A money creation theory of offshore asset recovery…

The reason we are less enthused by companies which rely on tangible assets such as buildings or manufacturing plants [Ed: or rigs/jackups/ships?] is that anyone with a big enough budget can easily replicate (and compete with) their business. Indeed, they are often able to become better than the original simply by installing the latest technology in their new factory. Banks are also quite keen to lend against the collateral of tangible assets under the often illusory view that this gives them greater security, meaning that such assets can also be financed easily with debt, or as we call it, ‘other people’s money’. Debt is provided to such companies both cheaply, and with seeming abandon at certain times in the economic cycle, with often perilous results.

Smithson Investment Trust, Owners Manual

High confidence tends to be associated with inspirational stories, stories about new business initiatives, tales of how others are getting rich…

Akerlof and Shiller, Animal Spirits

…the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animal spirits — of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

Keynes, Chap 2: The State of Long Term Expectations, in The General Theory

While quite ready to change my opinion, I have, at present, a strong conviction that these two economic maladies, the debt disease and the price-level disease (or dollar disease), are, in the great booms and depressions, more important causes than all others put together…

Some of the other and usually minor factors often derive some importance when combined with one or both of the two dominant factors.

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

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

Irving Fisher, The Debt Deflationary Theory of Great Depressions

… the modern debt-deflation process encompasses falling asset prices, debt repayment difficulties, a reluctance to lend, a financial crisis, the impact on the banks, and the inter-dependency of the financial system…

Wolfson, Cambridge Journal of Economics

Financial illiteracy is a recipe for debt, default and depression, whose effects appear to feedback on each another in a vicious spiral.

These individual costs are amplified when they are aggregated up to the macro level. How people’s expectations evolve – their degree of optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – is crucial for determining their individual decisions. It has long been recognised that these expectations can be shaped importantly by others’ expectations. For example, “popular narratives” can emerge which shape collective expectations among the public – optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – and which can then drive aggregate economic fluctuations…

At a macroeconomic level, the work of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller has looked at the popular narratives which emerge during periods of boom and bust.  Using words extracted from newspapers, they find the prevailing popular narratives about the economy have played a significant role in accounting for the heights of the peaks and depths of the troughs during macro-economic booms and busts. Public expectations, embedded in the stories they tell, are a key macro-economic driver.

Andrew Haldane, Bank of England, Folk Wisdom

Last week the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia gave a speech titled “Money – Born of Credit?”, in this speech he outlined an important, yet underappreciated fact, of modern economies: deposits in bank accounts are caused by loans. A lot of people think that by putting money in their bank account they are giving the bank the ability to make a loan, but actually in a systemic sense it is the other way around: the money in your account is the result of banks making loans that end up as deposits in your account. In case you think this is some bizarre, and wrong, economic tangent, the Bank of England has an explanatory article “Money creation in the modern economy” which states:

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The Chief Economist of Standard and Poor’s summed it up in this article:

Banks lend by simultaneously creating a loan asset and a deposit liability on their balance sheet. That is why it is called credit “creation”–credit is created literally out of thin air (or with the stroke of a keyboard). The loan is not created out of reserves. And the loan is not created out of deposits: Loans create deposits, not the other way around.

This ability of privately owned banks to have the power of money creation is not often discussed. To many economists, although generally not those working at banks, this is a privilege where the ability to ‘privatize the profits and socialise the risk, is most flagrant and should perhaps be regulated more. The ‘Exorbitant Privilege‘ of the private sector. There is significant evidence that financial and banking crises have indeed become more common since the move to deregulate the financial system and credit creation that became especially strong post the end of the Bretton Woods era (post 1973).

If you are still reading at this point you may be wondering where I am going with this? The answer is that the implications for an industry like offshore, an asset-backed industry where values were sustained by huge amounts of bank leverage, are important for understanding what a “recovery” will look like. The psychology and ‘animal spirits’ of the commercial banks is likely to matter more than any single factor in dictating when an asset price recovery will be. Given that the loan books are closed to all but tier 1 borrowers, and contracting overall in offshore sector exposure, this would appear to be some way off.

Part of “the boom” in offshore since 2000, barring a short and sharp downturn in 2008/09, was the increasing value of rigs and offshore support vessels, but important too was the willingness of banks to lend against 2P reserves (Reserve Based Lending). This was a pro-cyclical boom where because everyone believed the offshore assets and reserves were worth more than their book value banks were willing to lend significant amounts of money against them. There was a positive and logical narrative of a resource-contrained oil world to unlock the animal spirits, it wasn’t irrational per se. As these assets changed hands banks created deposits in company accounts, they literally created “money” out of thin air by believing that the assets were worth more than they were previously. It is no different to a housing boom, and the more money the banks pumped in, the more everyone believed their assets were worth more (as the deposits grew). Ergo a pro-cyclical credit boom combined with an oil price boom. The demand for oil, and its price, has recovered, and this will affect the amount of offshore work undertaken, but the negative effects of an asset price boom will take longer to recover.

