Ponzi finance and asset values…

When the present phase of the stock market is written, we believe it will be referred to as ‘the era of projected inflation’ … the period when enthusiasm for future profits obscured actual earnings to an excessive degree. We are on the way towards the age of reason of several years ago when stocks had to show substantial earnings power, reasonable book value, and dividend returns comparable to the cost of carry.

Barr, Cohen, and Co, October 21, 1929

Rainbow’s End: The Great Crash of 1929, Maury Klein

The financial instability hypothesis, therefore, is a theory of the impact of debt on system behavior and also incorporates the manner in which debt is validated…

For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principle or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell  assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes. A unit that Ponzi finances lowers the margin of safety that it offers the holders of its debts.

Hyman Minsky

Ponzi finance is happening in the rig market. And it is certainly the form of finance that McDermott got from Goldman’s (yielding over 14% today and essentially locking MDR out any future financing). This never ends well.

When this goes wrong it goes really wrong because unlike equity people thought they were getting their money back for 100c in the dollar. Banks in particular. When these rig and asset deals go wrong, and the banks shut down the loans books, and indeed contract the asset side of the balance sheet to compensate for the lost equity, things will really get tough in the financing market and force restructurings and supply side contraction.

A very small number of companies have been buying “assets” at inflated prices, cheered on by self-serving analysts, at rates that bear no relationship to their ability to generate cash. Some banks appear to be  lending against these nominal asset values when the underlying entities do not have suffient order book, yet alone cash flow, to pay them back. This is the classic dying throws of a credit boom and we know how this script ends. When someone asks you how do these moments of clear financial irrationality occur you are looking at one. No one wants to admit the madness or remove the punch-bowl.

Charle’s Ponzi’s original idea was actually legal and profitable… just not at the scale he wanted:

Ponzi emigrated to the United Sates in November 1903 moving from city to city working different jobs and serving prison sentences at least twice before settling into Boston in 1917. Employed as a typist and answering foreign mail, in August 1919 Ponzi discovered his path to the wealth he had always envisioned for himself. He was going to trade in postal reply coupons. What Ponzi identified was a flaw in the coupon system that he could use to his advantage. He realized the value of the International Reply Coupon (IRC) had been set at fixed exchange rates that had not changed since 1919, creating a market in which he could parlay the IRCs into profit if he exchanged coupons from countries with deflated valuations into the higher valued US dollars ostensibly buying low and selling high.

The flaw in Ponzi’s coupon scheme was that he probably could have earned a 400 percent profit on individual coupon redemptions but in absolute terms, the net would be infinitesimal. To amass the millions of dollars Ponzi alleged, an enormous amount of coupons would have to be traded. Two important reports were about to emerge that would ultimately lead to panic and a run on Securities Exchange Company. First, after examining Ponzi’s operation, financial analyst Clarence Barron reported that to be making the money that he was, 160,000,000 IRCs would have to be in circulation when, in fact, only about 27,000 were. Second, the United States Post Office announced that IRCs were not being purchased in large lots (Zukoff, 2006). Therefore, Ponzi could not hold the millions dollars of liquid assets he claimed. Charles Ponzi was arrested on August 12, 1920.


The same could almost be argued for the rig and asset deals going on… If you could sell these assets for 520 days a year at twice the market rate you could make a fortune. It’s the execution of this that is causing problems not the math…

But when loans are made, or rolled-over, to companies with no hope of paying them back eventually things stop. You can feel the credit noose tightening in the market now and the equity market is closed no matter how good the summer season. Expect the effects throughout the market to get progressively worse. 

I made this note today to remind me when I look back that some of the credit deals being announced for rig companies are literally insane. People who should know better who are simply not prepared to accept their original thesis of a recovery in rig market was correct and continue, again all the evidence to the contrary, to do anything other than continue to go long on something that cannot be true. Credit committee’s becoming equity investors by accepting that markets have to change before they can be paid back for a few hundred basis points above LIBOR. Nuts.

McKinsey came out with this recently for those who want a dose of big data rationality:

As non-national-oil-company operators shift focus to deepwater fields because of increasing break-even costs of shallow-water fields, jack-up demand should grow 1 percent per year through 2035. Following this trend, utilization will recover to above 80 percent by 2023, driven by a large number of retirements and continued deferment of the order book. The chronic jack-up oversupply appears set to end, as extensive retirements of older and lower-spec rigs in the near future are expected to lead to a 9 percent decline in the overall jack-up fleet by 2035.

Over the course of 2019, floating-rig demand will drop slightly because of unstable oil prices, but growth—to the tune of 6 percent per annum between 2019 and 2027, then 2 percent per annum until 2035—is expected to follow. Key growth regions will be Africa, Brazil, and the Gulf of Mexico. We anticipate that supply will remain relatively stable through 2026, leading utilization to recover to 80 percent by 2026 and long-term floater-supply growth to reach about 13 percent by 2035. [Emphasis added].

Most rig companies will be bankrupt long before those recovery times at current day rates.

When all these guys stop running around congratulating themselves for buying rigs at 70% of their build cost, when day rates have gone down by 50% and utilisation the same, and actually have to pay for them, chaos is going to ensue in the financing market. The start of which is clearly visible now.

Presenting the results, Van Eden gave a plain spoken account of how Anglo had come to rack up such losses. ‘There was no substance behind the borrowers,’ he said. ‘They had nothing but the collateral (property assets) they were providing. There was no equity in the system. They took all the equity out of deals and replenished it in new deals. It was one big leveraged play. It was one big Ponzi scheme’.

Anglo Republic: Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland, Simon Carswell

[This blog is largely becoming a storage post for what I hope will be a PhD in economic history that argues the offshore boom was largely the conjunction of a commodity boom but also, and importantly, a credit boom combined with structural industry change. The consequences a credit boom are well understood for asset heavy industry backed by high debt and it is not a comforting picture for anyone long in assets at the moment.]