment to see this through. At the moment neither Bibby or Nor have this. From easily obtainable public information any potential counterparty can see a far more rational strategy is to wait, the choice of substitutes is large and the problems of the seller greater than your potential upside.

Of course, the answer to liquidity concerns, as any central banker since Bagehot has realised, is to flood the market with liquidity. Bibby Line Group for example could remove their restrictions on the RCF and simply say they have approved it (quite why Barclays will agree to this arrangement is beyond me: the reputational risk for them foreclosing is huge). As the shareholder Bibby Line Group could tell the market what they are doing, in Mario Monti’s words, “whatever it takes”. Of course, Mario Monti can print “high powered money” which is not something Bibby Line Group can, and that credibility deficit is well understood by the market. A central bank cannot go bankrupt (and here) whereas a commitment from BLG to underwrite BOHL to the tune of £62m per annum would threaten the financial position of the parent.

I have a theory, untestable in a statistically significant sense but seemingly observable (e.g. Standard Drilling, the rig market in general), that excessive liquidity, especially among alternative asset managers and special situation funds, is destroying the price discovery mechanism in oil and gas (and probably other markets as well).  I accept that this maybe because I am excessively pessimistic, but when your entire gamble is on residual value in an oversupplied market, how can you not be? In offshore this is plain to see as the Nor buyers again work out how to value the assets for their second “super senior” or is that “super super senior” tranche, or however they plan to fund their ongoing operations. The Bibby question will have to be resolved imminently.

At some point potential investors will have the revolutionary notion that the assets should be valued under reasonable cash flow assumptions that reflect the huge increase in supply of the competitive asset base and lower demand volumes. Such a price is substantially lower than build cost, and therein lies the correction mechanism because new assets will not be built, in the North Sea DSV case for a considerable period of time. Both the Bibby and the Nor bondholders, possessors of theoretically fixed payment obligations secured on illiquid and specialised assets will be key to the market correction. Yes this value is likely to be substantially below implied book/depreciated value… but that is the price signal not to build any more! Economics is a brutal discipline as well as a dismal one (and clearly not one Chinese yards have encountered much).

How these existing assets are financed will provide an insight into the current market “price discovery” mechanism. For Nor the percentage of the asset effectively that the new cash demands, and the fixed rate of return for further liquidity, will highlight a degree of market pessimism or optimism over the future residual value. If you have to supply another USD 15m to keep the two vessels in the spot charter market for another 12 or 15 months how much asset exposure do you need to make it work? Will the Nor vessels really be worth $60m in a few years if you have to spend USD 7.5 per annum to realize that? What IRR do you require on the $7.5m to take that risk? Somewhere between the pessimism of poor historic utilisation and declining structural conditions and the inherent liquidity and optimism of the distressed debt investors lies a deal.

The Bibby valuation is more binary: either the company raises capital that sees the assets tied to the frameworks of their infrastructure, and implicit cross-subsidisation of both, or the assets are exposed to the pure vessel sale and purchase market. The latter scenario will see a brutal price discovery mechanism as industrial buyers alone will be the bidders I suspect.

Shipbroker valuations work well for liquid markets. The brokers have a very good knowledge of what buyers and sellers are willing to pay and I believe they are accurate. I have severe doubts for illiquid markets, particularly those erring down, that brokers, like rating agencies, have the right economic incentives to provide a broad enough range of the possibilities.

Although the question regarding the North Sea DSVs wasn’t rhetorical it is clear what I think: unless you are prepared to commit to the North Sea in a credible manner a North Sea DSV is worth only what it can earn in the rest-of-the-world with maybe a small option premium in case the market booms and the very long run nature of the supply curve. The longer this doesn’t happen the less that option is valued at and the more expensive it is to keep.


[P.S. Around Bishopsgate there is a theory circulating that Blogs can have a disproportionate impact on DSV values a theory only the most paranoid and delusional could subscribe to. I have therefore chosen to ignore this at the present time. The substance of the message is more important than the form or location of its delivery.]