Right now the banks aren’t creating any new money for the offshore sector, collectively they are actually destroying it. When banks refuse to lend on ships or rigs no deposits flow through the system. Money from outside the system stops flowing into the offshore sector from the banks. Values and transactions are supported by the economic earning potential of current assets and the amount of equity and debt raised externally by funds. None of these “creates” money as banks do. These funds are “inside” money.

As an example last week Noble purchased a jack-up from a yard in Indonesia and was granted a loan by the yard selling the unit (a Gusto unit pcitured above). A piece of paper was exchanged and credit was created for the $60m loan of the total ~$94m price. Neither firm has any more money than they had prior to signing the loan contract. Credit isn’t the same as money… had a bank been involved (simplistically) it would have credited the yard with $60m, created a debt of $60m for Noble (a debit), and created an asset for $60m on its balance sheet. This money would have flowed from outside the offshore industry. The total value of the transaction would have been the same but the economic consequences, particularly for the liquidity of the yard, would have been very different. It is safe to say the reason this didn’t happen is because no bank would lend the money under similar terms. Relief rather than animal spirits seems a more likely emotion for this transaction.

It is not just the offshore contracting companies but also the E&P companies that are suffering from reduced bank credit and this is affecting the number of projects they can execute (despite a rise in the oil price). Premier is currently raising funds for the Sealion project, as part of this Drilquip has been given the contract for significant parts of the subsea scope, and they have provided this on a credit basis. In past times Premier would simply have borrowed the money from a bank and paid Drilquip. Now Drilquip has an asset in how much credit it has extended Premier but in the hierarchy of money that is lower than the cash it would previously have had, and it has to wait for Premier to sell the oil to pay it, and take credit risk and oil price risk in the meantime. Vendor financing is not the panacea for offshore because unlike banks vendors can create credit, but not money, and these are two fundamentally different things. There is a financial limit to how many customer Drilquip can serve like this. Collectively this lowers the universe of potential projects for E&P companies, and therefore the growth of the industry, that can be achieved. Credit creation is essential for an industry to grow beyond its ability to generate funds internally.

Another good example is the Pacific Radiance restructuring. Here the proposed solution, that I am enormously sceptical of, is that a new investor comes in allows the banks to restructure their loan contracts/ assets such that they can get paid SGD 100m in cash immediately while writing down the size of the loan. The equity and funds coming in are funds from the existing stock of money supply, they are not additional liquidity created by a belief in underlying asset values and represented by a paper loan contract and a growth in the loan book of the bank. While the new funds are adding to the total stock of money available to the offshore industry the bank involved is taking nearly as much off the table and you can be sure they won’t be lending it back to the sector. And thus the money stock and capital of the industry is reduced. Asset values remain low and the pain counter-cyclical process continues.

When you see companies announcing asset impairments and net losses that flow through to retained earnings this is often merely accounting of the banks withdrawing money from the sector and the economic cost of the asset base not being in tune with the amount of money available to the industry as a whole. It is also seen in share price reductions as the assets will never pay their owners the cash flows previously forecast.

In a modern economy this is normally the transmission mechanism from a credit bubble to a subsequent economic collapse: the ability of private sector banks, and only banks because of the system can create “money”, to amplify asset prices and cause sectoral booms on the way up and reduce the money stock and asset valuations on the way down. Why this happens is a complex topic and cannot be tackled in a blog, but it has clearly happened in offshore. Just as it has happened in housing booms, mining booms, ad infinitum previously. The dynamics are well known and are accentuated in industries which have had a lot of leverage. Much work was undertaken following the depression of agricultural prices in the 1930s, a commodity like oil which fluctuated wildly but the tangible backing of land allowed banks to supply significant leverage to the sector. Irving Fisher, quoted above, was famous for predicting that the US stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau” in 1929,  but his understanding of debt dyamics from studying banking and the US dustbowl depression transformed our understanding of the role of credit and banking.

[This explanation crucially differentiates between inside-money and outside-money. I am making a distinction between money generated inside the offshore sector and outside. By inside money I mean E&P company from expenditure, credit created amongst firms in the industry, and retained earnings. Outside money is primarily bank credit and private equity and debt funds. But whereas private equity and debt funds must raise money from the existing money stock only bank created money raises the volume of money].

In offshore the credit dynamics have been combined with the highly cyclical oil industry and allows optimists to believe a “recovery” is just possible. But a recovery scenario that is credible needs to differentiate between an industrial recovery, driven by the amount of E&P projects commissioned, and an asset price recovery, which is essentially a monetary phenomenon.

A limited industrial recovery is underway. It is limited by the availability of bank credit and the huge debts built up in the previous boom by the E&P companies, and their insistence that shareholders need dividends that reflect the volatility risk of the oil and gas industry. It is also limited because of the significant market share US shale has taken from offshore. But the volume of offshore project work is increasing. This is positive for those service firms who had limited asset exposure, and particularly for the Tier 1 offshore contractors, as much of the work being undertaken is deepwater projects that are large in scope.

But an asset recovery is still a long way off. There are too many assets for the volume of work in the short-run and in the long run it will be very hard to get banks to advance meaningful volumes of credit to the industry. Companies can write loan contracts with each other that represent a value, but banks monetise that immediately by providing liquid funds and therefore raising the animal spirits in the industry, whereas shipyards lending money to drilling companies need them to generate the funds before they can get paid. The velocity and quantity of money within the industry become much smaller. Patience and animal spirits make poor bedfellows.

Bank risk models for a long time will highlight offshore as a) volatile, and b) risky given that a bad deal can see even the senior lenders wiped out completely. Like all of us banks fight the last crisis as they understand it best. Until banks start lending again the flow of funds into the offshore industry will mean the stock of assets that were created in more meaningful times are worth less. In a modern economy credit creation is the sign that animal spirits are returning because it raises the return to equity (and high yield) providers.

In the boom days leading up to 2014 money and credit were plentiful. The net result was a vast amount of money being “created” for the offshore sector and a lot of deposits being created in accounts by virtue of the loans banks were creating to companies in the offshore sector based on their asset value. Now the animal spirits are no more and a feeling of caution prevails. The amount of money entering the sector via higher oil prices and private equity and debt firms is much smaller than was previously created by the banking sector. Over time this should lead to a more rational industry structure… but a repeat f 2014 days is likely to be so far away that the market at least has forgotten it…

As The Great Man said:

We should not conclude from this that everything depends on waves of irrational psychology. On the contrary, the state of long-term expectation is often steady…[but]…We are merely reminding ourselves that human decisions affecting the future, whether personal or political or economic, cannot depend on strict mathematical expectation, since the basis for making such calculations does not exist; and that it is our innate urge to activity which makes the wheels go round, our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance.

Zombie offshore companies… “Kill the zombie…”

“I’ve long said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell. But it’s hard to see any good news in this.”

Frank Borman

“In a business selling a commodity-type product, it’s impossible to be a lot smarter than your dumbest competitor”.

Warren Buffet

The Bank for International Settlements defines a Zombie Company as a “firm whose interest bill exceeds earnings before interest and taxes”. The reason is obvious: a firm who is making less in profits than it is paying in interest is likely to be able to eke out an existence, but not generate sufficient profits to invest and grow and adapt to industry changes. A firm in such a position will create no economic value and merely exist while destroying profit margins for those also remaining in the industry.

The BIS make clear that zombie companies are an important part of the economic make-up of many economies. I am sure sector level data in Europe would show offshore comfortably represented in the data.

Zombie Firms.png

Conversable Economist has an excellent post (from where I got the majority of my links for this post) on Zombie Companies and their economic effects, which timed with a post I have been  meaning to right about 2018 which I was going to call “year of the zombie”. Zombie companies have been shown to exist in a number of different contexts: in the US Savings and Loans Crisis zombie firms paid too much in interest and backed projects that were too risky, raising the overall costs for all market players. Another example is Japan, where post the 1990 meltdown Hoshi and Kashyap found (in a directly analogous situation to offshore currently):

that subsidies have not only kept many money-losing “zombie” firms in business, but also have depressed the creation of new businesses in the sectors where the subsidized firms are most prevalent. For instance, they show that in the construction industry, job creation has dropped sharply, while job destruction has remained relatively low. Thus, because of a lack of restructuring, the mix of firms in the economy has been distorted with inefficient firms crowding out new, more productive firms.

In China zombie firms have been linked to State Owned Enterprises, and have been shown to have an outsize share of corporate debt despite weak fundamental factors (sound familiar?). The solution is clear:

The empirical results in this paper would support the arguments that accelerating that progress requires a more holistic and coordinated strategy, which should include debt restructuring to recognize losses, fostering operational restructuring, reducing implicit support, and liquidating zombies.”

The subsidies in offshore at the moment keeping zombie firms alive don’t come from central banks but from private banks, and sometimes poorly timed investments from hedge funds. Private banks are unwilling to treat the current offshore market as anything more than a market cycle change, as opposed to a secular change, and are therefore allowing a host of companies to delay principal payments on loans, and in most cases dramatically reduce interest payments as well, until a point when they hope the market has recovered and these companies can start making payments that would keep the banks from having to make material writedowns in their offshore portfolios.

Now to be clear the banks are (arguably) being economically rational here. Given the scale of their exposure a reasonable position is to try and hold on as the delta on liquidating now, versus assuming even a mild recovery, is massive because of the quantity of leverage in most of the offshore companies.

But for the industry as a whole this is a disaster. The biggest zombie company in offshore in Europe is SolstadFarstad, it’s ambition to be a world leading OSV company is so far from reality it may as well be a line from Game of Thrones, and a company effectively controlled by the banks who are unwilling to face the obvious.

A little context on the financial position of SolstadFarstad makes clear how serious things are:

  • Current interest bearing debt is NOK 28bn/$3.6bn. A large amount of this debt is US$ denominated and the NOK has depreciated significantly since 2014, as have vessel values. SolstadFarstad also takes in less absolute dollar revenues to hedge against this;
  • Market value equity: ~NOK 1.73bn/$ 220m;
  • As part of the merger agreement payments to reduce bank loans were reduced significanlty from Q2 (Farstad)/Q3 (Solstad) 2017. YTD 2017 SOFF spent NOK ~1.5bn on interest and bank repayments which amounted to more than 3 x the net cash flow from actually operating all those vessels. While these payments should reduce going forward it highlights how unsustainable the current capital structure is.

The market capitalisation is significantly less than the cash SOF had on the balance sheet at the end of Q3 2017 (NOK 2.1bn). Supporting that enormous debt load are a huge number of vessels of dubious value in lay up: 28 AHTS, many built in Asia and likely to be worth significantly less than book value if sold now, 22 PSVs of the same hertiage and value and 6 ageing subsea vessels. The two vessels on charter to OI cannot be generating any real value and sooner or later their shareholders will have had as much fun as they can handle with a loss making contracting business.

But change is coming because at some point this year SolstadFarstad management are in for an awkward conversation with the banks about handing back DeepSea Supply (the banks worst nightmare), or forcing the shareholders to dilute their interest in the high-end CSV fleet in order to save the banks exposure to the DeepSea fleet (the shareholders worst nightmare and involves a degree of cognitive dissonance from their PSV exposure). Theoretically DeepSea is a separate “non-recourse” subsidiary, whether the banks who control the rest of the debt SolstadFarstad have see it quite that way is another question? It would also represent an enormous loss of face to management now to admit a failure of this magnitude having not prepared the market in advance for this?

Not that the market seems fooled:

SOFF 0202

(I don’t want to say I told you so).

SolstadFarstad is in a poor position anyway, the company was created because no one had a better idea than doing nothing, which is always poor strategic logic for a major merger. What logic there was involved putting together a mind numbingly complex financial merger and hoping it might lead to a positive industrial solution, which was always a little strained. But it suited all parties to pretend that they could delay things a little longer by creating a monstrous zombie: Aker got to pretend they hadn’t jumped too early and therefore got a bad deal, Hemen/Fredrikson got to put in less than they would have had to had DeepSea remained independent, the banks got to pretend their assets were worth more than they were (and that they weren’t going to have to kill the PSVs to save the Solstad), and the Solstad family got to pretend they still had a company that was a viable economic entity. A year later and the folly has been shown.

Clearly internally it is recongised this has become a disaster as well. In late December HugeStadSea announced they had doubled merger savings to 800mn NOK. The cynic in  me says this was done because financial markets capitalise these and management wanted to make some good news from nothing; it doesn’t speak volumes they were that badly miscalculated at that start given these were all vessel types and geographic regions Solstad management understood. But I think what it actually reflects is that utilisation has been signifcantly weaker than the base case they were working too. Now Sverre Farstad has resigned from the Solstad board apparently unhappy with merger progress. I am guessing he is still less unhappy though than having seen Farstad go bankrupt which was the only other alternative? I guess this reveals massive internal Board conflict and I also imagine the auditors are going to be get extremely uncomfortable signing vessel values off here, a 10% reduction in vessel value would be fatal in an accounting sense for the company.

The market is moving as well. In Asia companies like EMAS, Pacific Radiance, Mermaid, and a host of others have all come to a deal with the banks that they can delay interest and principal payments. Miclyn Express is in discussions to do the same. This is the very definition of zombie companies, existing precariously on operating cash flows but at a level that is not even close to economic profitability, while keeping supply in the market to ensure no one else can make money either. Individually logical in each situation but collectively ruinuous (a collective action problem). These companies have assets that directly compete with the SolstadFarstad supply fleet, with significantly deeper local infratsructure in Asia (not Brazil), and in some cases better assets; there is no chance of SolstadFarstad creating meaningful “world class OSV company” in their midst with the low grade PSV and AHTS fleet.

Even more worrying is the American situation where the Chapter 11 process (and psyche) recognises explicitly the danger of zombie companies. Gulfmark and others have led the way to have clean, debt free, balance sheets to cope in an era of reduced demand. These companies look certain to have a look at the high-end non-Norwegian market.

SolstadFarstad says it wants to be a world leading OSV company that takes part in industry consolidation but: a) it cannot afford to buy anyone because it shares are worthless and would therefore have to pay cash, and b) it has no cash and cannot raise equity while it owes the banks NOK 28bn, and c) no one is going to buy a company where they have to pay the banks back arguably more than the assets are worth. SOF is stuck in complete limbo at best. Not only that as part of the merger it agreed to start repaying the banks very quickly after 2021. 36 months doesn’t seem very far away now and without some sort of magic increase in day rates, out of all proportion to the amount of likely subsea work (see above), then all the accelerated payment terms from 2022 will do is force the event. But still is can continue its zombie like existence until then…

In contrast if you want to look at those doing smart deals look no further than Secor/COSCO deal. 8 new PSVs for under $3m per vessel and those don’t start delivering for at least another 18 months. Not only that they are only $20m new… start working out what your  10 year old PSV is really worth on a comparative basis. There is positivity in the market… just not if you are effectively owned by the bank.

One of my themes here, highlighted by the graph at the top, is that there has been a structural change in the market and not a temporary price driven change in demand. Sooner or later, and it looks likely to be later, the banks are going to have to kill off some of these companies for the industry as a whole to flourish, or even just to start to undertake a normal capital replacement cycle. Banks, stuffed full with offshore don’t want to back any replacement deals for all but the biggest players, and banks that don’t have any exposure don’t want to lend to the sector. In an economy driven by credit this is a major issue.

I don’t believe recent price rises in oil will do anything for this. E&P budgets are set once a year, the project cycle takes a long time to wind up, company managers are being bonused on dividends not production, short cycle production is being prioritised etc. So while price rises are good, and will lead to an increase in work, the scale of the oversupply will ensure the market will take an even longer time to remove the zombie companies. At the moment a large number of banks are pretending that if you make no payments on an asset with a working life of 20-25 years, for 5 years (i.e. 20-25% of the assets economic life), they will not lose a substantial amount of money on the loan or need to write the asset down more than a token level. It is just not real and one day auditors might even start asking questions…

I don’t have a magic solution here, just groundhog day for vessel owners for a lot longer to come. What will be interesting this year is watching to see the scale of the charges some of the banks will have to make, a sign of the vessel market at the bottom will be when they start to get rid of these loans or assets on a reasonable scale.

Kill the zombies for the good of the industry, however painful that may be.

Leverage… banking is a risky business… DVB edition

First, “equity” is an accounting construct. In Vickers’s phrasing, a bank’s equity is “the difference between the estimated value of its loan assets and other exposures on the one hand, and its contractual obligations to depositors and bondholders on the other. In short, it is a residual, the difference between two typically big numbers.” A small difference between two large numbers is highly sensitive to even small changes in those big numbers — assets and liabilities — and so it is in the nature of equity to be poorly measured and unstable.

“Banking Systems Remain Unsafe”

Martin Sandbu, FT Free Lunch

News that DZ Bank has had a final sense of humour failure with DVB doesn’t do justice to the scale of the problem:

after DVB posted a return on equity of minus 73 percent in the first half of the year, or a net loss of 547 million euros after breaking even a year earlier, plans to sell off its loan portfolios have gained traction…

[S]ources said DZ Bank was working with Boston Consulting Group to evaluate options for DVB, while the transport division has hired separate advisors to assess the value of its $12.5 billion ship loan portfolio.

I have talked about DVB before and the fact is the results that were released in August were probably worse than DZ Bank had wanted, but the scale of the problem in the shipping and offshore portfolio are that they have in effect bankrupted the bank and forced in into run down mode.  Here are the losses broken out:

DVB Losses by sector

Half a billion here, half a billion there, and pretty soon you are losing real money… It is also worth noting that the loss in offshore was 25% higher despite the loan book to shipping being 5x the size. Looking at the offshore portfolio I still don’t see this being the final write-down:

DVB lending by sector Aug 2017

Now the portfolio was marked down from €2.4bn to €2.1bn so maybe €50m has been disposed of. But there is no one involved in offshore, looking at the asset mix, who really believes that it could possibly be worth €2.1bn in aggregate. I don’t really want to get into a big discussion about whether banks should account for loans at fair value (i.e. what you would get if you disposed of the portfolio at the moment) or held-to-maturity (i.e. what you get if the customer honours the loan contract): You can make sensible arguments for both. Clearly in the short term if the customer is solvent it makes no sense, in an economic perspective, to hold the loan as an asset for a value less than you will receive, and it adds a huge degree of volatility to the earnings of banks if you do this, the reverse though it as it allows a huge degree of discretion for management that simply isn’t warranted by the facts.

You can see the scale of the DVB problem by looking at the tier 1 capital:

DVB Bank tier 1 aug 2017

For the uninitiated to get the number you basically take the book equity (less goodwill) and divide by risk weighted assets, and this gets to c.9%. But it’s a meaningless number in reality as the quote from John Vickers in my opening makes clear. A far more instructive number is the leverage ratio which divides the amount of equity in the business by the asset base (i.e. loans) and that is 2.9%, which in considered far below what a bank should have. In essence this number shows a 3% decline in the value of DVBs assets (loan contracts) would wipe out the equity: with $12.5bn in shipping and and €2.4bn in offshore loans you can be sure that in reality this has happened.

Which is why DZ Bank are pumping another €500m into DVB Bank.

There is a bigger economic question that I think cuts to the heart of what DVB is as a bank and why diversified bank lending works better than narrow bank lending: active versus passive management. For years researchers have known that active fund managers underperform passive fund managers when fees are taken into account. The entire DVB business model relied on them picking four industries and producing returns in those industries consistently, regardless of underlying market movements, despite the fact this is known to be statistically unlikely.

The problem everyone in offshore and shipping has is this: Who do you sell to when other big banks in the sector are making a virtue of closing their loan books to your industry? DNB is typical off all the big banks in the sector (as I have discussed before):

DNB rebalance

Offshore as an industry has an asset finance issue and not just a demand side issue. The road to recovery, however you define it, looks someway off.

Offshore and shipping recovery cycles…

Clarksons reported results yesterday and offered the view that that shipping cycles seem to be turning. The interesting thing is the scale of the retrenchment in the traditional shipping sector that has been required to being the market back to equilibrium (if they are right). Traditonal shipping had a boom driven mainly by Chinese raw material imports (and to a lesser extent exports which were less bulky):

Clarksea Index.png

Chinese import and export growth:

Which looks somewhat similar to the oil price and investment boom:

It is worth noting that if Clarksons are right it has taken 8 years since the slump for normality and equilibrium to start to emerge. The scale of the pullback is severe with tonnage delivered down from 2047 vessels in 2013 to 217 in 2016 (a 90% reduction) and only 266 orders for 2017. Shipyards are down from 305 to 50 (an 83% reduction). It shouldn’t be a surprise because the assets are built for a 20-25 year economic life, the offshore subsea fleet is smaller (~600 vessels), but each one had a high build cost, whereas offshore supply with its larger fleet and more commodity like structure looks set to suffer a similar pull back.

The other really interesting data point Clarksons highlight is the decreasing loan exposure banks have to the sector (which I am assuming covers offshore as well):

Global ship finance lending volumes

Source: Clarksons, 2017

Lending volumes from the top 25 banks, surely more than a representative sample and clearly the most important by size with DNB Nor having 5x greater exposure than KDB, is down 25%, over $100bn,  over a six year period. More than any other factor this is surely helping the sector rebalance but it will keep a check on asset prices for years, especially as getting a loan for a ship older than 8-10 years is nigh on impossible.

The historical reasons for the shipping boom are analogous to the oil price boom that drive offshore: As China boomed so did commodity shipping, this quote should be well understood by anyone in  offshore this quote should be well understood by anyone in  offshore:

Less than a decade ago, just before the global financial crisis, the largest of the commodities-carrying bulk ships cost some $150 million and commanded as much as $200,000 a day on charter markets. Today, a similarly modern capesize class ship is worth $30 million and a vessel owner can expect to earn just $9,000 a day in a business where the prices for iron ore, coal and other industrial goods have deteriorated.

Ships that were increasing in value (as day rates rose) were used as collateral to borrow more money from banks to buy more ships in a self referencing cycle. Which is exactly what happened in offshore, and when even the banks got nervous the high yield bond market was tapped. What could possibly go wrong?

Banks hold the key to the restoration of normality. Like normal shipping offshore will require dramatically more equity and lower leverage levels going forward. Capital will be significantly more expensive. Banks, especially those in the graph above, that continue to take large losses on their portfolios, will be very reluctant to materially increase exposure and will continue to wind the loan books down with concommitment reduction in asset prices. This will go on for years as the above graph makes clear. Yes some smaller newer banks (e.g. Merchant and Maritime) and specialist lenders will fill the void, but rationally they will charge much higher rates (as they will have a higher funding cost to reflect the risk) and will require more equity. As retained earnings are lower this will take longer to build up.

Many of the new shipping projects at the moment are 100% equity financed and until asset values stabilise even newer players are likely to avoid offshore. Slowly, over years when combined with scrapping, the offshore fleet will rebalance, but it will be a long way off. Offshore would appear to be closer to the start of its journey than the end (a point Clarkson appear to agree with in their research). Nearly all distress investors who moved in 2016 looks to have moved too early (e.g. Standard Drilling, Nor Offshore) and faces a capital loss on the positions taken as opposed to industrial companies buying one-off assets (e.g. McDermott), With high running costs and demand stagnant its hard to see 2017 being any different. 

As the author of the above quote notes:

A sizable part of the portfolio of nonperforming shipping loans cannot be expected to bring market pricing much higher than the scrap price of the ships collateralized, however. In this case, shipping banks can take a deep breath and mark them to scrap value, and then make certain those ships are dismantled and removed from the market. Under this scenario, the immediate accounting losses would be mitigated over time by a more balanced market which theoretically will push freight rates and the value of the remaining ships higher.

Whatever path they take, European banks will be shaken by the unfolding of their shipping loan portfolios. Their capital structures will be affected, and given the freight market and banking regulatory headwinds, their appetite for ship finance will be diminished. The shipping industry likely will never be the same.

The same can be said for offshore I suspect.

Tidewater, European banks, and zombie companies…

You walk outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. Nowadays you breath and you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.

Hershel (The Walking Dead)

Tidewater announed their restructuring today… as is widely reported they have written off USD 1.6bn of debt and reduced operating lease expenses by USD 73m. US Chap 11 isn’t perfect, and having nearly been on the receiving end once I find it amazing that US courts will claim jurisdiction essentially on the basis of a US domestic dollar bank account and Delaware address (which clearly isn’t the case here), but it is remarkably efficient from a macroeconomic perspective.

Last week The Economist published an article on Zombie companies noting:

there is a growing belief that the persistence of zombie firms—companies that keep operating despite a poor financial performance—may explain the weak productivity performance of developed economies in recent years.

An inability to kill off failing companies seems to have two main effects. First, the existence of the zombies drives down the average productivity level of businesses. Second, capital and labour are wrongly allocated to such firms. That stops money and workers shifting to more efficient businesses, making it harder for the latter to compete. In a sense, therefore, the corporate zombies are eating healthy firms.

… [the] analysis builds on the work of an OECD paper* published earlier this year which found that, within industries, a higher share of capital invested in zombie firms was associated with lower investment and employment growth at healthier businesses.

A fair summation of European shipping and offshore at the moment if ever I read one.

The contrast with the European shipping and offshore firms, where the banks have constantly tried to pretend that insolvent companies are viable by allowing them to pay interest only and deferring the principal payments, and the willingness of US firms to restructure and move on is clear. Part of it is structural as US banks have a smaller percentage exposure to these troubled assets but that doesn’t change the outcome. Quite how long auditors are going to allow this to continue when there are clear market based transactions with demonstrable asset values is anyone’s guess but eventually these loans will default. I agree with short-term measures, the equivalent of a liquidity rather than a solvency crisis for firms, when it really is that but with depreciating assets eventually the bullet payment is due and years into these situations the arguements for writedowns on a scale not yet seen is becoming more apparent.

The Nordic banks have been through this before during the Nordic Banking Crisis (1988-1993) having overextended themselves in real estate loans, in this case the credit bubble was driven by deregulation, like offshore shipping with a high oil price, the boom was procyclical.

Nordic Banking and Real Estate 1988-1993

Nordic Banking Crisis Data.png

As can be seen a reduction in asset values leads to a dramatic reduction in the amount of bank credit. The same thing will happen in shipping in offshore, despite it being a much smaller part of the overall bank loan books, and this reduction in credit is likely to permanently impair asset values. Economists have called this process the financial accelerator and it is clearly interacting between the banks and zombie offshore and shipping companies.

The sceptic in me thinks only a combination of liquidations, writedowns, and scrapping is going to return these sectors to an economically viable level. But the actions of the various stakeholders, individually rational but collectively irrational, the collective action problem I have mentioned here before, makes this unlikely. A future of low profitability and structural overcapacity in Europe beckons while restructured American companies with clean balance sheets look to be able to move ahead with a cost base that matches the operational environment.

The New Offshore… it looks a lot like Italian and Spanish banking…

The oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, founded in 1472, came under government control today. The bank, founded as the “Mount of Piety”, has been through numerous capital raisings and life support packages since 2008/09, and finally, even the Italian government and the ECB could no longer pretend it was solvent. I have lost count over the years of the number of times the ECB has declared the banks solvent (only last December the MdP fundraising was announced as “precautionary”), but shareholders who have previously be forgiving have had enough as has the Bank of Italy. There are some clearly analogous lessons for offshore in this.

European banks and offshore oil and gas contractors share many of the same issues. For years now central banks around the world have kept the price of the core commodity that banks trade in (money) low, interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (“ZLB”) has become the new normal and banks struggle to the margin they used to between the money they borrow and the money the lend.

Another clear similarity between the banks and offshore contractors is excessive leverage. Banking is actually a pretty risky business (which is why banking crises and state bailouts are increasingly common), banks borrow short and lend long in a process known as maturity transformation. What this means in practice is that when you go into your friendly branch of DNB with your Kroners and deposit them you are lending the bank money and they are making a loan contract to pay you back a fixed number of Kroner. DNB then package up all the Kroner in the branch and turn it into a ship in the form of loan contract which they use to pay you back. The problem arises, as it did recently for DVB, when the value of the ship, or just as importantly the income from it, is worth less than the value of all the loan contracts the bank used in financing the ship. One or two doesn’t matter but if all the ships are worth less then the bank has a problem. This mismatch between the obligations that banks take on to finance assets that can vary hugely in value is the feature of nearly all banking crises, certainly in shipping as the German banks know well, but also the cause of the 2008/09 global financial crises. This is the fundamental instability mechanism in an economy that fractional reserve banking introduces.

Offshore has a similar instability mechanism and it too is a function of leverage. As the volume of work has dried up the fixed commitments owed to banks, bondholders, and other fixed rate security holders who were used to purchase vessels, assets, or finance takeovers has remained constant while the asset value has cratered and the revenue has done the same. Like a bank the asset side of the balance sheet is being severely strained at the moment as the revenues and profits simply cannot support historic commitments. It was this model of viewing the creditor run on Ezra/Emas as comparable to a bank run that made me sure there was no route to salvation for them. This transmission mechanism is destabilising all asset owners as banks are not lending on assets of uncertain value and the size of some of the writedowns is an issue for the banks. These sort of self-reinforcing loops are very hard to break.

Like the banking sector offshore is struggling with a the tail of a credit boom which is obviously related to the excessive leverage taken on. As has been shown many times over in research credit booms, in all contexts, take longer to recover from than other types of investment bubbles.

Historical analogies, no matter how interesting, are only good if they give us some insight into the future. In this case I think they are depressingly clear: since 2008/09 Spanish and Italian banks have created a structurally unprofitable industry that is unlikely to change with government intervention. Offshore contracting and European banks are both trapped in a low price commodity environment and burdened by historic asset commitments and the current economic value of said assets. European banks have overcapacity issues but shareholders and other stakeholders are committed to keeping this structure because of previously sunk costs and very high exit costs.

The banking crisis in Europe should be a lesson to offshore that impairments in asset values can be permanent. Mian and Sufi (read their book), after looking at the US housing crisis, propose shared risk mortgages where banks share in the capital value, such a suggestion seems prime for shipping and offshore gievn the extraordinary volatility in asset prices and the levels of leverage common in these asset transactions. The cynic in me says regulators would need to force this through, but I also believe eventually German taxypayers will tire of supporting the global shipping industry.

Another lesson to be drawn for offshore is that consolidation favours the large, there is a flight to quality. JP Morgan now has a market cap of roughly USD 336bn post crisis and would appear untouchable as the worlds largest bank (considerably larger than some central banks) after a series of well excuted post-crisis transactions. TechnipFMC has similarly become the largest offshore contractor through an astute merger (imagine if they had really brought CGG!) and if they can ever resolve the tax situation with Heerema will become untouchable as the largest and most capable offshore contractor.

Unfortunately for smaller players size counts. In a bank run people worry that the institution will not be there in the future so choose to withdraw savings because they are nothing but a loan to the bank. Similarly E&P companies who contract with smaller contractors are merely unsecured creditors if they fail despite the progress and procurement payments and therefore are at a considerable disadvantage in winning large contracts in a challenged environment even if they are substantially below the competition in price.

Another lesson is that there is no substitute for equity capital and the larger players have an advantage in raising this. Bank balance sheets have changed substantially since the financial crisis at it is clear that offshore companies that want to surivive will have a much higher componenet of equity in their capital structure. The quantum of this capital will be a major issue given the continued low profitability for all but the largest players in the industry,

But the clearest lesson to take unfortunately is that barring a major exogenous change the zombie banks, neither dead nor alive, can continue for a longer period of time than anyone would really like. Offshore is facing the same dilemma as 2018 looks to be quiet, relative to 2014, and OpEx continues to be a major problem for companies. There is no quick fix in sight unfortunately.